How Scientists Make Vanilla From Cow Poop And 17 Other Cool Facts About Flavorings

Vanilla Extract

Photo: Wikipedia

Last night we attended a class about natural and artificial flavours taught by the Brooklyn Brainery’s Jonathan Soma. And boy did we learn a lot!From the difference between real and imitation vanilla to chemicals that make up popular spices, here are some of the highlights.  

Although true taste occurs on the tongue, it is only one piece of the puzzle that makes up flavour. As much as 80 per cent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from smell.

Everything we smell or taste is a response to chemicals.

The characteristic smell of cloves, for example, comes from one chemical called eugenol.

So, both artificial and natural flavours contain chemicals. The distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is the SOURCE of chemicals. Natural flavours come from anything that can be eaten (i.e animals and vegetables). Artificial flavours come from anything that is inedible (i.e petroleum).

The FDA's definition of an artificial flavour, by the way, is any substance that does not meet the definition of a natural flavour.

Why do we use artificial flavours? Well the synthetic chemicals in artificial flavours generally cost less to produce than finding natural sources of chemicals. They are also potentially safer because they have been rigorously tested and used.

The compound vanillin, for example, is responsible for the flavour and smell of vanilla. In nature, vanillin comes from an orchid native to Mexico. The process of extracting this pure, natural chemical is extremely lengthy and expensive. So scientists found a way to make a synthetic version of vanillin in a lab.

One way to get vanillin: In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto figured out how to extract vanillin from cow poop. She was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University for this development.

Most people don't realise that there can be as many chemicals in a food's natural flavour as its artificial counterpart. The number of chemical ingredients used to make the artificial strawberry flavour in a fast food strawberry shake, for example, is comparable to the number of chemicals in a fresh strawberry.

Some natural flavours can be more dangerous than the artificial ones. Traces of cyanide can be found in almond flavour, or Benzaldehyde, when derived from nature (that's why in movies, the smell of bitter of almonds on the victim is often linked to cyanide poisoning).

Raw soybeans, from which soy sauce is made, are also toxic.

Industrial soy sauce (the stuff you find in convenient to-go packets) is made from acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein, not boiled soybeans.

Cinnamon, which is just the dried inner-bark of specific trees, gets its aroma and flavour from the compound cinnamaldehyde. There are three types of cinnamon: Indonesian (common cinnamon sticks), cassia and ceylon.

Artificial grape-flavour is derived from a chemical in concord (purple) grapes — not the red or green grapes we're used to buying in supermarkets. This is why artificial grape-flavored things like candy, soft drinks and Dimetapp are purple and why store-bought grapes taste nothing like this fake stuff.

You'll find all sorts of flavours in the capital of excess

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