March 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Taste-making

By Anna Krien
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Food technology and the manufacture of flavours

Jeroen Rens and I are in a small room, wearing hairnets and fluorescent-orange lab coats, looking at plastic drink bottles inside a fridge with glass doors. Each bottle (the labels are removed but most shoppers could still recognise the brand) is filled with a coloured liquid and watched for signs of fading. “Most flavours are clear but you add colour to make a connection,” Rens tells me. Immediately I remember Clear Cola, a novelty soft drink released in the early ’90s. It was wondrous and disturbing to sip the clear fizzy drink that ought to have tasted like lemonade yet tasted like Coca-Cola. It was fun once or twice but instinctively my friends and I stuck to brown cola.

I am visiting Sensient Technologies Corporation, housed in a nondescript building in an industrial part of Melbourne’s east. Of all the local flavour-makers I had contacted, only Sensient agreed to meet me – providing I respect the anonymity of their clientele. Just as most supermarket brands want to maintain an illusion that their food and drinks are made in homely kitchens, they also do not want their customers to know that the crucial aspects of their products – the flavour, colour and fragrance – are outsourced to laboratories. Here, in a large bright room in arid suburbia, flavourists can re-create raspberries, olives, grilled ‘barbecue’, sea salt, roasted garlic, honey, even ‘smoke’ without going near the original source. Cubicles are piled high with textbooks; a blue hardcover catches my eye: Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients.

Rens, the company’s senior food chemist, is showing me around. “Over here is our colourist,” he says, pointing to a desk littered with swatches of colour and colour spectrum posters. “Flavourists here, technicians and applicators there.” Trainee flavourists, he tells me, need a sound knowledge of chemistry, a good nose –“If you’ve got a cold, you’re on paperwork” – and an ability to articulate what their senses are experiencing. “Words such as ‘yum’ or ‘yuk’ are no good. You need to be able to verbalise what you are working with, for example, ‘this is balsamic, or jammy, green, ripe, herb.’” While most humans can detect thousands of odours, it’s difficult for us to detect them at once; this is where the ‘headspace’ analysis machine comes in. Like a robotic nose, it can sniff out the different components of a sample smell, printing out a list for the flavourists to study.

In a small kitchenette, technicians re-create their client’s product – be it jubes, biscuits, cakes, chips or ice-cream – and test how the additives react to the cooking process. “In most cases our clients provide us with a base,” says Rens, “and we apply a flavour to it.” This comment disturbs me and I ask, “So a client may come in and say they’ve access to this much flour, wheat and starch, what can you do with it?” Rens nods. Suddenly I picture all the products in the supermarket that have fooled me, the foods that have essentially taken the piss out of my bourgeois tastes. Blank-palate sludges injected with the flavour of peppercorns, roasted garlic, basil, olive oil, sea salt, feta, coconut, red onion, roast tomato, balsam, coffee. Coffee? I start to panic a little. “So, not all coffee is actually coffee?” Rens confirms it’s not. Later, I meet another chemist, who used to work for a flavour company in Heidelberg. She is telling me about how she had to make the taste of bourbon and gin for alcopops and cheap spirits when I interrupt her in a similar panic. “You mean, not all alcohol is alcohol?”

“Well, it is alcohol—” she begins.

“But it’s not gin, or vodka?” I say in disbelief.

“Not the cheap stuff. Or alcopops. It’s gin or vodka flavouring.”

I’m horrified.

I flick through Perfumer & Flavorist, an industry magazine filled with advertisements spruiking flavours that “reflect the image of life”. There is a photograph of cheese in a cellar, the manufacturer promising the taste and smell of “musty and buttery” cheese with only a few drops of cis-3-Hexenoic acid. “Natural flavours”, I discover, are just as obscure as artificial ones. Natural red food dye is sourced from the eggs of beetles feeding on cactus berries in South America and titanium dioxide is a pigment, which is used to make sweets, house paint and pills white. Bark collected and crushed from a certain tree tastes like garlic and onion. It seems to me that the greatest challenge the food industry is facing may not be feeding 9 billion people by 2050, but providing them with nutritious food. Surprisingly, Rens agrees: “The work companies are putting in to reduce costs is, in a sense, good for us because we sell more flavours, but it is often to the detriment of good wholesome ingredients.”

In the far corner of the lab, I watch as a young woman studies a chemical formula on a piece of paper. It looks like instructions for origami – a few hexagons, dotted lines and numbers – but is ‘black cherry’ flavour. Brown glass bottles are set up beside a digital scale; “Acetophenone” is written on one bottle. Instead of smatterings of flour alongside cookbooks and measuring cups, there is the crisp glass stem of a dropper. The chemist measures ingredients in ‘ppm’ (parts per million). Most of the time, Rens says, flavourists tweak popular flavours for clients, but every now and then a manufacturer might want a completely ‘unreal’ flavour. Think Blue Heaven, a successful Australian creation that mixed the colour blue with vanilla and combined it with milk. The addition of milk was the key to Blue Heaven’s success, said Rens. Blue cordial, on the other hand, which bore a striking similarity to Flush-O-Matic, flopped.

Oddly, Blue Heaven doesn’t unnerve me as much as black cherry flavour. At least Blue Heaven doesn’t try to make sense. It is a fantasy flavour with no delusions of being natural. And yet, despite my misgivings, I am drawn to this lab assistant and her pipette. Somehow, she is about to magically produce a black cherry.  

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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