Modern Alchemy: Reverse Engineering Flavor

Watch how flavor companies use technology to replicate and reverse engineer naturally occurring flavors


This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

The history

For much of human history, flavoring food meant adding spices, salt, sugar, and essential oils. But by the mid-1800s, scientific advancements in organic analysis began to unlock the world of flavor. In the 1870s, German scientists figured out the molecular structure of vanillin—the main aromatic compound in vanilla—and immediately began producing and selling their imitation. Since then, the flavor industry has continued to grow. And our everyday, processed foods can contain flavors sourced from thousands of exotic materials.

Flavor — the combination of aroma and taste — is extremely complex. Most foods contain hundreds of aroma compounds that combine to give a food its distinct flavor. Yet when we eat, our brains perceive all those aroma compounds as one entity: "hot coffee" or "blue cheese" or "ripe strawberry." A flavorist's job is to recreate a flavor using chemicals in a laboratory, with no need for the original food itself.

Our everyday, processed foods can contain flavors sourced from thousands of exotic materials.

Since the 1960s, flavor companies have been using an instrument called the Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer (GC-MS) to analyze aroma profiles and replicate flavors. The GC-MS is actually composed of two machines. The gas chromatograph separates aroma compounds within a scent and measures how much of each compound is present. The mass spectrometer helps to identify those compounds by measuring their molecular masses. Used together, the two units are more accurate than either on their own.

But readings can still be incomplete. Although the GC-MS can detect chemicals in amounts as small as a picogram (one trillionth of a gram), lower readings can be inaccurate. So flavorists continue to rely on lengthy apprenticeships to gain a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of aroma compounds and learn how to blend them to create flavors. There are different schools of thought on how to approach flavor replication and creation, but they all begin with direct inspiration from the real world.

GC-MS revolutionized the food industry. With more powerful technology, flavor companies helped food manufacturers produce and sell better tasting processed foods using synthetic flavors that more accurately mimicked naturally occurring ones. That trend continues today with the creation of more and more processed fantasy foods.

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