Creating flavours in the lab
When it comes to eating food, chances are you’ll find yourself surrounded by flavours, especially when you’re having sweeties like I like to do. But how do companies create them in a lab? Izzie Clarke has been finding out.
Izzie - As a child I loved Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and genuinely believed that it was only a matter of time for Willy Wonka's three course dinner chewing gum to hit the shelves and, obviously, I’m still waiting. So whilst a trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory isn’t quite possible, Cambridge have their very own flavour factory. Aalbert Reming, the Managing Director of Taste Flavourings boiled their work down for me…
Aalbert - Flavours are mimicking real nature; we always use the example as a strawberry. In a strawberry there are certain chemical molecules that determine that the strawberry tastes what it is. It can either be a green one, it can be a very sweet one, it can be a ripe one and those molecules, that chemistry, basically we try to mimic in our industry so that people always have a strawberry flavoured product that always tastes the same. The flavours can be natural and non-natural or artificial.
What makes flavours natural is definition. We’re strongly regulated by the EU on what we can call natural and what is not. So some flavours are developed as natural flavours and use certain molecules which are natural and thereby become a natural flavour and other flavours don’t.
Izzie - Laid out in front of me were jars and jars of clear liquids, each a different flavour that Aalbert’s company use to create sweets, drinks, cakes, ice cream - you name it.
Aalbert - We’ve got a raspberry…
Izzie - All of my five a day!
Aalbert - Exactly, exactly.
Izzie - But, in addition to fruit, the team also create what they call ‘brown flavours.’ We’re talking coffee, toffee, butterscotch and my favourite - tiramisu.
Aalbert - Clearly, this has got coffee notes in and it’s got chocolate notes in.
Izzie - Oh my gosh, I’m definitely smelling coffee, and I’m definitely getting the sort of punch of an alcoholic element.
Aalbert - You can either start from scratch on these flavours or you can take a coffee flavour that you’ve already got, a chocolate flavour that you’ve already got, and start mixing things together, adding bits, and that’s the creative process that our flavourists use to make these flavours. Flavours deal with your smell. If you pinch your nose you don’t taste anything people say but, basically, what it is is the flavours that are volatile, there are molecules that kind of go airborne and go into your olfactory gland in the top of your nose basically don’t get perceived and, therefore, you don’t taste anything.
Izzie - We decided to put this whole smell/taste relation to the test.
Aalbert - Quite a lot of the flavour is ‘locked up,’ so to speak, in this gummy, so if you lick it and then you smell again, then you’ll find that you get a bit more odour off it than just smelling a dry sweet where most of the flavour is actually sitting on the inside.
Izzie - Let’s give this a go.... I actually can’t work it out. It’s citrus-y I think.
I’ll go straight in. Oh, it’s orange. It’s like a sweet orange. Mmm, it’s very yummy though.
Whilst I tucked into a few more sweets, Aalbert explained that they also come across a few challenging and rather bizarre flavour requests…
Aalbert - We’ve recently done an avocado. How do you describe an avocado: it’s a bit green, it’s a bit fatty and how do you mimic tha if somebody wants to stick it in a boiled sweet?
We’ve done a rancid flavour, so basically to make something taste a bit more rancid that is going off. I think it went into mayonnaise. I think, our customer who’s putting it in a mayonnaise wants that because their customers want it like that.
Izzie - Everyone’s taste is unique... I suppose. But how can flavour companies monitor what goes into their creations, and what if something isn’t quite right? It was off to the lab…
Are you able to talk me through this rather noisy equipment right here? What is making that rather large hum?
Aalbert - The hum is a vacuum pump that creates a vacuum under which these mixtures get analysed; where we can run through flavour samples. The equipment breaks it down and refers what it finds to a database which gives us a rough idea on what’s in it, and at what quantities to make sure that we have included all the components that should be in. As soon as something comes out of the factory we run it through the machine, we pick up the previous batch of that product and we compare, so that’s one of the steps that we use to make sure that flavours are always correct and always in line with the previous sample.
Izzie - Aalbert is holding this tiny little tube; it looks a bit like an injection actually. And is that just so you can control these really tiny droplets that then get put into this rather large machine next to us now?
Aalbert - Yeah. The content of this injector is 10 microlitres.
Izzie - How much product would go into say one of these boiled sweets that we’ve seen?
Aalbert - That depends how strong the flavour is but also how strongly flavoured the customer wants it to be. Generally between 1 and 3 grams per thousand, so 1 kilo makes a ton of sweets.
Izzie - Gosh, so that’s not very much at all!
Aalbert - It’s not very much, no. It’s definitely the finishing touch. It’s definitely not part of the bulk of the food, it’s very small dose rates.
Izzie - Once the flavour has been analysed and given the all-clear, it’s then taken to the application lab, which is where these flavours in their liquid form are then put into something like a cake or gum. But when it comes to creating the perfect sweets it’s test, test, and retest…
Aalbert - We have more labs here. Things do change as they are applied in the end product. The end product, which are called the ‘matrix,’ does something to flavours. It can either enhance it or it might implode and it might disappear. It might not be powerful enough.
To give you an example: when we make hard boiled sweets, the boiling process does something to the flavour because the flavour is volatile because it needs to be volatile otherwise you don’t smell it, so you don’t taste it. So it gives us a better idea that maybe that will led to some further adjustments that we need to make.
Izzie - On the subject of sweets, sugar tax is something that comes up quite often, so is there a way that you could possibly make a sweet actually sweeter but not with as much sugar perhaps?
Aalbert - We’re talking here about the Holy Grail - sweet without sugar, fat without fat, salt without salt. With flavours they can definitely boost certain properties but you will never be able to mimic the mouthfeel of sugar, which in sweets is maybe as high as 80/90%, or in a drink where it is as high as 10%. So yes, you can tweek things, you can enhance things, but you can never replace it and you will always need the real thing too.