Dear Straight Dope:
I've been an avid and loyal follower for some time. I have a question that I've been to afraid to ask, but I must nonetheless. What are artificial flavors made of and how were they ever invented in the first place? In other words, how was it discovered that you can take certain chemicals, combine them, and make the concoction taste like a banana? I find it frightening to contemplate!
SDStaff Ian replies:
You and me both, Brett. Anyway, the first step in producing an artificial flavor is to isolate it from a naturally occurring substance. You can boil out the crucial chemicals, or squeeze them out, or leach them out. At this point, you have a concentrated extract, or what can be referred to as “natural flavoring.” You can stop there, but you can also take this substance, liquify or vaporize it, and analyze it with a chromatograph. Then, you actually take a look at the way the molecules in the compound are put together, since variations in the flavor can arise from different combinations of the same molecules. Given this intense chemical analysis, a chemist worth his NaCl can then pretty much reproduce the compound in question artificially. However, only pretty much. You may have noticed that artificial flavors never quite taste exactly like the real stuff, simply because the ways chemicals combine in food can’t be replicated in every detail. Still, close enough for most purposes. Then, you have artificial flavor chefs, who take these newly created flavors and make new, unique, and above all marketable combinations. Hungry?
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