The Inexorable Rise Of Synthetic Flavor: A Pictorial History

From vanilla to GMOs, how science shaped the taste of the modern world

1851 Crystal Palace

Artificial flavors first enter the historical record in 1851, at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London, that great Victorian anthology of the world's technologies, treasures, and bric-a-brac. Visitors tarrying at the stalls of perfumers from Paris, Leipzig, or London might have sampled pear, apple, grape, or pineapple candies, flavored for the first time not with the products of agriculture, but with compounds synthesized in chemical laboratories.

The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of organic chemistry and the growth of the chemical industry, as industrialization provided ample carbon-rich material for chemists' new experiments with synthesis. Some of these chemicals were strongly aromatic. August Hofmann, the distinguished chemist and member of the Royal Society, analyzed the chemicals behind these imitation flavors in his report to the Crystal Palace exhibition jury. "The striking similarity of the smell of these ethers to that of fruit had not escaped the observation of chemistry," he wrote. Who hadn't noticed the rotten-apple stink that filled the lab when working with amyl valerianate? However, he said, it was "reserved to practical men" to realize the commercial possibilities in these resemblances, tinkering with formulas and devising compounds that could pass for the real thing.

In most cases, these first artificial fruit flavors seem to have involved single chemicals or simple combinations of esters, diluted in alcohol. Many writers couldn't resist noting that these pleasant, fruity chemicals derived from "substances of intensely disgusting odor" such as fusel oil, a foul-smelling waste product of alcohol fermentation.

As new aromatic chemicals were synthesized and combined, it produced an expanding list of artificial fruit flavors. "Artificial essences of nearly every fruit are made," wrote one commentator in 1864, "some of which are absolutely perfect in their resemblance to the real fruit essence, while others leave a great deal to the imagination."

Harrison's extracts

Library of Congress

By the end of the nineteenth century, artificial fruit essences and other synthetic flavors were in wide use in the United States, Germany, France, and Britain, accompanying the growing consumption of sugar. Children could buy penny-candies whose strawberry flavor came from various synthetic esters, made vivid red with chemical dyes. Young men and women, exhausted from indulging in the new fad for bicycling, could stop in at a drug-store soda fountain for an effervescent refreshment which owed its alluring fruitiness to chemicals mixed up by the store's pharmacist. Urban housewives could buy jams manufactured in factories, made cheaply from bland apples and then doctored with additives to resemble currant, peach, quince, and blackberry.

How did these imitation products taste? A cream soda vendor told a Massachusetts Board of Health inspector investigating the use of imitation flavors in the 1870s that "customers cannot distinguish the artificial from the true fruit flavors." A New York extract manufacturer went further, insisting to the inspector that when "properly made," imitation fruit syrups "are often preferred to the pure fruit" by customers, in part because they could be offered in so many more flavors.

Other accounts disagree. "No amount of chemical skill can imitate the fine flavors of many fruits," wrote Charles Sulz in 1888, in a handbook for soft drink and beverage makers, which included formulas for imitation flavorings. "With a very few exceptions, these artificial syrups are at best very poor counterfeits.... However, where a cheap product is required, artificial fruit essences will answer."

Synfleur Vanillodeur 1913

Library of Congress

With the industrialization of American food production, food safety became an important political issue. People were sickened and died after eating spoiled canned foods or contaminated condiments; muckraking journalists publicized the foul conditions under which milk and meat and were produced. Sophisticated chemical additives including preservatives, flavors, and colors were seen as part of the problem, concealing damage and inferiority, and sometimes causing sickness. Building on growing public concern, a progressive coalition passed a series of state and local reforms, culminating in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, a groundbreaking federal law that required inspection and labeling of food products.

The 1906 law also had consequences for flavoring additives. For the first time, the law created a statutory distinction between "natural" and "artificial." Products flavored with synthetic chemicals would have to proclaim themselves "imitation" or "compound" on their labels, a designation that was meant to prevent consumers from being defrauded and paying more for ersatz goods.

Although reputable flavor extract manufacturers seem to have largely supported the law, they pushed back against what they considered ill-informed, unscientific slurs against the modern products of their chemical industry. They challenged the notion that their products were "impure," arguing that by the chemists' definition of purity, synthetics were actually much purer than naturally derived goods. They also protested persistent accusations that their products were hazardous. In 1913, the secretary of the recently formed Flavor and Extract Manufacturer's Association called for an organized campaign to combat negative publicity that unfairly grouped flavor manufacturers with "adulterators, food poisoners, and drug dopesters."

Alois von Isakovics, chief chemist and founder of Synfleur, one of the earliest American synthetic aromatic chemical companies, claimed that the law had actually increased sales of his products. "Previously the chemist did not get credit for the work he did, because many a manufacturer made a synthetic flavor and labeled it 'Genuine,' when it was in reality made from synthetic substances entirely," he wrote in 1908. "To-day the product is labeled truthfully and sells just as well... proving conclusively... that the public will buy a product just as quickly when properly labeled."

His advocacy for the virtues of synthetic flavorings can be seen in the advertisement above for the company's imitation vanilla flavoring, from a 1913 issue of the American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review.

Vanillodeur, the ad copy read, is "the only material in existence that will duplicate in its entirety, the fragrance of the finest Vanilla Bean." In fact, it was "something BETTER than Vanilla Beans; an Imitation under the Pure Food Law," — they were required to include this — "it develops much finer, more intense vanilla effects than the finest Beans, owing to the entire absence of impurities and resinous matter."

The message here was clear: synthetics can be even better than the real thing.

USDA Flavor Study Vacuum Distillation

Library of Congress

In order to enforce the Pure Food Law's labeling requirements, government chemists had to be able to distinguish authentic from synthetic. This was no simple task. In some cases, as with vanillin, first synthesized in the 1870s, the synthetic chemical was identical to the molecule found in nature. In many other cases, the relationship between the flavor chemical in the additive and in the genuine article was unknown. Methyl anthranilate, for instance, was widely used in imitation grape flavors for more than a decade before it was also detected in actual grapes.

With few exceptions, little was known about flavor chemicals in foods before the late 1930s. There are various reasons for this. Dozens or even hundreds of chemicals contribute to what we perceive as the flavor and aroma of a food. Typically, each is present in extremely small quantities, parts per million or even less, comprising a minute portion of the complex chemical mixture of proteins, fats, sugars, fiber, and other matter in food. Flavor chemicals also tend to be volatile and reactive. Prior to the 1950s, isolating and identifying the flavor chemicals in foods demanded meticulous and careful work, and a lot of material.

For instance, government chemists at the USDA in the 1920s trying to determine the chemicals responsible for the aroma of apples started with nearly a ton of apples, from which they derived less than two grams of volatile aromatic materials, which allowed them to identify five chemicals.

But basic research into the chemical components of food flavors shaped the way flavors were made. The results of USDA research into the chemistry of apple flavor was made available as a public patent, allowing flavor companies to draw on its findings as a basis for their synthetic additives.

Magnus Mabee & Reynard ad with plane and flavor fashions, 1940

The interwar decades were a period of rapid growth for the flavor and fragrance industry in the United States.

As more and more food was produced in factories, the demand for flavor additives intensified. The safe, large-scale production of processed food often involved high heat and other conditions that changed the way food looked, tasted, and smelled, rarely to its advantage; flavor additives could restore palatability that had been removed in processing. A national market for processed food also brought new requirements for standardization, consistency, stability: biscuits that would taste the same whether they were bought in Florida or Michigan, in May or September; canned meat that could deliver the same taste at same low price despite a spike in the cost of pepper; soda whose flavor would remain vivid and familiar despite months on a grocery-store shelf. Flavor companies such as Fritzsche Brothers, Firmenich, and Magnus, Mabee & Reynard offered food manufacturers the specialized expertise and experienced personnel to solve flavor problems and develop unique flavors.

An essential component was produced by accident, when a mistake in castor oil processing filled the factory with a powerful, peachy aroma.

Much of the research conducted by flavor companies remained proprietary, and the chemical compounds used in specialty formulations were often closely held secrets. James Broderick recalled that when he began his career as a flavor chemist in the 1930s, a peach flavor made by Fries & Fries, a Cincinnati firm, was the target that he and other chemists tried, and failed, to duplicate. He later learned that one essential component in their formula had been produced by accident, when a mistake in castor oil processing filled the factory with a powerful, peachy aroma. (Another secret chemical component in Fries' peach flavor was derived from an alcohol-soaked wedge of cheese, left to ripen near a basement furnace.)

Improving the flavor quality of processed foods took on new national importance during World War II. The Army Quartermaster Subsistence Research Laboratory worked on making military rations palatable. Source: Library of Congress.

What it meant to work with flavors would change radically in 1955, with the debut of a powerful new analytic instrument: the Perkin-Elmer Vapor Fractometer.

This was the first commercially successful gas chromatograph (GC). A small sample of a complex mixture, such as strawberry juice, fed into the machine would be vaporized and revaporized as it passed through thin, coated glass columns, carried by a neutral gas. As it traveled through the machine, the complex mixture would resolve into its component volatiles based on differences in boiling point or polarity. As the fractionated gas left the GC, it triggered a detector, which produced a chart — the chromatograph itself — whose peaks and valleys indicated components of different boiling points. With the GC and other technologies, such as mass spectroscopy, the task of isolating and identifying the complex components that contributed to the flavor of a food was rendered substantially less daunting. In the two decades after the GC's debut, thousands of new volatile flavor chemicals were isolated and identified.

Although the GC was "a powerful tool for unlocking nature's secrets on flavor composition," in the words of one flavor chemist, its wide use did not mean that flavorists were relegated to replicating the results of their chromatograph charts, synthetically reproducing natural flavors molecule by molecule. On the contrary, the output of these machines needed substantial interpretation. Flavor chemists would typically sniff the fractionated, annotating the chromatograph when an intriguingly smelly fraction was eluted. (A common hazard of a too-intense sniffing session was a bloody nose.)

It was widely recognized that a too-literal reading of a chromatograph's results would produce unsatisfactory flavors that were somehow "off." The nose of the trained flavorist would always be more sensitive than the machine, and the flavorist's creative use of the machine's information was a sign of his or her skill. In a speech at the twentieth annual meeting of the Society of Flavor Chemists in 1974, Richard Potter, a flavor chemist at Givaudan, cautioned fellow flavorists against becoming “a slave to the instrument” and forgetting “your own artistic initiative.” “Remember,” he said, “gas chromatography is a tool which provides information; the flavorist uses this to provide answers.”

Flavorist working at a gas chromatograph, late 1950sGivaudan Flavorist

Consumers, pushing their shopping carts down the spacious aisles of air-conditioned 1950s supermarkets, seemed to face an unprecedented array of choices. Ready-made, and in a bewitching range of varieties.

Food manufacturers had long competed on price and convenience, and invested heavily in advertising, but in the newly competitive food market, flavor was increasingly important in winning over customers and getting them to buy, and buy again. A 1947 article by the VP for Research at General Mills emphasized the importance of developing flavors that were appealing, distinctive, unique, and memorable. Ideally, he wrote, a flavor will serve "as a built-in trade-mark which will invariably be identified with its brand name and its producer."

"Nothing sells like flavor," ran a 1950s slogan for Fritzsche Brothers, a leading flavor and fragrance company, shown above. A contemporary ad from competitor Dodge & Olcott, shown above, called flavor a company's "silent saleman": "Flavor goes out of the store with your customer — it goes to the table and becomes in essence your personal 'door to door' salesman. The final impression this salesman creates decides the ultimate fate of your product."

Flavor companies promised synthetic flavors that were convincingly naturalistic, but that lasted “through months and months of shelf life.”

The "golden age of processed foods" was also a golden age of chemical additives.

A 1953 booklet from the Manufacturing Chemists' Association celebrating the chemical industry's "continuing progress in satisfying basic human needs," highlighted the role of chemicals in producing not only more food, but food that tasted better, was more nutritious, cost less, and which meant "less drudgery for mother" than the food of the past. "Almost every foodstuff, produced with the aid of chemical products," the booklet instructed, "is further improved for consumers by food technologists using chemicals to make it cleaner, tastier or more nutritious than the diet a generation ago."

But the increased number and variety of food chemicals drew renewed scrutiny to their safety, and a series of congressional investigations examined whether insecticide and pesticide residues, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and other additives were related to increased rates of cancer and other health problems.

Flavors were not exempt from suspicion. Coumarin, used since the nineteenth century as a component of vanilla and other sweet flavors, was voluntarily removed from flavoring additives in 1953 after studies showed that it caused liver damage in rats. In 1958, safrole, long used to flavor root beer, was withdrawn out of similar concerns.

The Food Additives Amendment, which became law in 1958, imposed a new set of requirements for food chemicals. But regulating flavor chemicals directly proved to be too big a task for the federal government. Because of the large number of chemicals used in flavor additives — more than 1,100 in 1959 — and because of the low levels in which they are generally found in foods, soon after the law passed, the FDA reached an unprecedented agreement with the flavor industry, exempting most flavor chemicals then in use from the law's testing requirements. The permissibility of new chemicals is determined by an expert panel assembled by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, the industry's leading trade group. In an arrangement that has recently come under fire for lack of transparency and apparent conflict of interest, this group of experts reviews the toxicological and usage data for each proposed chemical, assessing its safety. The list of these permissible chemicals, known as GRAS, for "Generally Recognized As Safe," dictates the flavor chemicals that can be used in food flavors today. The 27th edition the list, published last year, contained nearly 3000 chemicals.

According to the Manufacturing Chemists Association, flavor additives made “modern foods delightful, varied." Source: “Your Food and Chemical Research,” Manufacturing Chemists Association, 1953.

Despite increasing regulation and a growing countercultural turn toward organic and health foods in the 1960s and 1970s, flavor additives and flavor chemistry continued to play an important role in the imagination of future foods.

Cold War anxieties of a "population bomb" imperiling global survival were only the most recent instance of old anxieties about the food supply. If we would have to one day live on meals of algae, yeasts, soy, and petrochemical derivatives, flavor additives would play a crucial role in making these morsels palatable or even delicious.

On a more mundane note, as increasing numbers of Americans watched their waistlines, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, flavor additives, and skilled flavorists, were needed to make this new category of "diet food" less punishing.

In the words of an advertisement from Doge & Olcott:

More than 35 million Americans live today on low calorie or salt and sugar-free diets. For either health or cosmetic reasons, this group is steadily increasing… and with it the market for dietetic and low calorie foods. Providing taste appeal for foods lacking either sugar or salt — and sometimes both — is an extremely difficult problem, and flavor differences in some degree are inevitable. However, the flavor chemist can, by diligent research provide an acceptable flavor for such foods.

Flavor science promised the possibility of “entirely new flavors,” familiar but also new, suited for both “those who go off into space and those who stay at home." Source: Food Technology, December 1966.

In the twenty-first century, our food anxieties have only increased. We want food that is "good" — good for us, good for the environment, convenient, affordable, tasty, but also virtuous, real, and pure. For many of us, that means reaching for foods that call themselves "natural" or advertise their freedom from artificial "toxins" and technological moral hazards (such as GMOs). This, no doubt, is behind the recent announcement by General Mills that it will remove all artificial flavors and colors from its cereals by 2017.

As the demand for natural flavors and natural foods has intensified, so has the confusion about what, exactly, natural means. Since the 1970s, the FDA has defined a natural flavor as "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof." Artificial flavors are derived from anything not on that list. Totally clear, right?

In the FDA's definition, the difference between natural and artificial depends largely on the raw material you starting with. But it's all chemistry after that, and the skilled work of flavorists at companies such as Givaudan, Firmenich, and International Flavors & Fragrances, which produce both "natural" and "artificial" flavors for food manufacturers. Indeed, the same synthetic chemical additive can be produced as either a "natural" or "artificial" flavor, with "natural" versions fetching a premium due to consumer desires for that comforting word.

Drawing a clear, bright line between "natural" and "artificial" has never been easy, because it's always been more of a cultural distinction than an actual one. As we demand more and more from our food, it's important to remember that foods can also be chemicals, that flavors have long depended on science and technology, and that the complex problem of improving the health of our bodies and our planet will take more than simple solutions.

Nadia Berenstein is a Ph.D. candidate in History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania; her dissertation tells the story of the history of synthetic flavors and flavor science in the United States. You can read more about her research on her blog, Flavor Added, or follow her on Twitter @thebirdisgone.