When it's time to pick strawberries, Dennis Kujawski goes to his laboratory instead of the berry patch. You see, he creates the flavors in many foods you enjoy.
Take strawberry yogurt, for example. It's not the fruit that gives most yogurt that strawberry flavor. Read the label: Does it contain "natural and artificial flavors"? Then Mr. Kujawski and his fellow scientists probably cooked up those flavors by blending natural oils and chemicals in a New Jersey lab.
Kujawski's office looks like a science classroom. Shelves are filled with little vials. Each vial contains a different liquid. To an untrained nose (such as this reporter's), each liquid smells vaguely familiar. One smells like cut grass and another like a green apple. Others have a hint of butter or lime or cotton candy. All these scents are important in creating a food flavoring because, Kujawski says, 85 percent of a flavor comes from its smell.
Kujawski's job is part art and part science. Picking out the right ingredients for a flavor is like composing music or painting a picture. When he talks about adding flavors, he asks whether it adds the right "note."
He is one of many "flavorists" who work at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) near Princeton, N.J. Each year, they create flavors for hundreds of foods from candy and cereals to soups and marinades.
Some flavors are based on the taste of familiar, natural products like strawberry or chocolate. But many flavors we recognize are completely made up: cola and fruit punch, for instance.
One snack-food company asked for a new flavor for a potato chip. They wanted it to taste like an entire hamburger, with pickles, ketchup, and meat. IFF made the flavor, but the chip never reached supermarkets. (Maybe the makers had second thoughts about its potential success. See story on facing page.)
IFF even creates flavors for dog food. Dogs have very sensitive noses, but it's usually the owner who is more picky about the smell.
It's a fun job, Kujawski says, but it's not easy. Flavorists usually study chemistry or biology in school. They must work for years as apprentices to train their nose and tongue to recognize thousands of ingredients. Kujawski first worked for a food company as a summer job in college. As a kid, he liked science and experimenting.
Just as a painter must learn how different colors go together, Kujawski says he had to learn how different flavor "characters" interact. Flavors may change when heated or frozen. He had to learn the language used to describe flavors.
Most flavorists develop a specialty. Kujawski's is sweets. He's most proud of a tea flavor he created for use in China. He developed the flavor here, without ever visiting China. Still, the flavor is very popular there.
Creating a flavor starts when a food company calls up with a new idea for a product. Flavor scientists first need to know something about the idea behind the product. Will adults or children be eating it? Is it supposed to taste natural? Extra sour? Are there other considerations that might affect what ingredients are used? (Non-kosher ingredients might offend Jewish consumers, for instance. Nonvegetarian ingredients might upset Hindus.)
Not every food that's supposed to taste like strawberry gets the same flavoring. Strawberry yogurt for adult consumers tastes different from strawberry in red-licorice candy or in ice cream. (Ice cream needs a "seedy" flavor, Kujawski says.)
The flavoring's ingredients may be natural or artificial. Natural flavors may include lemon oil, orange oil, even rose oil. An oil's flavor may depend on how it was extracted. If you grind up a lime and heat it, the resulting oil is sweet-smelling. Extract the flavor from the peel without heating, though, and it smells more like a fresh lime.
Getting oils that way is very expensive, though, so artificial flavors are often used. These flavors can be created from ingredients that are present in natural foods but have been manufactured in a laboratory. (Vanillin, or artificial vanilla flavor, is made from wood pulp. But it's chemically almost identical to "real" vanilla, made from vanilla beans.) Some of these flavors are so strong that only a few parts per million or parts per billion are needed to add a flavor. That's like putting one drop in a swimming pool of water. By themselves, some of the ingredients may not smell very good, such as one that adds a "ripe" note to a flavor's "profile."
Tastes change. IFF employees do research to find what new flavors are popular especially among kids. Children like intense flavors. Today's kids seem to like new combinations of familiar and different tastes and sensations, says IFF's Amanda Smith. She tries to find out what kids like. (They seem to enjoy kiwi/lime fruit juices and crackling candy in ice pops.)
Even after creating flavors for 29 years, Kujawski says it's still a challenge coming up with new versions of familiar flavors like chocolate and strawberry. But he's willing to keep trying to produce the perfect strawberry flavor. "Like an artist or a photographer," he says, "you think, 'Gee, I could have done that better.' "
Sometimes, the scientists start with a strawberry flavor they've already created. The labs are full of bottles of "finished" flavors that smell like marshmallows, smoked meat, or blueberry pie. Usually, though, they start a new flavor from scratch, drawing on the hundreds of vials in rotating spice racks lining the walls of each lab.
Either way, flavorists have to work fast: Clients usually want the finished flavor in just a few weeks.
Once the flavorists are satisfied with a few options, another group of scientists add the flavor to a sample of the new food. IFF has many kitchens where technicians can bake a cake, make chewing gum, or put soup in cans.
IFF tests its flavors by asking people to try it. Sitting in small testing booths, different versions of a product are passed to employees and even to children.
The taste-testers rate the flavors, writing answers on a computer screen. Is the flavor too strong or too weak? Too sweet or too sour? There's also a small sink so you can rinse out your mouth between samples.
If the kids don't like what they taste, scientists must go back and try again. When the flavor is finally ready, IFF makes big batches of it to sell to the food company. The food company adds the flavor to the product at the factory. The exact formula is always a secret.