Flavourists like Alison Freedman use a heady mix of art and science to create – and recreate – cherished cuisines. In this industry, having impeccable taste is all part of the job.
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Alison Freedman knows how to make any taste you can think of.
Working from a kitchen in the US state of New Jersey, she designs the taste profiles that you might soon see on the shelves of your local supermarket. For instance, does this need to taste a little fattier? Perhaps it is missing some aldehydes, and the recipe is adjusted accordingly. An encyclopaedic knowledge of flavours – and the chemicals that create them – helps her to bring new food products to the public.
Freedman works as a flavourist for one of the world’s largest flavour and fragrance companies. Clients come to her searching for a specific taste profile and, with the assistance of a chef, it is her job to recreate that sensation in a healthy and green way.
To create these flavours, Freedman works alongside chef Matthew Walter. Their symbiotic relationship combines Freedman’s expertise in understanding and describing flavours with Walter’s experience preparing food.
“Alison is thinking on a micro level, but from a chef’s standpoint we know which ingredients go together,” says Walter. “We’re able to look at the experience of eating from our two different angles.”
Walter says their process borrows from design thinking used in other creative sectors. Together, Freedman and Walter try to understand which flavours and sensations their clients are looking – for sometimes from quite vague briefs. He describes this as ‘culinary anthropology’.
The trick is honing in on descriptive language: “If I say cucumber, what is the equivalent as a flavour ingredient? Nonadienal is cucumber. If they need it to have a more chicken fatty sensation, that is aldehydes.”
Perhaps the two senses most closely linked are taste and smell, which work similiarly. Taste and smell receptors bind with molecules in our food. These molecules will interact with our receptors in different ways depending on their shape and the components they are made from.
This means that flavours and smells can be recreated from their chemical components in laboratories. As Walter describes, there are some molecules, such as nonadienal, that are accepted as the industry standard for a particular flavour.
Flavourists can inject some creativity in how these molecules interact with each other, and how they are presented in the dish as a whole. They consider more than just the chemical make-up of foods – they must understand how these chemicals behave when cooked and eaten alongside other ingredients.
A successful flavourist will develop a vocabulary to articulate what he or she can taste. But there’s also a component of natural ability, too.
Some people possess ‘super-taster’ senses. About 25% of the population have such densely packed taste buds that they experience the five basic tastes – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami – with much greater intensity that the rest of us.
Taste buds are grouped together in clusters called papillae. These are the bumps that you can see on the surface of your tongue with your naked eye. Each bump contains between 30 and 100 taste receptor cells. The average person has between 15 and 35 papillae per sq cm of tongue. You are considered a super-taster if you have more than 35 papillae per sq cm.
Flavourists say there’s a public health aspect to what they do, too: using technology, they can help remove sugar from consumers’ diets. This is important, not least because heart disease tops most Western countries’ lists for leading causes of death.
“If we knew what we know now about sugar we would probably have banned it,” says Walter. “You have governments adding sugar tax. The technology to replace sugar that we have now are extraordinary.”
The natural sweeteners that they source include monk fruit and stevia, a plant extract. Stevia-based sweeteners have been approved for use in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the EU for at least eight years, and are now used by Pepsi and Coca-Cola in their ‘naturally sweetened’ products – although not in their most popular sugar-free drinks.
It’s likely this work will grow in years to come, as brands look to flavourists to help find new ways to reduce calories from their products. As Walter says, “Now we have new brands that don’t start with sugar – that’s a big opportunity.”