A Moment of Science

Can You Taste the Chemicals?

It sounds fanciful, but Wonka's gum flavored as food is far from impossible if you have the help of a skilled flavorist.

artificial_flavors

Photo: Sherwin Huang

Flavorists, or chemists who create chemical flavor enhancers, can literally make a piece of cellophane taste like a Macintosh apple.

Remember the fate of Violet in Roald Dahl’s famous book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? Violet sampled one of Willy Wonka’s new inventions, chewing gum flavored to taste like a three-course dinner.

Unfortunately, Wonka’s tasty invention wasn’t perfected. Due to a malfunction in the dessert course of blueberry pie and ice cream Violet was transformed into a giant blueberry.

It sounds fanciful, but Wonka’s gum flavored as food is far from impossible if you have the help of a skilled flavorist. Flavorists, or chemists who create chemical flavor enhancers, can literally make a piece of cellophane taste like a Macintosh apple.

You might be surprised to realize how many everyday products already carry the subtle touch of a flavorist. Did you drink any orange juice for breakfast this morning? You probably also consumed ethyl butyrate and acetaldehyde, chemicals flavorists use for aroma enhancement. After you drank your juice, did you brush your teeth? Check the ingredient list on the toothpaste, and you’ll find the recipe of chemicals listed on the back includes the minty flavoring you just enjoyed.

Lab-created flavors can withstand the freezing, cooking, and processing many food products require. Plus, synthesized flavors often last longer, taste superior and smell better than their real-life counterparts. However, flavor formulation isn’t simple, what you taste is often a multi-page, multi-ingredient recipe. Like Willy Wonka, flavorists often consider their creations an art form. Unlike Violet’s experience with Wonka’s gum, no one has turned into a blueberry from this tasty chemistry. Not yet.

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