Two complimentary stories about food flavoring: the first, by Raffi Khatchadourian, appeared last November in the New Yorker, and the second, by Veronique Greenwood, was published by The Atlantic.
More than half of Givaudan’s business — which generates nearly four billion dollars in revenue a year — is built on deceiving our senses when we eat. The consumption of food flavorings may stand as one of the modern era’s most profound collective acts of submission to illusion. When you watch a movie or look at photographs or listen to an iPod, you tend not to forget that what you are taking in has been recorded and re-created for you in some fashion. Flavor additives are no less a contrivance; in fact, flavor re-creations typically have less fidelity than digital photography or MP3s. They more closely resemble paintings: subjective creations, made by people who work in competing styles. There are the hyperrealists, who strive for molecular-level precision; the neo-primitivists, who use centuries-old palettes of extracts and essential oils; the Fauvist types, who embrace a sensually heightened sensibility. Placed in the context of art history, the flavor industry today would be in its modernist phase, somewhere in the waning days of Cubism, for even the most outlandish flavor concoctions take direct inspiration from the real world. Whereas a perfumer can invent commercially successful aromas that are totally nonrepresentational — a Pollock in a crystal bottle — the flavorist must still respect the deeply held conservatism that people tend to hold when it comes to putting food in their mouths. Snapple’s use of kiwi-strawberry flavoring in a juice drink may seem unusual (and the sum flavor of it may barely approximate real strawberry combined with real kiwi), but we can imagine that the flavor is authentic — that it captures some platonic gastronomic truth.
Read the entire article, because it really brings home the reality of how most food we consume today has been manufactured in a laboratory. It’s insane.
To those in the business of building flavors, memories of tastes and scents can be especially poignant. Brasher, who grew up eating pomegranates on a family farm, sent early pomegranate beans back to the kitchen because they lacked the distinctive tartness. And she recalls the way the air tastes when it’s full of sugar from wandering the factory floor as a small child, watching row upon row of candy corn kernels ride up conveyor belts to be shipped.
For Bernstein, that special memory is of a certain spice cookie she ate as a child when her family lived in Germany: “Whenever I taste those, I go back to that time, when I was eleven or twelve. Cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger … the amounts of them, the way they’re mixed, there’s nothing else like it.”
Lee, who once made a raw garlic bean by mistake, is ever the maverick: cloves still remind him of youthful dentist office visits. “[When] we were developing a pumpkin spice flavor and added cloves, that rang the dentist office bell for me,” he laughs. “I hate that flavor.”