In their top-secret New Jersey labs, flavorists concoct the taste sensations (natural and otherwise) for which the world clamors.
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Hedy Kulka of South Amboy is a New Jersey tastemaker. So is Dolf DeRovira of Branchburg. Joan Harvey and Jim Hassel don’t even live in New Jersey; she’s from Easton, Pennsylvania, and he’s from Harrison, New York. But they, too, are New Jersey tastemakers. Have been for decades.
Kulka, DeRovira, Harvey and Hassel don’t care that you’ve probably never heard of them. While more recognizable New Jersey tastemakers—Cory Booker? The Situation from Jersey Shore?—court attention, they tend to shrink from it, sometimes to the point of closely guarding their anonymity.
Yet their influence reaches well past state borders. Parched road trippers who pull pomegranate iced teas from 7-Eleven refrigerators in Lubbock, Texas, or Kenosha, Wisconsin, feel it equally. Even bubble-blowing third-graders in China likely aren’t immune to what goes on in the Jerseyans’ taste-making minds.
What Kulka, DeRovira, Harvey and Hassel do is taste-making in the most literal sense: They are flavor chemists, or, in the parlance of their secretive, mad-scientist-like industry, flavorists. They and others create the flavors that infuse everything from Boston cream pie yogurt to wild grape Pop-Tarts. Products that include flavorists’ laboratory-made concoctions in their ingredient lists are said to account for 90 percent of items bagged and toted home from U.S. grocery stores. And flavorists are an elite group. It is estimated that there are only 500 professional flavorists in the world.
That so many of them live and work in New Jersey makes it tempting to send a heads-up to Trenton: Should the Garden State tag ever need tweaking, the Flavor State might not be a bad replacement.
“It’s all a matter of history,” explains DeRovira, owner of South Plainfield-based Flavor Dynamics, a medium-sized flavor company with 27 employees, during cocktail hour at a fall meeting of the Neptune-based Society of Flavor Chemists, a professional organization. Subjects discussed during the daylong gathering in Princeton included “strawberry flavor changes at five maturity stages,” an hour-long seminar given by a University of Florida professor.
Centuries ago, “spices and flavors came over here from all over the world, mostly through Dutch trading companies,” says DeRovira, who has been a flavorist since 1972. Businesses started forming in New York, where the spices and flavors came in on ships, but as New York got more crowded and more expensive, they went over to the other side of the Hudson.”
And so it is that the largest flavor company of all—Switzerland-based Givaudan, which produces roughly 25 percent of all flavors made worldwide—maintains several New Jersey facilities, two in East Hanover and one in Mount Olive. New Jersey is also the creative home base of International Flavors and Fragrances, a New York-headquartered company that, with an estimated 13 percent of the market, is the world’s second largest company and has offices in Union Beach and South Brunswick.
Scroll through a mental map of the Turnpike, and flavor creators including Firmenich, Symrise and Sensient, the third, fourth and fifth largest flavor companies, dot the exits. Firmenich is a Swiss company with offices in Princeton and Plainsboro and roughly a 13 percent market share; Symrise, with an estimated 10 percent market share, maintains offices in Teterboro, Saddle Brook and Branchburg, in addition to its German headquarters and other worldwide satellite offices; and Wisconsin-based Sensient has offices in South Plainfield and accounts for approximately 6 percent of the flavor market. Flavor houses, which are usually linked to but separate from fragrance divisions within the big companies, amounted to an estimated $7.6 billion industry worldwide in 2009, and are expected to grow to $9.4 billion by 2014. Numbers on the size of the flavor and fragrance industry in New Jersey aren’t available, but New Jersey has the nation’s highest concentration of the industry’s scientists, with 184,000 working statewide.
While a lot of people might be able to cite pharmaceuticals as a highly productive New Jersey industry, not many are apt to come up with flavors when called upon to name the state’s important exports.
“People don’t even know we exist,” says DeRovira. Which is the way food manufacturers want it.
“You may get recognition internally for coming up with something, but you’re not allowed to go through the grocery store and say, ‘That’s my baby!’” says Harvey, a 20-year flavorist who is currently director of flavor technology at Whippany-based Kraft/Cadbury, which works with outside flavor houses but also employs its own fleet of flavorists.
Flavorists, in fact, are ethically bound never to reveal their creations. And they rarely speak about their work outside their laboratories.
“It’s a pretty secretive industry,” says Steve Ruocco, president of the Society of Flavor Chemists and a master flavorist at Maryland-based McCormick, the spice company. “You can’t disclose who your customers are,” because secret flavor formulas are often the bread and butter of the food and beverage manufacturers that hire flavor houses to innovate or improve their products. The formulas are what separate Hunt’s ketchup from Heinz and Skippy peanut butter from Jif.
And they really are secret formulas—natural and artificial chemicals whipped together by lab-coat-wearing, test-tube-swishing, sensory perfectionists who consider themselves a mixed breed. “We’re creative and scientific. Part scientist, part artist,” says Ruocco.
The science part doesn’t lend itself to easy explanations. Kulka says in order to facilitate manufacturing, most flavors are made with 20 to 60 ingredients, though a select few require more than 100 ingredients. But thousands of flavor ingredients—including natural materials like essential oils and botanicals, synthetic elements or manmade chemicals based on natural starting materials—exist. At Givaudan, there are 4,000 in the company rotation. There are natural flavors, which can be made with as few as two ingredients and simple blending, and then there are reaction flavors.
“Think of the reaction that takes place when you cook a piece of meat on a charcoal grill—there is searing at a very high temperature as the meat hits the grill and begins to cook,” explains Hassel. “That reaction gives the meat the grilled flavor that people love so much. When making meat flavors, in order to get those grilled-type notes,” a flavorist has to create a similar type of reaction to the one that occurs on the grill, but chemically, in a lab.
In addition to simple blended flavors and elaborately composed reaction flavors, there are non-reaction flavors that need protection from the food-manufacturing wringer. Flavors designed for use in a powdered drink like Crystal Light have to be spray dried into a powder form, for example. And at Givaudan, a system called PureDelivery protects flavors from high heat, extrusion and other potentially flavor-corrupting processes using encapsulation with a special carbohydrate shell.
Before any flavor can be blended, spray-dried, stuffed into a carbohydrate shell or otherwise altered, though, its chemicals have to be approved by the Washingon, D.C.-based Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association, a process that Kulka called “lengthy and expensive.” Once the trudge through regulatory red tape is complete and the lab work is under way, tastings—highly specialized ones—begin.
“Flavorists like to do most of their tasting in the morning while they’re fresh,” says Kulka. “Some flavorists spit, some don’t. I personally need the retro-nasal hit of swallowing to really get at the nuances of the flavor. We make revisions throughout the day and taste them, and make more revisions.”
At Givaudan, a company spokesman, Jeff Peppet, says flavorists “are tasting all day long. It is not uncommon here to walk past a conference room and see people with a number of small tasting cups in front of them filled with some type of beverage, or to see a group trying numerous types of chewing gum over the course of a number of hours.”
The professional pairing of art and science Ruocco mentioned attracted Kulka to the industry 16 years ago, when she started as a flavorist at Flavors of North America, a Chicago company. Five years ago, she moved to South Amboy to join IFF’s South Brunswick flavor team.
“I could not be happier, doing what I do. It’s so surprising,” says Kulka. For example, “if you look at a drink like Red Bull, it’s kind of powdery and mediciney and grainy and cherry. It’s all over the place. But it sells. In beverages, it’s one of the few flavors that has no relation to anything in nature. It’s purely fantasy. I find it very cool that it’s become so beloved.”
Kulka, like most flavorists, holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and completed a seven-year apprenticeship under an experienced flavorist before earning the flavorist title herself. Apprentices are also required to take a taste test before being hired in which a multitude of flavor shades—different varieties of mushrooms or apples, for instance—must be correctly identified. Within IFF, Kulka says, she is a generalist, meaning that she develops flavors for a spectrum of products the company is hired to endow with tastiness. “I can make flavors not just for beverages, but also maple flavors for table syrup, chewing-gum flavors, yogurt flavors,” she says. Those flavors—all flavors—often account for less than 1 percent of the ingredients in the processed foods they will eventually be folded into, and the time it takes to produce them varies a lot.
Kulka may be able to piece together a strawberry flavor in a day, for example. But it might not be the right strawberry. The success of the strawberry depends on the client’s idea of what will translate into consumer likability: It could be jammy, or tart, or more of a fantasy strawberry, like the kind in chewy candies that doesn’t taste like strawberries at all. Raw-material availability, cost and experience are all factors; a flavorist who has concocted jammy strawberry flavors before will be able to replicate them quickly.
Not every flavor is bound for consumers’ tastebuds. “I think 5 percent is a generous number,” Kulka says, estimating the proportion of products she works on that actually make it to market. “Sometimes we get feedback, sometimes we don’t really know why food companies launch a product or don’t launch it. It could be too expensive, or it could have to do with another product they’re launching at the same time, so it doesn’t get the same push.”
Flavors that don’t become the next Apple-Cinnamon Cheerios or Cool Ranch Doritos are not a waste of flavorists’ energies, though. Sometimes they resurface. Sometimes, they become staples.
“I’m a big fan of the tried and true,” says Hassel, who has been making flavors since 1990 at Givaudan in East Hanover and, in all, has tallied 33 years in the profession; he started his career in 1978 at a Manhattan-based company later bought by Givaudan.
“Once we have acceptability of certain flavors, I’ll sometimes combine them, using the best of what Givaudan has to offer,” he says. So if a client wants an orange-banana flavor, he’ll find the most desirable orange formula within the company and also his favorite banana. Then he’ll blend them. “I don’t like to make a completely new flavor unless we have new molecules,” he says.
There may be no accounting for what works for the public. Appetites for the tried and true are not always as reliable as appetites for the novel. Take yumberry.
“It’s an Asian fruit that’s hot right now,” the way pomegranate and goji berry have been hot in recent years, says Kulka. DeRovira, who also cites yumberry as one of the trendy fruit flavors of the moment, describes the taste as a cross between a grapefruit and a lemon. He says consumers should expect a wave of yumberry tea and chewing gum in the not-too-distant future. (Consumers in North America, that is. In Asia, yumberry has already had its moment: “Yumberry may be very boring in China right now,” Kulka says.)
Yumberries, unlike the grab bag of chemicals that give Red Bull its flavor, exist in nature. But flavorists tasked with creating yumberry gum may not have an easier time of it in the lab just because they can taste test their formula against an actual piece of fruit.
“Are we always going for authenticity? Perhaps not,” says DeRovira, whose company works in savory foods as well as beverages. “Think of what kids like—they want something super sweet”—a fantasy flavor. And they don’t necessarily care about any potential health benefits associated with actual yumberries, or whether what they’re tasting is all natural. Adults sometimes care about those things, but flavorists would argue that their care is misplaced.
The public is wrongly “chemophobic,” says DeRovira. “We’re made of chemicals. So is food. We produce flavors for organic foods, because that’s the need of the industry. Our bodies don’t understand the difference between natural and artificial.” Consumers may believe that natural chemicals are less toxic than artificial ones, but that’s not always true. Hemlock is natural. So is strychnine.
“From that perspective,” DeRovira says, “the concept of organic is all about marketing and making people feel good.” That’s okay, though, he adds, because “if people feel good about something, it matters.”
“I think the important point,” says Kulka, “is that these chemicals, even in all-natural products, are all chemicals. Just because one is derived from a natural material doesn’t necessarily make it any healthier or safer or much different.”
Where chemicals do differ, maybe, is in their pliability and availability. Vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world, but it may also be one of the most difficult to replicate. Supply problems can arise, says Hassel, citing weather disasters and civil unrest in countries that produce vanilla beans. And then there are application bullets to dodge. “The same flavor will behave very differently depending on the delivery system,” he says, meaning that the vanilla in Nilla Wafers may not work in French-vanilla pudding mix, vanilla-bean ice cream or vanilla-flavored toothpaste.
Hard as some flavors are to reproduce, no flavorist—at least none of those interviewed at the fall Flavor Chemists’ meeting in Princeton—will admit to being truly stymied. It could be that there is no holy grail flavor. Or it could be that, because it is their custom to be secretive, flavorists will not discuss what’s especially elusive.
Even when their industry does generate a headline—as it did last year when Frutarom, an Israel-based flavor and fragrance house with offices in North Bergen, was suspected as the source of a mysterious maple syrup smell that was wafting across the Hudson and creeping into the noses of New Yorkers—flavorists tend to be tight-lipped.
I asked Harvey, the Cadbury flavorist in Whippany, what she knew of the incident.
She responded by e-mail: “I am not aware of this newsworthy flavor issue.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent New Jersey Monthly contributor.
Schmoozing with the Schnozzes
At the October meeting of the Society of Flavor Chemists in Princeton, dozens of flavorists listened attentively to a symposium on the maturity of strawberries. The berries under discussion had been grown in Florida and harvested at three different dates. Sensory and aroma changes were described at five developmental stages. Thirty-six active aroma compounds were characterized. Questions too technical for a layperson to make sense of were taken.
Between that session and another titled, “Flavor Companies: Should They Be Large or Small?” came a cocktail hour at which the flavorists—men and women mostly in their 30s to 50s, the men in jackets and ties, the women in heels and skirts—gathered and, as much as they could, let their guards down.
“You know, nobody gets out of high school and says, ‘I want to be a flavorist,’” admitted Ken Kraut, a flavorist at IFF’s research office in Union Beach, who was mingling with a gaggle of others near the Westin bar. “It’s sort of like becoming a musician—the most important part is who you train under. You have to train a long time under somebody.”
Which means you really have to like that somebody, he added.
“I’m very proud of what we do, all of us,” remarked Dolf DeRovira, owner of Flavor Dynamics in South Plainfield, sipping a white wine. “To do this, you have to be a lateral thinker, and you have to be able to solve problems creatively. You also have to love food. How could you be a flavorist and not love food?”
“I always say, ‘If you’re in a restaurant full of people, and you see someone pick up their plate and smell it, you know it’s a flavor chemist,’” said Steve Ruocco, president of the society. “Every flavorist has a big nose. I can’t hire anybody who doesn’t have a big nose,” he said.
The sense of connection, though, often goes well beyond the schnozz, he continued.
“It’s weird,” he observed. “Even though we’re all competing, trying to win business with food companies, we still want to connect. Coming to this meeting is really about seeing each other, because another thing we have in common is that there’s so few of us. People retire, and you want to keep in touch. When there are only 500 of you in the world, you bond.” —Tammy La Gorce