Flavorist, Greater Chicago, Illinois

Finding the Right Note

Only a handful of experts concoct the vast array of "taste sensations" on our supermarket shelves. One of them has a Kenyon degree.

For Rosanne Erdal, a typical assignment might come in the form of a spoonful of powder-mix for a strawberry-flavored drink. Company A wants to grab some of Company B's snack-beverage market share and it has turned to her Chicago-area employer, Flavorchem. Task for Erdal: find what makes this strawberry taste so berryish, and match it. As a certified flavor chemist, she's one of a small cadre of professionals capable of discovering the right formula.

It can take weeks to match a flavor, or create a new one to the customer's satisfaction. Erdal has to know-by taste, by smell, by science-literally thousands of natural and chemical raw materials that she can deploy, in minute quantities, to tickle the taste buds.

Fine-tuned tongue

Flavorists have to be masters of sensory nuance. Two carbon atoms can make the difference between "general berry" and "pineapple character," and Erdal can taste that difference. A strawberry flavor can use five ingredients, or five hundred. Strawberry can be "seedy" or "jammy." Darkly ripe, with sulfur notes. It can have candy notes, "green" notes, butter notes, creamier lactone notes. Much like a virtuoso musician, a flavorist is always fiddling with notes.

Moving targets

Ninety to 95 percent of a substance's composition can be read by a gas chromatograph, says Erdal. Identifying the hidden 5 to 10 percent of a flavor requires Erdal's specialized expertise. Beyond that, flavor can be "a moving target." Flavors change subtly as they age-citrus flavors,
for example, oxidize easily and "off-notes creep in."

Secret ingredients

Erdal has created flavors for brand names you'd recognize, but she can't say which. Customers' proprietary concerns make the flavor industry highly secretive. Flavorists, meanwhile, are something of an elite group. Few have earned certification from the Society of Flavor Chemists. Erdal passed the test after ten years in the industry, including an intense but fascinating series of training courses in Europe.

A flavorist's holy grail

"Someday I'd like to create a realistic chocolate. It's very hard to steer away from the chemical notes in chocolate flavors. Or I'd like to make an artificial coffee flavor that tastes like fresh coffee."

Del.icio.us DeliciousFacebook FacebookStumbleUpon StumbleUponDigg Diggreddit reddit