Questions for a Food Scientist
Posted by Adam Shaffer on 1/10/17
Senior Food Scientist/Food Wizard Adam Shaffer answers your questions about all things food science!
What are natural flavorings? – Submitted by Kacey
What's the difference between a spice extract and a flavor? – Submitted by Nate
Ah, natural flavors...the most consumer-confusing ingredient on a label statement. The first thing you probably need to know and remember is that everything is made up of chemicals. Water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, for example, and the air you breathe is mostly nitrogen, with oxygen and carbon dioxide mixed in there too.
Keeping that in mind, flavors are just chemicals; what really sets them apart is their source, how they are extracted from said source, and how they are used. "Natural flavor" means that the chemicals used in the flavor were obtained or extracted from a plant or animal, either physically, microbiologically, or enzymatically. Conversely, an "artificial flavor" contains chemicals that were formed by humans in a lab and are either not found in nature or are chemically identical to products found in nature, but were instead produced in a lab (this is often done if the extraction process is particularly difficult, time consuming, and/or expensive).
Spice extracts can be labelled as either "spice extracts" or "natural flavors". Which phrase is chosen often depends on the nature of the product; if the product includes the name of the spice in the name, like a Cinnamon Apple Juice, but doesn't contain the actual dry spice, the company will often choose to put the phrase "spice extract" on the label to reassure their customers that the actual spice is in there. Or the company might prefer one phrase over the other; both are perfectly legal to have on the label, according to the FDA.
I hear you're bitter blind. What's up with that? – Submitted by Kelli
Do you mean, what's up with that in the sense that you don't understand what it means to be bitter blind? It means I can't taste anything that's bitter—I can dissolve an aspirin on my tongue and not taste anything (though it does dry my mouth out).
Or maybe you mean, what's up with that scientifically? That's actually a simple answer: I'm a mutant. And I don't mean in the fun, Cyclops-shooting-laser-beams-out-of-his eyes way; my genes for tasting bitter foods turned out different from your genes, just like the genes of people with blue eyes are different from the brown-eyed folks.
Or perhaps you're asking how that affects my daily life? It doesn't come up very often, honestly. I'm sure it would have if I had been born hundreds of years ago—one of the main ways our ancestors knew what was safe to eat was taste. Bitter equals bad, sweet equals energy, etcetera. It has influenced my life, though, in the foods I like to eat. For example, I don't drink coffee or eat dark chocolate because I can't experience the full flavor profile of those foods. I'm not a big fan of hoppy beers because they don't have much flavor—I've been told that's because they're bitter.
The main area where my bitter blindness affects my daily life is at work. My coworker didn't even bother to ask me to taste a coffee seasoning she was making because I wouldn't be able to give constructive feedback. My mutation encourages me to gather more feedback from my fellow scientists—I've had to develop dark chocolate seasonings before, and I can't ever get the correct level of bitterness in there, since I can't taste it.
If you have any questions you'd like a food scientist to answer, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Questions for a Food Scientist." Then continually check this blog to see if you are one of the lucky few to receive an answer!
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- Adam Shaffer
Senior Food Scientist/Food Wizard