In a 1952 episode of the sci-fi series Tales of Tomorrow, a rogue government scientist—who else?—discovers the perfect food. Called “Substance X,” it’s nutritious, easily synthesized from seawater, and tastes like whatever the customer wants, even changing from bite to bite. The inevitable catch? It’s highly addictive, causing the episode’s fictional Texas town to devolve into chaos. Even before the Food Babe and Soylent Green came along, Americans have been skeptical of artificial flavors.
The current state of flavor, says Nadia Berenstein—a doctoral candidate at the UPenn who specializes in “fake” flavors—is something of a paradox: On the one hand, Big Agriculture has drained “natural” foods of flavor in exchange for the convenience of cheap, year-round crops; on the other, “fake” foods are saturated (or “blasted,” in the case of Goldfish) with flavor to make people crave them. Consequently, flavor has never been harder or easier to find.
Addressing a joint meeting of the Culinary Historians of New York and the Experimental Cuisine Collective, a group dedicated to food science, at NYU’s Chemistry Department on Monday, Berenstein began by narrating synthetic flavors’ earliest and biggest coup: turning vanilla from a coveted luxury good into a synonym for the bland and everyday. For two hundred years after its introduction to the West, vanilla was a precious commodity. Artificial pollination helped increase the global supply by allowing the plant to grow outside its native Mexico, but the real turning came in the 1870s, when scientists cracked the molecular structure of vanillin—and opened the floodgates for the manufacturing of synthetic vanilla flavor.
The turn of the 20th century then saw a massive boom in demand for vanilla bean, synthetic vanillin, and even plain sugar in the United States. Berenstein deems this era the beginning of a “mass consumer economy of sweetness,” and mass anything in America means government regulation. Hence the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906, which protected consumers from fraud—as well as health hazards—with measures like the country’s first-ever statutory distinction between “genuine” and “imitation” foods. “Genuine” vanilla products, Congress reasoned, had to contain some derivative of vanilla bean; products with synthetic vanillin must be labeled “imitation,” even though they might be more chemically pure than vanilla bean extracts diluted with other materials, as many were.
Our sense of what butter “tastes” like is in many ways shaped more by diacetyl, now found in everything from imitation butter to movie theater popcorn, than the real deal.
Once imitation flavors were defined, however, it took another two decades for chemists to invent what’s arguably the world’s most recognizable synthetic taste: butter. The neon stuff we pour over our popcorn to fuel a third viewing of Mad Max began as a simple solution to a complicated problem. As large-scale food manufacturing started gearing up in the 1920s, creameries realized that in order to sell a product on a national scale, it needed to taste both distinctive from other brands and the same as everything else marketed under the same name—not an easy feat when a single butter brand might use milk from dozens of different dairies.
Dutch chemists soon discovered that the compound diacetyl, produced either synthetically or by microorganisms, could add a “buttery” flavor to foods. Creameries then started adding a chemical that doesn’t naturally occur in butter to actual butter in order to make it taste more like…butter. Our sense of what butter “tastes” like is in many ways shaped more by diacetyl, now found in everything from imitation butter to movie theater popcorn, than the real deal.
The history of synthetic flavors is full of similar absurdities. Berenstein pointed out that scientists only discovered that methyl anthranilate, the grape flavoring (and perfume ingredient) responsible for the deliciously fake taste of purple Jolly Ranchers, is actually in grapes until after it was widely used in products like NuGrape soda. Native to American species like Concord grapes and responsible for the “foxiness”—wine experts’ term, not Berenstein’s—of, say, Manischewitz, methyl anthranilate was initially used as grape flavoring for its wide availability. The chemical accuracy was purely coincidental.
Then there’s peach flavor, which was only discovered thanks to an error in castor-oil production. Why was flavor synthesis, which is supposed to be, after all, a science, so haphazard? Partially because analysis is genuinely difficult; The compounds responsible for flavor are present in such small amounts that it takes nearly a ton of apples to yield just two grams of “apple flavor.” Flavor molecules are also frequently volatile, reactive, and simply difficult to work with.
Flavor production thus took a while to professionalize, but by the middle of the 20th century it had become a full-fledged field, complete with its own experts and full-time professionals. The year after the “Substance X” episode aired, a trade magazine called the Givaudan Flavorist claimed that flavor development requires “a thorough knowledge of aromatics attained through years of experience.” And in a true sign of flavor production’s coming of age, general theories emerged to complement the hard science. The idea of “amplitude,” re-popularized this decade by Malcolm Galdwell, as an ideal “fullness of blended flavor” emerged; the consulting firm Arthur D. Little posited that “flavor leaders” like Coke and Heinz lacked aftertaste, encouraging consumers to eat more.
Scientists didn’t discover that the grape flavoring responsible for the deliciously fake taste of purple Jolly Ranchers is actually in grapes until after it was widely used in products like NuGrape soda. (Photo: Walmart)
By the end of the ‘50s, the inevitable backlash had begun. Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment, which imposed stricter requirements for testing, in 1958. The following decade, the emerging counterculture affected food and other social mores, beginning America’s longstanding phobia of artificial ingredients. Simply stigmatizing synthetic flavors, however, doesn’t erases their long, weird, and complicated history—not to mention their presence in everything from candy, to the Nabisco crackers and vegetable rennet cheese attendees noshed on during the lecture.