When was the last time you really took a moment to appreciate the flavour of those lip smacking peri peri French fries at McDonalds or some pulpy chilli guava juice from Paper Boat? Those crispy rusks that you dip into your morning tea or those bright red lollipops that you still nibble at work?
Ever thought how a lollipop would taste without its flavour? It would simply be a piece of hard sugar. The cream laced between Oreo biscuits without the chocolate flavour would only be a blob of sugary mass. So who are these magicians who sprinkle taste into our foods with their wands?
They are food flavourists who make our food tasty by combining different flavours and creating the perfect blend for delicious food. A profession less heard of, food flavourists are people with refined tastes and sensory abilities - those who would not just describe your food as tasty, but ascribe specific adjectives like woody, lemony, earthy or warm.
Sophia Ranjani, among the few (if not only) food flavourists in Hyderabad, says she is a specialist in brown flavours like butterscotch, chocolate caramel and hazelnut but hates seafood.
âI hate the smell of shrimp. I start smelling of seafood whenever I blend the flavour. But my sensory panel makes it easy for me to choose the right one from among the 1000 available seafood flavours,â Sophia says.
Having completed her masters in food technology, Sophia joined Mane, a French flavour and fragrance manufacturer two years ago.
âI am a complete foodie and I love trying different cuisines. I have always had a good palate and over the years, I learnt to refine my ability to taste. I think itâs my enduring affair with food that helped me land in this little-known profession,â says Sophia.
Working with the nose
To be a food flavourist, one does not need a special nose but a trained one. âEvery day, we smell and taste food. You have to have a nose, because being a flavourist requires that you know and smell your raw materials before making formulas and putting them in a finished product in order to taste them,â Sophia says.
A food flavourist does not have a magic wand. Nor do they know magic spells that add flavours to your food in a jiffy. Rather, they spend hours in their laboratories to help food get back its aroma lost during processing.
âMany of the products you consume have added flavours, such as beverages, yogurts and candies. During processing, procedures like heat-treatment cause food to lose its aroma. We help the food get back its lost aroma, as consumers like food that smells good,â Sophia says.
One flavour, hundred tastes
There are real differences, even in the way we perceive foods. In Germany, a strawberry will be cooked, slightly jam-like, whereas in France it will be greener. Two countries, even if they are neighbours, can be very different in their food habits and in their perception of foods. Forget countries, a Guajaratiâs ârasagulaâ is never similar to a Bengaliâs âroshogollaâ. Hence, food flavourists have the extra burden of gauging the clientâs taste, albeit the same flavours and taste that they demand for.
âThere are a hundred different tastes to a single flavour. For example, your client can find the same mango juice you found amazingly delicious to be bland and tasteless. The pizza seasoning that you found to be extra spicy would be perfect for your clientâs taste buds. So, we usually ask them for samples and specifications to know what exactly the food matrix should be,â Sophia shares.
Flavourists also keep an eye on the audience that would be the probable customers for the product as people belonging to different age groups are known to have a specific sense of taste.
âFor a child, a strawberry will have a strong, intense taste. We will even add some raspberry or vanilla notes to underline its candy aspect. But for an adult woman, weâll look for the fresh sensation of a fruit that has just been picked,â Sophia notes.
The next time you plunge your fork into a steaming bowl of Maggi peri peri hot heads, do take a moment off to appreciate the brains that customised this spicy flavour for Indian foodies.
âPeri Peri was first introduced in India in McDonald's outlets. Soon, we got requests from clients to develop a similar flavour with an Indian touch to it. The flavour consisted mainly of garlic, lemon and chilly. We improvised on the taste and after close to 15-20 trials, we tasted success,â Sophia says.
Even though organic labels have now become a trend, the packaged food items we consume point towards an alternative option. Among the hundred food beverages and solid packed food that we consume, natural ingredients represent only one-third of our food palette as it is economically not feasible for flavourists to use the original food component in a food item that sells for maybe Rs 10.
âFlavourists develop synthetic flavours that can give the exact taste and flavour. They are made through chemical synthesis, but they are chemically identical to a substance that exists in nature. Synthetic flavours reduce the cost and bring aromatic intensity to food,â Sophia says.
While most of the flavoured food items have only a very negligible amount of the original food component, some vanilla candies or orange biscuits may have no vanilla or orange in them at all.
âBecause if there had to be vanilla extract in every vanilla product consumed in the world, well, there simply wouldnât be enough vanilla in this world,â chuckles Sophia.
Being a food flavourist may sound easy, but it definitely is not. A flavourist has to work with hundreds of different chemicals. When tasting, they have to identify what flavours are present and what chemicals represent these notes.
They need to make multiple dilutions of solutions based on the potency of a chemical. Also as Sophia reminds us, there is no recipe book for every single flavour out there, so it is up to the flavourist to come up with what is best.
So the next time you hog your spicy French fries and extra cheesy chicken pizzas on a cheat day, you definitely know who has gone the extra mile to make your otherwise boring day slightly better!