A Brief History of Making and Faking Flavor

A timeline of the fascinating flavor industry, from the fake vanilla factories of the 19th century to the artificial sugar-producing yeasts of the future.

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

When was the first artificial flavor created? Why are we so scared of MSG? Is yeast the next big thing in artificial flavoring? Artificial flavors are everywhere, and they've been around probably longer than you think. Here, in condensed form, is a history of the origins and explosive growth of the flavor industry.

11TH Century: Essential oil innovation

Way before the first artificial flavors were synthesized, Ancient Egyptians were the first to extract flavors and scents from plants in the form of essential oils. In the 11th century, the Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna, also called Ibn Sina, figures out that oils can be distilled in much the same way alcohol is, by steaming plants, which extracts the oil, and then condensing the steam back into liquid. This leads to many more essential oils, and for centuries, that industry is the flavor industry (and the scent industry).




1851: ARTIFICIAL FRUIT FLAVOR HITS THE SCENE

The first artificially flavored candy is displayed in the chemistry section of the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace, as one of many marvels of modern science. The candies come in varieties like grape, pineapple, apple, and pear, all flavored with chemicals accidentally discovered by scientists in the new field of organic chemistry. By the late 19th century, there are about 20 basic artificial flavors on the market, which can be mixed to make even more.


1858: TAKING THE VANILLIN OUT OF VANILLA

Nicholas-Theodore Gobley isolates vanillin, the organic compound mainly responsible for vanilla’s flavor, from vanilla beans. It’s the first time anyone has managed to extract a flavor compound from the ingredient itself, a major development in the science of flavor. The discovery paves the way, in 1874, for German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann to synthesize vanillin from the bark of a pine tree. When the pair opens the world’s first vanillin factory in 1875, what was a rare, exotic ingredient becomes a common, accessible flavor.

1893: JUICY FRUIT DEBUTS

Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, with its distinct but totally unspecific and artificial fruit flavor, hits the market. In the 1940s, Wrigley’s begins labeling Juicy Fruit with the slogan "The gum with the fascinating artificial flavor."

1906: THE GOVERNMENT GETS INVOLVED

President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Pure Food and Drug Act into law, making it illegal to produce, sell, or transport food or drugs that are poisonous or mislabeled. Now all "imitation" flavors in food must be labeled, and, as studies reveal more about the dangerous side of certain chemicals, public concern over imitation flavors grows.


1908: A NEW SOURCE OF DELICIOUSNESS

While sipping soup, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda notices a taste in the seaweed-based broth that is neither salty, sweet, sour, nor bitter, but something else. It’s the taste, he says, of "deliciousness" — in Japanese, "umami." A year later, he produces monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a stable, salt-like version of the source of that deliciousness, glutamic acid, and begins selling it as a seasoning under the brand name Ajinomoto.




1914-1918: THE AMERICAN FLAVOR INDUSTRY GROWS

When World War I puts a stop to all trade between the United States and Germany, the flavor industry is hit hard, because most of the artificial flavors on the market are made in Germany. As a result, American companies that used to import these chemicals are forced to start developing their own flavors.

1939-1945: WAR MEANS NEW TECHNOLOGY

The demand for military rations during World War II funnels public money into developing new technology for processing food into a shelf-stable form. Flavor additives, including MSG, become one of the best ways to make this processed food taste better. At the same time, shortages of many foods and spices push the American flavor industry to develop artificial substitutes for common ingredients like black pepper and cinnamon.




1950s: A DEVELOPMENT FOR SNACKING

The first flavored potato chips are invented by the Irish company Tayto. There are two flavors to start: cheese and onion, and salt and vinegar. Soon after, flavored potato chips appear in the United States, in either barbecue or sour cream and onion.

1958: MORE REGULATION

An amendment to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, which requires manufacturers to prove that their food additives are safe, establishes a list of chemicals that are "generally regarded as safe." The list makes FDA testing easier on manufacturers, and the 700 additives on it — all pre-approved for use without additional testing — become standard ingredients in their repertoire (if they weren't already).

1968: MSG's BAD RAP

Robert Ho Man Kwok coins the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome" in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, describing how terrible he feels after eating Chinese food. He speculates that MSG is to blame, and though no study ever proves him right, MSG’s reputation is ruined.

1976: ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR IS GETTING COMPLEX

Political upheaval in Madagascar, where most vanilla is grown, causes vanilla bean prices to skyrocket. McCormick, in need of an alternative to keep up with demand, begins developing a fake vanilla flavor that’s more complex than basic vanillin. Using modern technology like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, the McCormick team can identify more of the many individual chemical flavor components of vanilla, then use that data to concoct their own, nearly identical blend.




1982: THE NEW FAKE VANILLA

McCormick’s "Imitation Vanilla" hits the market.

1990: THE SIXTH FLAVOR?

A team of researchers at MSG-maker Ajinomoto finds a compound in garlic that enhances sweetness, saltiness, and umami, adding to the complexity and what they call the "mouthfulness" of flavors. The scientists deem this effect a sixth taste: kokumi. Kokumi compounds are also found in things like cheese and scallops, and though it's still not widely recognized as the sixth flavor, it shows just how little we still know about the way taste works.







2009: THE NEW NATURAL

Scientists engineer a type of yeast that produces vanillin as a byproduct when it feeds on sugar. Because it’s not chemically derived, this vanillin can be labelled as "natural," a major selling point in a culture where artificial ingredients are eyed with suspicion.

2014: THE NEXT BIG THING

A Swiss flavor company, Evolva, puts its yeast-produced biosynthetic vanillin on sale in the U.S. There’s some backlash from GMO opponents — the vanillin itself isn’t genetically modified, but the yeast that spits it out is — and Häagen-Dazs vows never to use it. Still, manipulating yeast to churn out flavor is becoming big business, and biotech startups like Gingko Bioworks are pulling in big investments from major venture capitalists. The biggest prize still to be won? "Natural," calorie-free sugar.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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