If you were asked to choose a product that the United States produces better than any other country, what would that be? The answers might include automobiles, weapons, or perhaps even oil and gas. But according to the Department of Commerce, in 2006, the United States shipped $538 billion in manufactured food. Food manufacturing accounts for 10 percent of all manufacturing in the United States.
But not all of that food grows on trees. The fact is, most of it is made in a factory. What that factory makes is based on science. If it doesn’t taste good, no one will eat it. That is where a chemical scientist known as a flavorist comes in. Michael Walsh is one such flavorist. Think of Willie Wonka, but with a lab coat and a master’s degree. No crazy hair or animated persona, just a man you couldn’t pick out of a crowd.
Walsh graduated from Ohio State University, his home state, as an analytical chemist. Flavorists are made the old fashioned way, by using the guild system. Like a plumber or an electrician, a lengthy apprenticeship is required. A seven-year apprenticeship must be completed, and a review by the membership from The Society of Flavor Chemists is also required.
“There is no formal education for this,” said Walsh. “There is no school you can go to that will teach it.”
Anyone can come up with a new flavor for something; you don’t need to be a certified flavorist to do the work. It’s similar to the credentials an accountant carries. Some are CPA’s (certified public accountant) and others are not. Who do you want checking your books? But, in an effort to cut costs, many companies have opted to not use the services of a flavorist. Downsizing is happening in all sectors of manufacturing. Food production is no different.
In 1990, soon after graduating as a chemist, Walsh was hired as a lab assistant at Abbott Laboratories in Ohio. They had just hired a flavor chemist, and Walsh went to work for him. Having no idea what a flavorist did, Walsh found the work fascinating. He began his apprenticeship, then sought a graduate degree in food science.
“Food sciences, along with analytical chemistry are the two most important things you needed to be a flavorist,” said Walsh.
Chemistry is what the science of flavor is all about. Other backgrounds can also lead to a career as a flavorist. Knowing the chemistry, however, is a huge advantage in the development process. Those without the chemistry background would practice the art rather than the science of flavor-making. A chef would be a good example. In 1999, Walsh received his certification as a flavorist.
In the process of manufacturing food, one of the hardest things to do is make a natural food taste natural.
“If you took a strawberry and put it in a protein powder, you would end up with a goopy mess. And it wouldn’t be powder either,” said Walsh. ”What the flavorist has to do is find a way to get the essence of that flavor to survive the manufacturing process.”
Distillation is one of the ways flavors can be obtained and still be called natural. Just as you would distill alcohol from a grain mash, flavor essences can be extracted from foods using this method. Another way around a flavor problem is simple substitution.
“If you took the essences of a lemon, a banana, a raspberry and a pineapple, you will get something remarkably resembling a strawberry,” said Walsh.
But some things are just impossible to duplicate. Coca Cola is one of those products. The formula can be found, and the research can be done. What you can’t do is get the ingredients. One of the main ingredients in Coca Cola is vanilla. Coke is the world’s largest consumer of vanilla. All of the exported vanilla from Mexico is bought by Coca Cola. That means the best vanilla in the world is exclusive to Coke.
The pressures of cost and availability are where the flavorist can show their mettle. Vanilla absolute (the most concentrated of pure vanilla used in perfume) costs $6000 a kilo. This is an important point. The majority of flavoring involves how something smells before how something tastes. For this reason, the perfume industry is very closely related to flavor industry.
One of the key components of vanilla is vanillin. Artificial vanilla is made using vanillin. The vanillin can be made synthetically from lignin, a natural-occurring polymer found in the pulp of wood. Lignin is extracted as a by-product of the paper making process. Of all the vanilla used in the food industry today, 97 percent is artificial. Most likely, it was created by a flavorist like Walsh.
Walsh spent the majority of his career at Abbott Labs. That’s where he developed his skills while working on their nutritional products. Much of his work is familiar to many people. The adult liquid meal supplements Ensure and Glurcerna were products Walsh worked on. Zone Bars were also projects of his.
“If it had coco or vanilla in it, I probably worked on it,” Walsh said.
In 2005, the food sciences department at Abbott was downsized and Walsh was forced to find work elsewhere. But operating in Southern California as an independent consultant has its advantages.
“I very rarely run into any other flavorists here,” said Walsh. “Most of the flavor work is done on the East Coast.”
Small flavor shops can respond quickly to the needs of a customer faster than a larger flavor house could. Local labs are available to conduct work and provide all the equipment an analytical chemist would need. Tasters are also important. When asked how candy companies like Jelly Belly can make an unusual flavor such as dirt, the answer was surprising.
“Dirt and chocolate are almost identical, chemically speaking that is. You just tweak it until it tastes like dirt,” Walsh said.
Part of the job of the flavorist is to have a discerning pallet for different tastes. Walsh learned this in the food sciences program. Actually having to taste what you make is part of the job. Not all flavors are as pleasant as dirt.
“I have been asked to work on dog food recently,” added Walsh. “I just had to pass.”