The secret world of taste makers, The Independent

A paratha in a teardrop, a curry in a test-tube? My recent trip to India took my taste-buds – and those of the scientists with me – to another level… Dive into the weird and wonderful world of flavour development in my piece in today’s Independent.

In the teeming mass of jumbled lanes and haphazard buildings that is Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, silk saris, bunches of green chilli, bicycles laden with steel water flagons and an overhanging web of gnarled electricity lines provide an unlikely backdrop for scientists in white polo shirts. Add the rolling video camera and the busy photographer and our touring brigade becomes quite the attraction.

But we aren’t here to be ogled. We are here to eat – in a manner of speaking – at the paratha house Baburam Parathewale. In the entrance to the miniscule eatery sits Mr Om Prakesh, cross-legged and hunched over a blackened pot of bubbling ghee. He scoops a little dough, flips it, stuffs it, moulds it and throws it into the hot fat, showing us how to make one of his famed parathas. Up a creaking set of stairs Klaus Gassenmeier, head of analytical science for Givaudan’s Europe office, has set up a headspace capture unit: a travelling laboratory set up to trap a food’s aroma molecules. Parathas, fizzing with hot oil, are rushed to Gassenmeier, who secures glass domes over them and lets evaporation work. Aroma molecules are trapped in and then flushed from minute porous filters leading from the glass domes. It takes around an hour to collect a sufficient sample by headspace capture and the result is a mere 30 microlitres of flavour-infused, concentrated solvent. A paratha in a teardrop.

The liquid will be fed into a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GCMS). The resulting molecular breakdown provides a fingerprint of the food’s aromas and will enable Gassenmeier and others to chemically recreate the fundamental flavour of that perfect Delhi paratha.

It’s day four of a six-day Givaudan “Culinary Trek”, a trans-India fact-finding mission by the Swiss flavour house’s research team who, responding to a burgeoning market for processed foods with ethnic tastes, are seeking flavours to define modern India.

Based near Zurich, Givaudan is a megalith in the processed food world. If you have eaten crisps, or a ready meal or sipped a fizzy drink, you are more than likely to have tried one of their creations. Food flavourings – natural, nature-identical or artificial – are in almost every processed or packaged food, from boutique chocolates to oven chips. Since 1999, Givaudan’s taste and culinary treks have taken scientists from Gabon to Columbia in search of the next big thing (a success on the scale of Coca-Cola is the holy grail).

“Some of the Trek is about having an idea about what the client is looking for and some of it fills gaps in our portfolio. Some of it is seeing directionally where the industry is going,” explains Jeff Peppet, Givaudan’s director of marketing communications.

Whether a brand wants to turn a “base” of corn or soy (the “building blocks of fast food” as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma put it) into a tasty meal, boost a puttanesca sauce or add oomph to an otherwise-nondescript low-calorie snack, it’s likely to turn to a flavour house for help. Our freshly captured paratha aroma, courtesy of Mr Prakesh, may one day manifest in a hint of butteriness in, say, a branded wheat cracker.

Which brand, we can only guess: in a multi-billion-dollar industry where every mouth represents potential profit, it pays to keep a secret. Flavour companies never speak of their clients and vice versa. And where ingredients and cooking methods have been supplanted by androgynous terms – “non-dairy cheese analogues” and “stickiness reducing candy matrices” – it’s easy to understand why the secret relationships between Givaudan and clients remain doubly sacrosanct: the aim is to sell a whole food, a lifestyle product that is more than the sum of its parts.

Flavour, it goes without saying, is nothing new to the subcontinent. Her 1.2 billion mouths thrive on a tapestry of spices and herbs that have shaped the region’s economy for millennia. The use of food flavourings dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when spices masked putrid meat. Synthesised flavours emerged alongside developments in organic chemistry and nowadays the world’s most popular flavouring is vanillin, mostly biosynthesised from waste wood pulp.

Amanda Bevan, Givaudan’s technical manager for the UK told me: “There is a big demand for anything ethnic here and the demand for Indian flavours is high.” Our curry industry turns over more than £3bn a year – a fact processed food makers know better than most. Again, the West is capitalising on India and her spices.

The Willy Wonka-esque exploration of flavour development seems a strangely exact approach to take to something so subjective. Flavour has been dubbed a “cognitive figment” and is scientifically nothing more than a combination of sensory signals and memories. Smell, not taste, is essential to flavour: not only are aroma compounds detected by smell, but the nose is thought to have a hotline to the brain, making associations triggered by aromas intensely powerful. Aroma fingerprints of popular foods through GCMS provide the best facsimiles possible of communities’ collective culinary consciences, and there is big business in getting it right.

Painstaking research and a “pre-trek” by India-based flavourists and consulting chefs have whittled down 10 “target” dishes, each defined as having some or all of the aroma components missing in the flavour market or that have been requested by a client. No tikka masala or vindaloo here – the drive is for real, accurate copies of real, meaningful tastes. The irony being that food flavours stand in where authenticity is impossible.

“The demand for authenticity is on the increase. We have the ability to develop understanding with chefs to deliver authenticity to a mass consumer market” says Peppet.

Key to that delivery is chef Thomas Chan, who I find staring as if his life depended on it at a griddle of pav bhaji (bubbling vegetables topped with butter). Chan will recreate target dishes in the test kitchen and, though local ingredients and cooking methods make his task a hard one – where to find a tandoor oven at Givaudan’s offices, for example? – create he must, so scientists can compare the flavours they develop in the laboratory with the target dish. “We link things together, they take them apart,” jokes Gassenmeier of his colleagues, the flavourists.

“Machines give you a skeleton, a major flavour,” says senior analyst EeFah Chong, using the headspace capture unit in a Delhi samosa house. “But the signature – the key notes of the flavour – need a flavourist’s nose. We are the chemists, they are the artists.”

It’s an apt metaphor. An impeccable sensory memory and a very good sense of smell (as well as years of scientific graft) come as standard, but what makes a great flavourist stand out is creativity and intuition.

Tall, potbellied Manoj Degwekar and short, bespectacled Prasad Raote form an unlikely double-act. Together, they dissect nuances in popular dishes and using the secrets of volatile molecules – as broken down by Chong and Gassenmeier – build aromas that suit markets.

At Zaffran in Mumbai, we try a yoghurty rajasthani kadhi. “What kind of acid would you use here?” asks head of savoury marketing, Neri Mamburam.

“Lactic with a touch of malic,” replies Raote, without a moment’s hesitation.

But there are gaps in knowledge. At Mumbai’s spice market we come across ingredients even the flavourists don’t recognise. A bark-like “tree flower” smells of lemongrass and I chew a silver moss that is deceptively bitter but has an intensely sweet aftertaste. Like that moss, the flavour industry is a master of trickery. By adding chemical compounds to any foodstuff, our brains are deceived. In the laboratory, a parts-per-million addition of allium compounds to a soup base could change a flavour from vegetable to French onion.

In the field, creating a language out of otherwise utterly subjective opinions is down to scores of small bottles, each containing an aroma or “descriptor”. Acting as building blocks – labels read “mashed potato”, “creamy sour”, even “sweaty” – they allow the team to document olfactory profiles of dishes in calibrated terms.

In a strip-lit restaurant in a leafy street in Mumbai’s Dadar district, we profile a rich, caramely dhangari (shepherd’s) mutton. Roasted coconut and sweet spices shape the top notes of the dish and the profiling panel’s murmuring begins as defining impressions are picked out and rated in strength. The next day, we tried a witheringly fresh rogan josh. Its flavour curve opened with creamy notes, before coriander and tanginess took over, only to be succeeded by chilli, encouraging more mouthfuls.

I watch as Chong carefully loads minute vials into special transporting cases. “I like the way there’s chemistry behind food – it’s not like we eat it and that’s that. There are a lot of chemical reactions.”

Indeed, many of the aroma molecules we capture are time-sensitive, innately shaped by the cooking method or “cue” of the dish. A cup of coffee contains more than 1,000 different volatiles, many attributable to the roasting process. Likewise, Indian foods – already intricate with their many ingredients – are rendered more complex still by the cooking cues involved. Roasted spices, marination, tandoor cooking – each shapes the chemical processes that in turn flavour a dish accordingly and makes the art of creating an aroma replica so skilful.

On our last day, returning from capturing tandoori aromas, I push for the potential applications of flavours developed from the trek.

“I expect each sample to contain 200 aroma compounds – but it will take about 60 to recreate tadka dahl,” says Gassenmeier. “It has great potential for dried snacks.” Ah, so a dhal flavour crisp, say?

“Components may end up in the market, but not necessarily a whole dish flavour. There’s a real need for these flavours,” Peppet tells me.

Rather than the punchy top-notes of hot spices, fried, buttery, caramelised smells seemed particularly exciting. “This is a very typical Indian dish but we can explore it in different representations, for example, a cracker: if it has a crusty, nice, fatty aroma, that can add value,” explains Raote over a piping-hot samosa. A freshly fried note could deceive the brain and boost the perceived fattiness (and tastiness) of a relatively healthy processed food. Not that this trip will yield straightforward results. “You never know what the customer’s base will be – anything can happen. Sometimes we tell the client it won’t be possible [to make edible food out of a questionable base],” Degwekar told me. Initial results hint that some of the flavours from the trek are hoped to be on the market by the end of the year.

There’s no stopping the wave of commercial and packaged foods symptomatic of “development”. Yet the equation is balanced, as the passion, tradition and values that go into a Mumbai pav bhaji emerge as inspiration behind potential new blockbuster snacks in the UK. Flavourings break down boundaries.

One afternoon Neri Mamburam said: “Consumers may not even know what they like. If we can translate it … ” just as alien, smoky, intensely nutty aroma stopped us in our tracks. “If we can capture that,” Mamburam laughed, “it would be really good!”

Inside the flavour industry

* Givaudan’s taste and aroma business brings in $4bn revenue a year.

* The global flavour industry last year generated $20bn in sales.

* Rapid consolidation in recent years has seen a handful of major players emerge. Firmenich, International Flavours and Fragrances and Symrise are all key competitors.

* In the UK, the market for natural flavours alone is forecast to hit 6,551 tons by 2012.

* Givaudan’s most popular synthesised flavours in the British food market are beef, chicken, cheese and vegetable.

* Some of Givaudan’s biggest clients may include brands such as Walkers, Cadbury and Coca-Cola but sales to smaller clients are growing rapidly – especially in India.


The healing power of taste, The Independent

Published 17th September 2009, The Independent, by Daisy Dumas

Essential to Japanese cuisine, umami is the elusive flavour dimension that gives foods their moreishness. So can a collaboration of scientists and chefs harness its effects to help tempt hospital patients to eat? Online version…

I’m sitting in a darkened laboratory at the University of Reading, the fluorescent harshness of a computer screen cutting through the strangely seedy glow of the red lamps above. In my hand is a tiny medicinal brown glass bottle. I sniff its contents and, drawing in the cloying, custardy smell, try to decipher whether I detect a sour milk aroma, nuttiness, maltiness or vanilla. Reluctantly, I take a sip.

My neighbours – from whom I hear the occasional shuffle or click of glass on counter – are highly-trained taste panellists and the glass bottles contain sip-feeds, high-nutrient liquid meals that are heavily relied upon in hospitals.

I find the feeds pretty repugnant, but these experiments form vital early research into a quietly progressing project that aims to unlock the secrets of umami – the name for the fifth taste (the others being sweet, salty, bitter and sour). In a hushed room adjoining the lab, every inch of data gathered from every sip of every tiny bottle is being analysed whilst just along the Thames at Bray, chefs at one of the world’s very best restaurants are cooking up their input, too – all with the hope that an oft-misunderstood taste will eventually make an altogether more satisfying eating experience for elderly patients.

What exactly is umami? At an Umami Symposium in central London earlier this year, at which exquisite Japanese was served (umami flavours are central to Japanese food), a host of top-notch chefs gathered to discuss the elusive flavour, including Kyle Connaughton, the head chef of the development kitchen at The Fat Duck. When asked to define umami, they glazed over with the look of men grappling to find the right words. To chef Kunio Tokuoka, it’s “intrinsic to life, like breathing”, whilst Ichiro Kubota of London’s Umu restaurant said “it’s the character of the ingredients”. Yoshihiro Murata bowed out with “I don’t know – pass” and Takashi Tamura concluded concluded that it is “the hidden thing that you can’t explain”.

The crepuscular exercise went far to explain why the taste – fundamental as it is to most of our diets – is relatively unknown. In the West, we tend to lump for “savouriness” as the best translation. And all over the world, for better or for worse, many associate umami with its chemical manifestation, monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Though unwittingly used to add depth of flavour to foods for thousands of years – from Roman fermented fish sauce (garum) to a “splish” of Lea & Perrins – umami was officially discovered by Dr Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University only 100 years ago. Like most Japanese, his diet was largely based around a stock-based broth, dashi, made by soaking kombu (kelp seaweed) in soft water. He found that the umami, literally translated as “deliciousness”, in the stock – that he had attributed to his wife’s cooking – came from the “meaty” taste of glutamate imparted by the kombu. Ikeda went on to invent MSG.

Essentially, umami is the taste of the amino acid glutamate and, it was later discovered, the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate. It was only as recently as 1996 that scientists finally isolated umami-sensitive receptor cells on the tongue, elevating umami beyond doubt to scientific fact.

Unlike bitterness and sourness, which often make us recoil (to avoid toxins and unripe or off foods), umami, like sweetness, is a pleasant sensation. It is thought that we are naturally predisposed to “liking” umami because of our need for protein and nucleic acid, which is crucial to our health. Indeed, breast milk is extremely high in glutamate, implying that it is something that the body requires from the very first moment in life.

So, when Dr Ikeda smacked his lips and declared “Umai!” after a spoonful of his wife’s broth, he was not only registering a “delicious!” taste but providing his body with essential proteins, too. You’re doing the same when you add ketchup to your chips, or fish sauce to your green curry.

And by combining glutamates with certain nucleotides (as happens when parmesan is added to Bolognese) the umami taste is heightened by up to eight times. What’s more, by adding umami to dishes, we can cut the amount of salt and fat needed to make a delicious dish. Some of Japan’s key cooking ingredients – soy sauce, dashi, miso, nori and shiitake mushroom – are the most umami-intense natural foods. It is perhaps no surprise that Japan has some of the lowest obesity rates and greatest life expectancy rates in the world (something that may change given their faddish discovery of wine, coffee, chips and pasta).

When Heston Blumenthal, co-author of Dashi And Umami, written in collaboration with Nobu Matsuhisa, announced at the Cheltenham Science Fair in June that he was working on developing hospital food with the University of Reading (who awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 2006), the sensational headlines were quick to follow. No, bacon ice-cream won’t be served by the NHS, nor is research funded by the Government. In fact, sponsored by Research into Ageing, the research arm of Help the Aged, the project hopes to revolutionise hospital food for elderly people. As Blumenthal put it, the team is “try[ing] to excite older people with food again”. And umami may be the answer.

Back in the Sensory Science Centre at Reading, Dr Lisa Methven, a world expert in food science, explains, “as people get older, their taste and odour thresholds increase, so they may need more flavour to taste sufficiently and enjoy food”. Not only does umami “enhance flavours and increase taste” and lead to eating essential proteins and amino acids, it has also been proved to increase salivation and gut motility – both of which decline in old age.

So, why not take the lead of the food industry and add a few grams of MSG to hospital meals? It’s a hugely contentious chemical and one that has been dogged with health questions since “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was coined in 1968 by Dr Ho Kwan Man Kwok. He claimed that MSG in Chinese food causes “numbness … general weakness and palpitations”. MSG was seen as the incriminating link. It’s sanctioned by health authorities the world over and is chemically identical to naturally occurring glutamates, but no-one can agree whether MSG is physiologically harmful or not – and, either way, trial by media seems to have called a guilty verdict, at least for now.

As it’s not acceptable to put MSG into food, “we’re looking for natural foods to get an umami impact”, explained Dr Methven. This stage of testing is a precursor to elderly volunteer tests and final patient testing phases, due next year. Samples are tasted in highly-controlled circumstances, minimising environmental and social impacts on taste judgements. Hence red lights and darkened booths. A hatch slides up and I am next presented with a tray of three mini Pyrex dishes of cooked mince. “We smell them first,” directs Lisa Grandin, an umami supertaster and panellist on the project. Her umami receptors are particularly sensitive to the “lingering, meaty aftertaste” of umami, so much so that she is unable to eat certain MSG-laden foods, not because of a physiological reaction but because of the overwhelming taste that, through training at the Sensory Science Centre, she has become so aware of. “It’s not a salty taste, you don’t notice it straightaway, it’s an aftertaste, it hits you later.” We work our way through the three samples, sniffing and chewing then cleaning our palates with water and crackers between bites.

I rightly guess the MSG-laden sample – it’s stronger tasting, more intense and meaty, even salty. But the shiitake mushroom sample is also just as tasty, with a slightly earthier flavour and a definite whiff of garlic. The control sample isn’t bad – it’s the standard NHS hospital recipe – but it lacks any moreish oomph.

The aim is to emulate MSG samples as closely as possible without the interference of other flavour compounds that can come through from added umami-rich foods. As Dr Methven explains, it’s about balancing the combinations of flavours, glutamate and four different nucleotides “to get a big hit and rounded note and to make sure it doesn’t smell of garlic.”

Garlic? It’s all down to flavour volatiles, I am told. Shiitake mushrooms have some of the same flavour compounds in them as garlic and onions, and so give off a garlicky flavour. “So we try to optimise the extraction conditions and look for other foods that are high in umami and then experiment using them together.”

And this is where Blumenthal’s expertise comes in. “Heston will say, ‘Have you tried this? Have you tried that?’ He gives ideas – ‘Hold on a minute, we cook it like this, this is the way we think you could do it.’ We compare it to the way hospitals do it, and bring in Heston’s catering technology and ideas. For example, they have a lot of experience of working with seaweed.” The book, Dashi and Umami, springs to mind.

Dr Methven’s colleague, Dr Maria Dermiki, has visited The Fat Duck to watch how Blumenthal and Connaughton cook and develop food ideas and to see how far these can be recreated in hospital kitchens. “After starting from an academic point of view, we have this advice. They’ll say, ‘I use this, I don’t know why it’s good, but it is.’ We then work out why it works. It’s an ongoing process.”

Eventually, they hope, appetising, umami-laden dishes will appear on hospital menus, encouraging elderly patients to eat and most of all, enjoy their meals. “But certainly not snail porridge,” assures Dr Methven.

It seems a long way from sniffing at brown glass bottles, but we may just hear “Umai!” coming from hospital wards in a few years’ time.

A matter of taste: Umami the world over

USA Tomato ketchup
Vietnam Nuoc mam fish sauce
Australia Vegemite
China Soy sauce
Thailand Nam pla
Europe Cheese, particularly Parmesan and blue cheeses
Italy Ham, particularly cured such as Parma and pepperoni
UK Worcestershire sauce, Marmite, Bovril, bacon, asparagus
Germany Sauerkraut
Japan Miso, soy sauce, dashi
South America Tomatoes, fish soups