Carol is a flavorist, or flavor chemist.
Flavorists blend aroma chemicals, essential oils,
botanical extracts, and essences to create natural and
artificial flavorings for a variety of foods, beverages,
and other products. Ethyl butyrate, for example, is a
common aroma chemical; in conjunction with another aroma
chemical, acetaldehyde, it’s what gives orange juice its
succulent quality. "All food has flavor," says
Carol, "and we’re trying to recreate those flavors
using materials available to us."
Laboratory-created flavors do what their
naturally occurring counterparts can’t: provide
cost-effective taste that withstands the processing,
freezing, cooking, and other forms of preparation required
by many of today’s products. Compared with flavors found
in nature, manufactured flavors often last longer, taste
sharper, and smell better; they can also be formulated not
to trigger people’s food allergies.
Recreating flavors is complex work. Not
only do people’s taste preferences vary, but there are
numerous possibilities for combining chemicals to achieve
a desired flavor. "It’s very subjective," says
Carol. "Even if you have two flavors that seem the
same, one of them could have a 1-page formula and the
other a 2-page formula. You might think the flavors are
identical, but how you put the chemicals together makes
them very different."
Carol needs to know what’s in a
naturally occurring flavor before she can decide how to
recreate it in the lab. Flavorists rely on the work of
researchers who have analyzed about 80 to 90 percent of
the components in most flavors. Armed with this
information, flavorists determine which components are
important to an overall flavor profile. Then, flavorists
attempt to duplicate the profile using mathematics, for
calculating parts per million; chemistry, for choosing
which substances to combine; and a lot of artistry—especially
when developing "fantasy flavors," such as punch
or orchard blends.
But long before they build flavors by
combining chemicals, flavorists must understand how
chemicals react with each other and change in different
conditions. A blueberry flavor that’s delectable in a
beaker is worthless in a muffin mix, for example, if some
of its chemical composition breaks down in the heat of an
oven. "Flavor chemistry is only as good as your
knowledge of the raw materials," says Carol.
The best way to ensure that chemicals
behave as expected, of course, is to test them. For Carol,
this means taking a solution she’s created in the
flavor-development laboratory over to the
flavor-applications laboratory—the test kitchen—for a
trial run. She works with the applications team to figure
out how much flavor should be put in the product, then
taste-tests the final result. A flavor that disappoints
will be modified in the development lab.
Success in transferring a solution from
the beaker to the end product is usually the norm for
experienced flavorists like Carol. She’s a senior
flavorist in a flavor house, a company that creates and
manufactures flavors for foods, confections, and
beverages; pharmaceuticals, such as chewable medications
and liquid prescriptions; oral care products, such as
toothpaste; cosmetics, such as lip balm; "nutraceuticals,"
or nutritional products, such as vitamins and sports gels;
and pet foods.
Carol has also worked as a flavorist in a
beverage company’s research and development lab. But
most food and beverage manufacturers don’t employ
flavorists; instead, companies buy the flavors they need
from flavor houses. Flavorists from these houses, located
primarily on the east coast but with a few in the Midwest
and California, often travel to make presentations to
food-manufacturing companies in an attempt to win
contracts for supplying flavors.
Consequently, communication skills and an
ability to work under pressure are nearly as important as
knowledge of math and organic chemistry in this small but
competitive industry. In addition, Carol considers
patience, creativity, meticulous recordkeeping skills,
curiosity, and an ability to stay focused to be vital for
Collaboration with other members of the
flavor-development lab is another necessity of the
occupation. "Teamwork is essential," says Carol.
"A flavorist wouldn’t survive working alone."
When you’re creating a flavor, she says, you need others’
feedback because you can’t always decipher flavor
subtleties on your own.
Creating flavors requires being able to
"think outside the box," says Carol. This goes
hand-in-hand with having enough confidence to try
something different—even if you’re just starting out.
"No matter how senior I am in the lab, I still learn
things from the technicians," she says. "I’ve
always encouraged trainees to try."
Because of the range of knowledge and
skills needed to build flavors, training to become a
flavorist requires a minimum commitment of 7 years. That’s
in addition to any academic preparation. A bachelor’s
degree in a chemistry discipline might not be required to
enter the occupation, but most trainees have one. Carol’s
degree is in chemical engineering.
Trainees spend their first 5 years in a
flavor-development laboratory, learning the basics of the
flavor industry. Working with at least two senior
flavorists, trainees discover which chemicals are
available for creating flavors and how those chemicals are
used. Trainees hone their sensory skills as they gradually
begin mixing chemicals for specific flavors. They also
must learn the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s
regulations that apply to flavoring agents.
At the end of the 5-year training period,
trainees take an oral examination administered by the
Society of Flavor Chemists’ membership committee;
trainees who pass become apprenticing members, and their
employers usually give them the title of junior flavorist.
Junior flavorists are supervised for another 2 years, but
they have more autonomy and begin taking on their own
projects. Trainees take another oral exam after 2 years of
apprenticing as a junior flavorist. Successful passage of
the second exam entitles the flavorist to professional
certification, and a certified flavorist receives the
title of senior flavorist.
Beginning flavorists have much to learn,
so they usually tally more than the standard 40 hours that
senior flavorists log each week. "In the places I’ve
worked," says Carol, "most trainees never watch
For flavorists, as for workers in most
occupations, the investment of time and effort is likely
to pay off as they advance from training to certification.
There are no reliable earnings data for flavor chemists,
but industry sources suggest that median salaries are well
above the $54,960 that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
reported for chemists in 2003.
Another payoff for flavorists is seeing a
product on the market that they helped to develop.
"It’s very rewarding," says Carol. "I
really enjoy what I’m doing."