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Flavors Have a Rich History

NAFFS Staff Report

“Flavor additives transform the sensory qualities of food and date back to antiquity,” Nadia Berenstein, a flavor historian, told attendees of the 103rd Annual NAFFS Convention. “Herbs, spices and resins have given dishes a special something but have also always provided functional benefits,” she said. 

Berenstein said she knew many in the audience would know the molecule Hertie was trying to identify is methyl anthranilate. It had been produced synthetically by Schimmel and other companies since the end of the 19th century and sold as synthetic Neroli oil. The flavor of concord grape was popular and other companies were attempting to flavor carbonated water this way but Berenstein said as far she can determine, Hertie was the first to make this connection between methyl anthranilate and grape flavor.

Berenstein said that in the early 1920s when the Food and Drug Administration, as part of enforcement of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, passed in 1906, began to look into methyl anthranilate, its scientists were surprised to find the chemical was actually in the concord grapes. “The presence of methyl anthranilate was not an indication that the beverage was artificial,” Berenstein said. “But the Federal Trade Commission and FDA calculated the total content of methyl anthranilate in another way; by finding the presence of artificial colors to determine whether the beverage was flavored artificially. If so, that would have to be revealed on the label,” she said. Sanctions and FTC penalties against flavor companies and grape soda manufacturers ensued. Thereafter, she added, labels had to indicate the beverage had been made with imitation grape flavor. 

Berenstein said this labeling wasn’t essential to protecting consumers from adulteration or commercial fraud. “The addition of a synthetic fragrance was not something that reduced the value of a product,” she said. 

Industry professionals saw flavor-creation possibilities when adding synthetic flavors were so much greater than if they were forced to stick to only the things that were considered natural, Berenstein said. “Without the value of synthetics, the companies were flavoring carbonated beverage with only grape juice. This would have caused any number of problems from shelf life and stability to simply not delivering the kind of flavor punch or intensity that consumers wanted,” she said. “This conflict still exists today,” she added. “The dispute between the virtue of natural substances – or things that are defined as natural – and the value of scientifically developed food technologies of flavorings and other additives that bring benefits to the food is ongoing.

“The goodness of a grape drink depends on the quality and distinction of the imitation flavor,” Berenstein continued. “The ability to achieve the highest quality comes with this greater knowledge and ability to manipulate synthetic compounds and to make good indications that the best grape drinks are the ones that use the best imitations.” 

The 1960s, she said, brought about the proliferation of newfangled product offerings. She showed the attendees a Life magazine cover showing images of supermarkets, indicating it was a time of rapid transformation in the food system, especially after rationing and austerity of the second World War. “The bounty of food happened, in part, because of science and technology as well as an investment in technologies of distribution,” Berenstein said.” She described giant carts being pushed down wide supermarket aisles offering a dizzying array of food options. It’s been referred to as the “golden age of processed food,” she said, with new, ready-to-eat and convenient dinner and snack options available for the very first time. “These products needed new flavors and the food engineering and technology universe was happy to partner with the food industry to enable these new products and flavors for all of these new applications.”  

Research and development were also finding a new role, Berenstein said. Due to this research, the available synthetic chemicals and processes for purifying them were rapidly expanding. The latest technologies gave way to many new categories of food products. 

Berenstein believes the advent of machinery made it possible to “break open the mystery of flavor” and helped create the scientific career of a professional flavorist. These scientists were different than in other areas of chemistry. “They needed a very specific combination of expertise and experience,” she said. “They needed creative insight into the way that compounds work together to create flavors, something typical scientific fields can operate without.”

She referenced the food additive law of 1958, which imposed a new regulatory structure on all kinds of food additives and in turn, brought on new suspicion of food additives. “The belief that natural-was-better gained steam, along with the belief that synthetic and imitation products are adulterants that are somehow dangerous or if not dangerous, at least not good for you,” Berenstein said. 

Today, she said, the so-called clean label “in vogue,” almost to the point of shunning anything “artificial”. She said this preference for “all natural” goes hand-in-hand with other heightened levels of consumer awareness when it comes to ethical and environmental profiles of a food product.  

Berenstein believes when it comes to technology, there’s a role for flavors “that has yet to be articulated - that flavors and flavoring products will contribute to improvements in food products sought by consumers. “Think of ways in which your flavorings can be seen as seen part of the technology that will help bridge the gap and solve some of our common problems around food access, food equality, environmental issues and production and sustainable agriculture for the future.”

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