How did that cherry lollipop get its flavor? Who made that coffee ice cream taste so much like your beloved cup of Joe with just a hint of … something? It wasn't Willy Wonka or his Oompa Loompas. More likely, it was someone like Jennifer Gowan, a flavor technologist who combines several kinds of synthetic and natural chemicals in just the right amounts to create flavors for soft drinks, cereals, cakes and other foods and beverages.
But while the flavors Gowan creates in a lab are made with precision, her journey to become a flavor technologist was a bit of a fluke.
Gowan was studying animal science at Polk State College in central Florida, with hopes of becoming a veterinarian. She had no clue that a flavor industry existed until she fell into a temp job at a flavor company. The position that was supposed to last two weeks turned into 10 months, until that company created a permanent job for her.
Gowan has since worked at Aromatech Flavorings, Inc. in Orlando for the last year and a half. This month, while representing the company and doling out samples of grilled cheese-flavored cream cheese at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago, U.S. News asked about her job. Her responses have been edited.
How would you define flavor?
A compound of unique chemicals that give a specific taste to a product.
And how do you create flavor?
Basically, when we get a project in, it's a customer contacting us saying they want, for instance, a strawberry flavor. We either pull a strawberry flavor that we have already created, or we create a specific profile for that customer. We also make what we call proactive products. That means we're creating a demo of different flavors and products to present.
What's the basic process of making that strawberry flavor?
It's based on what you know about the raw flavors you're using. A flavor consists of anything from a synthetic chemical to a natural chemical, extracts, oils and essential oils specific to a profile. So you could use, for instance, strawberry extract, strawberry essence and other synthetic or natural chemicals. Butyric acid is one that has a buttery, cheesy flavor; ethyl butyrate is a chemical that gives a fresh fruitiness. So it's taking those unique chemicals that give specific tastes and combining them all into one complex flavor.
The formula you use to decide how much oil or essence or butyric acid you mix – is that just based on other profiles you know, or is it trial and error?
It's some trial and error, but a lot of it's just knowing how strong the raw material is and the built-up experience of knowing how much to put in to get to the impact you want. For instance, if you want a butter flavor, you would use a higher amount butyric acid. But if you're doing a birthday cake flavor, and you want it to have a buttery note, you would use a smaller amount of that butyric acid.
Has this job affected how you think about flavors when you're eating and tasting foods in everyday life?
Absolutely. My husband complains about it all the time, because I'll be like, "Gosh, this tastes like garlic!" and he won't taste any garlic in it. Because of what I do, I have a trained taste palate. And I can actually pick notes out of stuff that no one else will even notice. Of course, once I say it, other people with me will say, "Oh yeah, there is a little taste of that in this."
Is this super-trained palate like a blessing and a curse?
It is, because you're analyzing everything you eat now. And I have a really heightened, sensitive taste palate. So a lot of times when I'm putting my flavors into a product in the lab, and I have my boss taste it, he'll say, "Oh, there's not enough flavor." And I'll be like, "What are you talking about, this is so strong!" So something could taste very strong to me, but you would barely taste it.
What's been your favorite proactive concoction that you've made?
Probably the line of ice creams called Hispanic with Heat. So we had habanero guava, habanero passion fruit, dolce jalapeno, chili mango and chocolate chipotle.
What's your favorite flavor to taste?
Probably caramel, and then passion fruit would be my least favorite.