Flavor: Trends with Some Science

by Tracy Jaico

In a continuing effort to defend processed food, I am working to provide some insight into the perspective of food scientists who work in the food industry. This week I introduce Tracy Jaico who took my two graduate courses—Flavor Chemistry and Evaluation and Food Research and the Scientific Method. She also happens to be in my Fantasy Football League and has reached the League Championship, unfortunately not against me. Although not a student who worked in my lab, she is working as a product developer in the food industry. Flavor is a top priority in her job, which involves both art and science.

“So when you say you made flavors for food, aren’t you just adding chemicals? Why is the banana flavor so artificial tasting? Can you make that candy that turns into different meals or flavors like in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory?” These are just a few of the many questions I get asked because of my passion in flavor and work with the flavor industry. To me flavor is what captures ones nose to tingle, taste buds to salivate, and yearn for you to come back for more. However, flavors in food can also make you go the opposite way. It is the true essence of what your favorite or worst foods taste like and maybe trigger the memory of your grandmother’s cooking. According to an article from the Smithsonian, the way you perceive taste is not just built over your lifetime, but can also be in your DNA.

Many food chemists in the food industry work hard to create that optimal flavor. Or from my experience as a creative flavors technician at a flavor house, some have played funny pranks by placing a minuscule drop of butyric acid (main flavor component in stinky cheeses and what is released in rancid butter) in the center of each flower within a bouquet to show “appreciation” for other colleagues during their birthdays. In order to get to the perfect type of flavor, a lot of work must be done to get there. Many of the issues that I come encounter with and are ongoing issues include innovative creation of the right flavors for the consumer and customer, being ahead of the consumer trends and the safest way to product flavors.

Tracy steak one

One of my greatest passions in life is not just being a foodie but finding and understanding what is the most delicious food for myself and others. I am usually biased and want everything to either taste like sushi, be green tea flavored, or be in a French fry shape to allow for maximum dipping action or to be poutine. However, as we know that is not possible and being within the flavor industry one of the most important needs is to find the new “a-ha” flavors with your products. Yes, there are those staple flavors that everyone expects within their own country or culture but being ahead of the consumer is essential. Keep them guessing and wanting to come back for more. The best way to do that is not just looking at food blogs and people are eating but how and whom they are doing that with. One way I have been learning to increase more flavor in my foods, especially steak, which include simple ingredients of only salt and pepper, is through sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”)! It is a very wide growing trend that allows food to be slowly cooked in a water bath at accurate temperatures.

Tracy Steak Two.png

Restaurants, bakeries, and bars are also great places to start learning where flavors are shaping to what large food companies will have on their products. The flavor trends seen within the food market include herbal and floral flavors, more authentic and exotic flavors, fusion flavors and many more! From my own flavor trend research, consumers, especially in the US, are longing for intense flavors to be true at heart. One that provides not just a way to quench hunger but also an experience.

Many of the fine dining restaurant dishes are showcasing diverse flowers other than appearance. They have a refreshing and uplifting flavor that can add as a top note. An example could be lavender or violet within a chocolate chip cookie or your soup. Hydroponic farms are also popping up to provide restaurants with herbs on their plates all year round. Authentic flavors outside your basil and thyme but also mint, fennel, shiso, and more!  With the need for more authentic and exotic flavors, it’s a way to make your taste buds happier and to explore your boundaries. Transporting foods with their unique flavors from different cultures and countries. Popular flavor combinations of white tea and pomegranate or tamarind and cucumber. The flavor ideas are endless but always keeping the consumer needs at heart.

Making the most optimal tasting flavors is important but as a food scientist I need to make sure I create the most stable one too. Having the understanding flavor chemistry is important and many undergo a formal program to become a flavorist. The extensive and intense program teaches you the reactions of different compounds to yield desired flavors and its different forms. Those include liquid, spray dried, plated, and many other forms. Those forms are important to know because they dictate which foods it can be applied for stability. For example, one of the biggest issues I face in product development is seeing flavors in two separate phases within the food. That can lead to issues with the flavor flashing off and not providing the right intensity (ie. beverages) or it can lead to processing issues on a large manufacturing scale (ie. candy).

Not only is stability an issue but also regulatory or other government issues. For the labeling of a flavor, the FDA has strict guidelines or the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that tell you what can be labelled artificial or natural flavors within Title 21. Although the information has been documented by the FDA, there are still many flavor and food scientists who feel differently on the labeling. Another issue many flavor companies face is the tax on alcohol within their flavors mainly as the solvent from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).  This is not something the companies like to face but it is part of the challenge flavorists have and must and find creative ways to provide optimal flavors.  As a product developer, I have my regulatory team close to me as I need them to keep me on the right track as I want to keep the consumer in mind.

As you can see flavor can be seen in various ways such as from innovation, to food trends from our consumers, and a safety/regulatory perspective. I have been a part of each and am always discovering new flavors for my company’s products in candy.  I am proud to have started my food science career in flavors but have much more to discover and experience. There is so much to learn as many flavor companies are innovating new ways to make our food more flavorful and our taste buds salivating!

Next week: Natural and atificial flavors

Tracy Jaico graduated from the University of Delaware and the University of Georgia for her bachelors and Masters in Food Science, respectively. Currently, she works as a product developer for a large global food and beverage company. Previously, she worked had worked at other ingredient companies where she set her foundation and gained more experience in flavors and their application in various products. In her spare time, she is a foodie at heart and blogs her delicious food tours, loves watching and playing sports, and finally spends most of her time with family.

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