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Mark Dewis is a king among flavor scientists. But right now, the director of flavor research and development at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), one of the world's biggest flavor companies, resembles nothing so much as a kid who can't wait for show-and-tell. He grins widely as he describes his new million-dollar machine. "There are only five of these in the world," he boasts, throwing open the lab door.
Filling the center of the room from floor to ceiling is what looks like a small building with a lot of stainless-steel tubing attached. It's a high-performance liquid chromatograph, an instrument that separates compounds according to their chemical affinity with certain solvents and resins. Dewis calls it a "Sepbox," which is his particular instrument's trade name, and it's one of the largest on the planet. It is, in effect, a giant mouth, and in cabinets along the wall are jars full of the food he feeds it. The labels look familiar-"oregano," "olives," "coffee"-but there are three jars of each, broken down into flakes or waxy pellets by different solvents.
Dewis digs up all kinds of things to be tasted by his stainless-steel pet. When food scientists suspect that there might be, for example, a molecule in orange peel that makes citrus taste particularly fresh, Dewis feeds extracts of peel to the Sepbox, and out the other end come hundreds of chemical compounds, separated into groups, for further analysis. Then, a few years later, a new flavor of energy drink hits the market.
Once upon a time, flavor research was a matter of asking housewives to munch a few potato chips in the hopes that the company had stumbled on the perfect formula for reconstituting potatoes. But as the science became more sophisticated, and market pressures demanded more novelty and authenticity, flavor scientists had to create new varieties like "Mesquite BBQ" chips to sit alongside regular barbecue flavor. To fill that hungry maw, Dewis and his colleagues work to analyze hundreds of thousands of substances and develop compounds that will please the buying public in four ways-through smell, taste, sensation and emotion. To do so, flavor scientists are homing in on molecules, receptors, brain structures and genetic code that will enable them to create flavors tailored to consumers' palates, health condition, demographics, even genotype. The industry doesn't just talk about things tasting good anymore. Now it's about providing an exceptional flavor "experience." And as scientists learn to exploit the ways we perceive flavor, food manufacturers will be able to refine their products to appeal to us as individuals. Welcome to the world of personally tailored mass-produced food.