Vacuum distillation in USDA aroma study

FOOD FLAVOURS: 13 KEY STEPS IN HISTORY

Food flavours and flavourings are everywhere, and have been around probably longer than you think. Here’s an interesting article we’d like to share with you about the origins and protagonists of the explosive growth of the flavour industry.

11TH CENTURY: THE ORIGIN OF ESSENTIAL OILS

Long before the first food aromas were synthesized, the Egyptians were the first to extract plant flavours in the form of essential oils.

The Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna discovered that oils can be distilled, extracting the oil and condensing the vapour back into liquid. Giving rise to many essential oils and, for centuries, that industry has been the flavours and aroma industries.

1850’s: FRUIT FOOD FLAVOURS COME INTO ACTION

The first historical records in terms of food aromas is dated in 1851, at the Universal Exhibition of the extinct Crystal Palace in London. In the chemistry section, visitors could stop at stalls and try pear, apple, grape or pineapple sweets. They were flavoured for the first time not with natural agricultural products, but with compounds synthesized in chemical laboratories..

Universal Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851

The 19th Century saw the growth of organic chemistry and the chemical industry, industrialization provided ample material for new experiments. The boom in food aromas began. Some of these chemicals were very aromatic

Distinguished chemist August Hofmann discussed the chemicals behind these imitations of flavours in his report to the exhibition. “The surprising similarity of the smell of these ethers to that of fruit had not escaped the observation of chemistry,” he wrote.

“Who hasn’t noticed the apple smell that filled the lab when working with amyl valerianate?” However, he said, it was “reserved for practical men” who would see the commercial possibilities of these resemblances.

In most cases, these first artificial fruit flavours appear to have involved simple chemicals or simple combinations of esters, diluted in alcohol. As new aromatic chemicals were synthesized and combined, an ever-expanding list of artificial fruit flavours was produced. “Essences are made from almost all fruits, some are perfect in their resemblance to real fruit and others leave a lot to the imagination.”

1860’s: EXTRACTING VANILLIN FROM VANILLA

Nicholas-Theodore Gobley isolates vanillin, the organic compound responsible for the flavour of vanilla, from vanilla beans. It was the first time that someone managed to extract a flavour compound from the ingredient itself, a major development in the science of flavour.  Thus begins the first and greatest blow of synthetic flavours: turning vanilla from a coveted luxury good into an everyday product. For two hundred years after its introduction to the West, vanilla was a precious commodity. Artificial pollination helped increase the world’s supply by allowing the plant to grow outside of its native Mexico.

The real change came when they discovered the molecular structure of vanillin and developed the synthetic flavour of vanilla.

Haarmann food flavour vainilla
1878, Wilhelm Haarmann in his laboratory with Karl Reimer

In 1874, the German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann synthesized vanillin from the bark of a pine tree. When they opened the world’s first vanillin factory in 1875, what was an exotic ingredient became a common and accessible flavour.

1893: THE FIRST EXISTING AROMATIC PRODUCT

Wrigley chewing gum with its distinctive but unspecific “fruit flavour” hits the market and is labelled with the slogan “Chewing gum with the fascinating artificial flavour.” It was very popular and can be considered as the first successful brand to use food flavourings.

In the late 19th century, artificial fruit essences, food flavourings, and other synthetic flavours were widely used in the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain, accompanying the increasing consumption of sugar. Children could buy penny sweets and gum whose strawberry flavour came from various synthetic esters.

Wrigley's gum
Evolution of Wrigley’s Gum Packaging

Young men and women, exhausted by the new fad of biking, could stop at a drugstore for a fizzy soda that owed its fruity appeal to chemicals mixed by the store pharmacist. You could buy jams made cheaply from soft apples and then modified with food flavourings to resemble peach, quince, or blackberry.

How did these knockoff products taste? A soft drink vendor told an inspector investigating the use of imitation flavours in the 1870s that “customers cannot distinguish artificial flavours from true fruit flavours.” A New York extract manufacturer went further, insisting to the inspector that imitation fruit syrups when “made right” are “often preferred by customers to pure fruit” in part because they could be offered in many more flavours.

1906: FOOD FLAVOUR LAWS APPEAR

President Roosevelt signs the Pure Food and Drug Act, making the production, sale, or transportation of poisonous or mislabelled food or drugs a law. Now all “copycat” flavours in food must be labelled, and as studies reveal more about the dangerous side of certain chemicals, public concern about copycat flavours grows.

With few exceptions, little was known about flavouring chemicals in foods prior to the late 1930’s. There are several reasons for this. Dozens or even hundreds of chemicals, called flavours, contribute to what we perceive as the taste and aroma of a food.

Pure Food Drug Act
Commemorative envelope for the 1906 “Pure Food & Drug Act

They are typically present in extremely small amounts, parts per million or even less, which comprise a tiny portion of the complex chemical mix of proteins, fats, sugars, fibre, and other materials in food. Flavour chemicals also tend to be volatile and reactive. Before the 1950’s, isolating and identifying flavour chemicals in food required meticulous and careful work and a lot of equipment.

1914-1918: THE FOOD FLAVOURS INDUSTRY GROWS

During the First World War the food flavour industry was affected because the majority of the market came from Germany. As a result, American companies that used to import these chemicals were forced to start developing their own flavours.

In 1920, government chemists from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to determine the components responsible for the aroma of apples, they used almost a ton of apples, from which they derived less than two grams of volatile aromatic materials, which allowed them to identify five chemicals.

The results on apple flavour chemistry were made public, allowing flavour companies to use it as a base for their aromas. The interwar decades were a period of rapid growth for the food flavour, flavour and fragrance industry around the world.

Vacuum distillation in USDA aroma study
Vacuum distillation in USDA aroma study

As more and more food was produced in factories, the demand for food flavourings intensified. The safe and large-scale production of processed foods involved high temperatures and other conditions that changed the way food looked, tasted or smelled and rarely for personal benefit so that food flavourings could restore palatability that had been eliminated in the prosecution.

The market also brought with it new requirements for standardization, consistency and stability: cookies that would taste the same whether they were bought in Murcia or Galicia, in May or September; canned meat that could offer the same flavour at an equally low price despite an increase in the cost of pepper; soft drinks whose taste would remain permanent and familiar despite the time on the shelf.

Food flavour companies offered the specialized expertise and experienced staff to solve palatability issues and develop unique flavours.

1940S: NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR FLAVOURS

The demand for military rations during World War II channelled public money towards the development of new technologies for stable food processing. Flavour additives, including monosodium glutamate, became one of the best ways to make this processed food taste better. At the same time, the shortage of many foods and spices was pushing the flavour industry to develop artificial substitutes for common ingredients like black pepper and cinnamon.

Much of the research conducted by flavour companies remained proprietary, and the chemical compounds used in specialty food flavour formulations were often closely guarded secrets.

German candy advertisement.
German candy advertisement.

James Broderick commented that when he began his career as a flavour chemist in the 1930’s, the peach flavour made by Fries & Fries was the goal that he and other chemists tried, and failed, to duplicate.

He later learned that the essential component of the powerful peach was produced by accident whilst processing the castor oil used whilst manufacturing an aroma. Another secret component of the peach flavour was derived from an alcohol-soaked wedge of cheese, which was left to ripen near an oven.

1950S: THE GOLDEN AGE

In the 1950’s, consumers seemed to be faced with an unprecedented array of options; snacks, sweets and prepared meals in a fascinating range of varieties.

Manufacturers had always competed on price and invested heavily in advertising, but now taste was important to customers. In a 1947 article the General Mills Vice President of Research emphasized the importance of developing flavours that were attractive, distinctive, unique, and memorable. Ideally, he wrote, a flavour will serve “as an incorporated trademark that will invariably be identified by its brand name and producer.”

The “golden age of processed foods” was also a golden age of chemical additives. In a 1953 pamphlet from the Association of Chemical Manufacturers that celebrated the “continuing progress of the chemical industry in meeting basic human needs,” it highlighted the role of chemicals in producing not only more food, but more food that tasted better, was more nutritious, and cost less.

“Nothing sells like flavour” was a 1950’s slogan for Fritzsche Brothers, a leading company in flavours and fragrances. One competitor, Dodge & Olcott, called the flavour “the silent salesman”. “Flavour comes out with your customer, goes to the table and is your personal ‘door-to-door’ salesperson. The final impression that this seller created decided the final destination of his product”.

Food flavours advertisement.
Food flavours advertisement.

The flavour companies promised synthetic flavours that were convincingly naturalistic, but lasted “through months and months of shelf life.” During this stage the first flavoured crisps were invented by the Irish company Tayto. There were two flavours to start with: cheese and onion, and vinaigrette. Soon after, flavoured crisps appeared in the United States, with barbecue and sour cream & onion flavours.

“Almost all foods, produced with the help of chemicals,” the brochure instructed, “are improved for consumers by food technologists who use chemicals to make them cleaner, tastier, or more nutritious than the diet of a generation ago”.

1955: THE CHROMATOGRAPH, A VARIETY OF FOOD FLAVOURS

The food flavouring industry would change radically in 1955, with the debut of a powerful new analytical instrument: the Perkin-Elmer Vapor Refractometer.

This was the first commercially successful gas chromatograph (GC). A small sample of a complex mixture, such as a strawberry juice, introduced into the machine would vaporize and flash as it passed through thin lined glass columns, carried by a neutral gas.

Perkin-Elmer gas chromatograph Model 184
Perkin-Elmer gas chromatograph Model 184

As it travels through the machine, the complex mixture converts into volatile components depending on the different boiling points. As the fractionated gas exited the GC, it triggered a detector, which produced a graph whose peaks and troughs indicated components of different boiling points. With the GC the task of isolating and identifying the complex components that contribute to the flavour of a food became substantially less daunting. In the two decades after GC’s debut, thousands of new volatile flavour chemicals were isolated and identified.

1960-70S: MORE REGULATION OF FOOD FLAVOURS

An amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that required manufacturers to prove that their food additives are safe, established a list of chemicals that are “generally considered safe.”

The list facilitates 700 additives, all pre-approved for use, to become standard ingredients in manufacturers’ repertoire. Despite increasing regulation and the growing shift towards organic and healthy foods in the 1960’s and 1970’s, flavour additives continued to play an important role in the creation of food. Here is the FDA list updated to date.

The fears of the Cold War was only a recent example of the old anxieties about food supply. If one day we had to live on food made from algae, yeasts, soybeans and petrochemical derivatives, food flavourings would add flavour and play a crucial role in making these foods more palatable or even delicious.

On a more mundane note, as an increasing number of citizens tried to take better care of themselves and looked after their body, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, food flavourings, and expert aromas were needed to make the new category of “diet food” less “sacrificed”.


Millions of people today live on low-calorie or salt-free and sugar-free diets. Whether for health or aesthetic reasons, this group is constantly growing and with it the market for diet and low calorie foods.

Advertisement for a flavored diet product.
Advertisement for a flavored diet product.

Providing an attractive taste to foods that lack sugar or salt is complex, and taste differences to some degree are inevitable. However, the flavourist or flavour chemist can, through diligent investigation, provide an acceptable taste for such foods thanks to the food flavourings.

1980: FOOD FLAVOUR BECOMES COMPLEX

Political turmoil in Madagascar, where most of the vanilla is grown, was causing vanilla prices to skyrocket. McCormick, a vanilla producer, in need of an alternative to keep up with demand, begins to develop a false vanilla flavour that is more complex than basic vanillin.

Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry they were able to identify components of the vanilla and use them to prepare their own nearly identical mixture. In 1982 McCormick’s “Vanilla Imitation” hit the market.

McCormick's Vanilla
McCormick’s Vanilla

2000: THE TREND TOWARDS NATURAL FOOD FLAVOURS

In the 21st Century, our food cravings 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. We look for what we call natural.

Since the 1970’s, the FDA has defined a natural flavour as “essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extract, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any roasting, heating, or enzymolysis product, which contains the flavour components derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, grass, bark, shoot, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products or fermentation products thereof”. Artificial flavours are derived from anything not on that list.

In the FDA definition, the difference between natural and artificial depends largely on the raw material with which you start. But in the end it is chemistry and the work of flavourists from companies like IGH Flavours & Technology that produce liquid , powdered , “natural” and “artificial” flavours for the sector.

In fact, the same synthetic chemical additive can be produced as an “artificial” or “natural” flavour. But the second is being sold as a price because of consumer desires for that comforting word.

Flavours factory IGH Flavours, Murcia
Flavours factory IGH Flavours, Murcia

Drawing a bright and clear line between “natural” and “artificial” has never been easy, because it has always been more of a cultural distinction than a real one. As we demand more and more from our food, it is important to remember that food can also be chemical, that flavours have long depended on science and technology, and that the complex problem of improving the health of our bodies and our planet will require more than simple solutions.

2010-20’s: THE FUTURE OF FOOD FLAVOURS

Scientists devise a type of yeast that produces vanillin as a by-product when it feeds on sugar. Because it is not a chemical derivative, this vanillin can be labelled “natural,” an important selling point in a culture where artificial ingredients are under suspicion.

Manipulating yeast to produce flavour is becoming big business, and biotech start-ups are attracting big investment. Science is advancing at an exponential rate and who knows…In a couple of decades we may have “natural” sugar with no calories in our kitchen cupboards.