How MOFAD Lab Packs the Flavor of Tomato into a Tiny Pill, Like a Real-Life Willy Wonka


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.

Against a wall of the MOFAD Lab space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sits a row of five gumball machines. But they don't dispense bubble gum. Instead, they're filled with hundreds of little pills that would look more at home in a pharmacy. A crank of one of the machines' handles doles out a little pill that offers a flavor in its pure and concentrated form. The machines, which require no coins to operate, are part of MOFAD's current exhibit, "Flavor: Making It and Faking It," and they're a way to "taste the exhibition," says Peter Kim, executive director of the museum.

"MOFAD has always talked about an edible component," Kim says, "and we needed to walk the walk."

The first idea was flavored jelly beans. But there were some problems with that plan. For one thing, the process is very expensive. Plus jelly beans need to be sweet, which it difficult to create savory flavors such as the tomato, seaweed, and mushroom pills offered. Next was an idea for Listerine-style strips. Then cereal puffs coated in flavor powder. The team finally settled on making pill-sized tablets. "They allow visitors to really think about how flavor feels without having that food present," says. research assistant Sam Kanson-Benanav. There is very little shape or form to distract from the pure flavor.

The team then set out to create the perfect pill base — one that was neutral but dissolved quickly in the mouth. "In the candy world, they use maltodextrin or dextrose, which are sweet, as the base," Kim says. "In the pharmaceutical world, you're not really meant to be tasting the medicine — they are supposed to be swallowed — so their base powders are too bitter or tacky."

After testing a number of different bases, Kim stumbled upon a solution while cleaning out the old lab of MOFAD founder Dave Arnold: Manischewitz potato starch. Combined with inulin — a lightly sweet powder derived from chicory root that helps the mix flow more smoothly in a pill press — it formed a base with "a slight potato taste and slight sweetness" that is otherwise neutral. The team fondly calls the combination "magic mix."

The magic mix is combined with pure, commercial-grade flavor powder — such as tomato or seaweed — and a touch of magnesium stearate, a lubricant that prevents the powder from sticking to the tablet machine. While the pills — most of which have just four ingredients — are not crafted in the museum, all the research and development for the pills was done on a Stokes Model 519 single punch tablet press, a silver machine that sits in a corner of the exhibit and dates back to the 1970s. Kim acquired a refurbished one — which was previously used for R&D at a pharmaceutical company — from a store in the Bronx. The machine can crank out a tablet a second, or 3,600 an hour. "In one day's time you can get more than a week's worth of museum tablets," says Kanson-Benanav.

Currently, the museum has more than a dozen tablets on display. There are pills to demonstrate the difference between vanilla and its commercial counterpart vanillin. To showcase umami flavors, visitors are offered seaweed, mushroom, tomato, and MSG-flavored pills. There are even pumpkin spice tablets, delivering a straight dose of the popular fall flavor.

Kanson-Benanav explains that the pills can also be combined with one another other, and with the Smell Synth — a mix-and-match scent-emitting device that is also part of the exhibit — to create the flavors of common food items through the simultaneous combination of smells and flavors. The right pairing of just a few pills, can evoke the flavors of pumpkin pie, tomato soup, and even caramel apples. Even better, there's no mess to clean up.

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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