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How your food is engineered to taste great

Who says being “vanilla” is a bad thing? It’s one of the most popular flavors in the world.

Whether it’s in cookies, cakes or ice cream, we just can’t seem to get enough.

The vast majority of bona fide vanilla bean is produced in Indonesia and Madagascar, but there’s simply not enough supply to meet the global demand.

That’s where “flavor houses” come in. Their flavor chemists are responsible for formulating the flavoring in virtually every product you eat and drink that is processed, preserved or packaged before it gets to you.

Case in point: Toward the end of the ingredient label on many packaged foods and drinks is the phrase “Contains natural and artificial flavoring.” But behind these nebulous words is carefully considered science, says Kim Juelg, a senior flavorist at Givaudan.

Headquartered in Switzerland, Givaudan is the biggest flavor house in the world, commanding nearly 20% of global market share, according to industry analysts Leffingwell & Associates.

‘Like Mother Nature intended’

Juelg began her career at Givaudan more than 20 years ago as an organoleptic scientist — a job title even her own father struggled to pronounce — working on the science of the senses. Her own favorite foods mostly include fruits, and she has an affinity for bananas that are so green, they are still crunchy.

“The flavors that we make go into consumer goods that are baked, that are fried, that are frozen — so, put through pretty rigorous processing, and they lose flavor,” Juelg told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “So what we do is try to add back to that and make that taste like Mother Nature intended.”

When Gupta asked whether a flavorist’s job is simply “re-creating what’s natural,” Juelg said, “a lot of it is … but we can (also) create fantasy flavors. We can create combinations maybe that Mother Nature didn’t intend.” She gave the example of a mojito, made up of mint, lime, sugar and rum. “We can re-create that in one flavor,” she said.

Depending on what individual compounds Juelg uses to “build” a particular flavor, it will be classified as either natural or artificial.

“Natural materials come from a natural source and are processed in a natural way. Synthetic materials are from a not-natural source, or they are not processed in a natural way,” said Juelg. “For instance, we use ethyl butyrate here in a lot of our fruit flavors. It’s a material that’s found in peaches and in strawberries and in blueberries. The molecule is the same, but it’s processed differently.”

Even if the compounds are identical, the method she uses to combine them could lead to different classifications. Either way, flavoring typically makes up less than 1% of the volume of a finished food product — and the formula remains top secret.

“It would be similar to a chef in a kitchen creating dinner for you and you want to take home that recipe to make a banana cream pie. That chef is not going to give you that recipe,” Juelg said.

Generally Recognized as Safe

Like all flavor houses, Givaudan is bound by strict confidentiality agreements with its clients, which include “all of the biggest global and national beverage companies in all product categories,” according a company spokesman.

Some flavors, such as black pepper, contain only a single ingredient. Others may contain hundreds or more — there really is no maximum.

A typical flavor, the spokesman said, contains 25 to 30 ingredients.

All approved flavoring ingredients are GRAS: Generally Recognized As Safe. They are “generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use,” according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

For its part, the FDA defines a flavor as an ingredient “whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

The agency does not require flavor ingredients to be listed individually on food labels. And food manufacturers, for their part, are not too keen to disclose their proprietary ingredients and formulas — their “secret sauce” — to would-be competitors.

Still, a list of all ingredients permitted for use in flavorings in the United States is maintained by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association in its Flavor Ingredient Library. Internationally, the Global Reference List is published by the International Organization of the Flavor Industry.

“We have chefs internally that work with us, and in a lot of instances, they make things, and then we re-create that into a flavor,” Juelg said. “They may create a gold standard of maple brown sugar oatmeal. That’s what I want my flavor to taste like.”

Gupta argued, “my mom would say you can’t re-create what’s she’s created in the kitchen. It’s her thing.”

“Sometimes you can’t,” Juelg agreed. “But if I can make it taste great and you can add water and have it in 30 seconds, then that’s a fabulous breakfast for my son.”