“Modern chicken has no flavor” — let’s make it in a lab

KFC, Subway and other chains know natural flavors don't survive mass production. Here's how they fake it

Topics: Books, Food, Processed food, KFC, Chipotle, Editor's Picks,

"Modern chicken has no flavor" -- let's make it in a lab (Credit: Pressmaster via Shutterstock)

Of the roughly five thousand additives allowed into food, over half are flavorings. These thousands of taste molecules serve not only as window-dressing designed to make food hyperappealing, but often as the very foundation of the house itself. Consider KFC’s gravy, a product with at least seven flavoring ingredients, or nearly a third of the total:

Food Starch-Modified, Maltodextrin, Enriched Wheat Flour (Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Chicken Fat, Wheat Flour, Salt, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Monosodium Glutamate, Dextrose, Palm and Canola Oils, Mono- and Diglycerides, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Natural and Artificial Flavor (with Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Milk), Caramel Color (Treated with Sulfiting Agents), Onion Powder, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Spice, Spice Extractives, with Not More Than 2% Silicon Dioxide Added as an Anticaking Agent.

This is an unusual example in the sense that you can identify most of the flavorings. More often than not, you can’t. They are tucked into the opaque designations natural flavors and artificial flavors, which include things you can taste — fruits; spicy notes; savory, salty and tangy flavors like lemon or vinegar — and substances you can’t, because they’re being used to cover up unwanted flavor. Many ingredients that go into processed food don’t actually taste very good and need to be masked. In addition to soy protein, there’s the bitter taste of most artificial sweeteners and preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which impart what’s known as “preservation burn.” The German company Wild has a product to modify the taste of stevia. “It has this horrible liquorice flavor that lingers,” noted Marie Wright, chief flavorist at the company. Added vitamins taste, unsurprisingly, vitamin-y. B1, in particular, can have a rotten-egg aroma.

A chef would make a gravy using poultry fat and stock, along with butter, onions, flour, cream, salt, pepper and maybe white wine, but industrial processors, for the most part, don’t have this luxury. Using real ingredients is not only more expensive, it’s often ineffective, since Mother Nature’s volatile and fragile flavors often don’t fare well during journeys through the assembly line. The potions produced by Wild; International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF); Gividuan, the world’s largest flavor company; the Swiss company Firmenich; the German outfit Symrise; Sensient, which is based in Cincinnati; and a handful of others are much more sturdy.



“If you take a fresh strawberry after processing, it’s nothing. It tastes like nothing,” said Wright, as a way of explaining why the food industry is so reliant on the $12 billion global flavoring industry.

Some of the demand for flavoring is related to how plants and animals are grown and raised. Wright urged me to try a taste test at home if I was so inclined. Take three different whole chickens, she said — an average, low-priced frozen one from the supermarket; a mass-produced organic version like Bell and Evans; and what she termed a “happy chicken.” This was a bird that had spent its life outside running around and eating an evolutionary diet of grass, seeds, bugs and worms. Roast them in your kitchen and note the taste. The cheap chicken, she said, will have minimal flavor, thanks to its short life span, lack of sunlight and monotonous diet of corn and soy. The Bell and Evans will have a few “roast notes and fatty notes,” and the happy chicken will be “incomparable,” with a deep, succulent, nutty taste. Wright, as you might imagine, prefers consuming chickens of the happy variety, which her husband, who is also a flavorist (he works from home as a consultant), is generally the one to cook.

I already knew a little bit about this. Several months before meeting Wright, I’d gotten a tutorial on how some of the flavors of “happy chicken” can be reproduced. In the middle of suburban New Jersey, I visited a company called Savoury Systems International, a small, specialized player in the flavor universe. As its name suggests, the company creates savory, meatlike flavorings for the food industry. Its offices are located in the front corner of a generic office park in Branchburg, and like all flavor operations with labs or finished ingredients on-site, the office was permeated with a smell. It evolved throughout the day. As I entered the building, it was sweet, fruity and meaty, like someone was baking chicken nugget–flavored Lifesavers. Later, on my way out, it smelled more like hot dog buns. The Air Wick plugged into an outlet in the small lobby had been outmatched.

Inside the lab, just past the lobby, Kevin McDermott, Savoury Systems’ young, eager technical sales manager, offered me a taste test. The first was a powder made from actual chicken parts. He mixed it with some warm water and poured it into two small plastic cups for us to sip. I contemplated the pale yellow liquid warily and then tried a bit. It was weak and washed out — a bit revolting. McDermott got out another plastic bin of powder, scooped out a little and mixed it in a beaker with warm water. This was hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP. Made from soybeans, HVP is one of the core ingredients used to construct the company’s meat flavorings such as “roast chicken type flavor” and “natural juicy beef flavor.” The HVP liquid tasted great, like juicy chicken infused with soy sauce. It tasted a whole lot more like chicken than the real article. McDermott gave me another HVP to try, this one with a darker, almost burnt flavor. Also delicious.

Vegetarian substances like HVP and yeast extracts, which Savoury Systems also uses, can be made to taste exactly like chicken or beef because they mimic the flavor of meat on a molecular level. On its own, soy protein doesn’t have any meat flavor, but cleave it apart into its component amino acids (which are the building blocks of all proteins), and dynamic flavors emerge. Some of them, like that from leucine and valine, are truly nasty; other amino acids trigger our taste buds in pleasurable ways. Glutamate, for instance, is the reason monosodium glutamate (MSG) is such a useful flavoring ingredient. Glutamate also imparts flavor to HVP and yeast extracts, though it’s present at lower concentrations than in MSG.

When I asked Dave Adams, the food scientist who founded Savoury Systems, why actual meat is such an inferior source for the chicken flavor that, strangely enough, goes into chicken, he gave me the same answer Wright did. Modern chicken, he grumbled, has no flavor. “They grow them so fast, they don’t have time to develop flavor,” he said. And chicken — even tasteless, scrap stuff — is more expensive than soy.

To get HVP, a de-oiled soybean meal (or cornmeal) is boiled in large vats of hydrochloric acid for six hours, wrenching apart protein molecules into amino acids. Corn syrup can be added to the mixture to yield a more intense browning flavor. The solution is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide, which leaves the final product with an abundance of sodium. (In response to the food industry’s emphasis on sodium reduction, some HVP makers have tried to produce lower-sodium versions, with varying degrees of success.) Yeast extracts are made in a similar fashion, although no chemicals are needed. Yeast cells are killed with an excess of salt and heat, triggering the organism’s own enzymes to break down its protein into amino acids. Hence the term autolyzed (self-digested) yeast extract.

At IFT 12 in Las Vegas, I stopped by the booth of a flavor company called Innova to experience the magic of these flavors in actual food. Scientists, all wearing long, blue, collared shirts that matched the hue of the thick cerulean rugs underfoot, were serving up crock pots of what tasted like beef barbacoa. A dish that hails from the Caribbean, beef barbacoa is traditionally prepared by covering meat or sometimes an entire animal with leaves and cooking it in a hole in the ground until the meat is succulent and tender. In more contemporary kitchens, it’s beef cooked slowly with broth and lots of spices. Chipotle, which uses a version of the recipe in its restaurants, describes it as “spicy, shredded beef, slowly braised for hours in a blend of chipotle pepper adobo, cumin, cloves, garlic and oregano until tender and moist.” Innova’s barbacoa actually tasted a bit like Chipotle’s, although less spicy. It was moist and savory and a bit sweet. I immediately went back for seconds. Only after finishing did I realize that what I was devouring wasn’t beef.

The meat hadn’t been slow-cooked for a day; it was cooked quickly, then frozen in a bag and eventually reheated. And it was chicken dressed up with a manufactured “barbacoa spice type flavor” and Innova’s “natural beef type flavoring,” consisting of hydrolyzed yeast extract and MSG. The forgery was acknowledged and intentional. It was designed to showcase Innova’s abilities to help large food processors — who don’t have time to slow-roast and whose factories would be unkind to spices like cumin, cloves and oregano — take money-saving shortcuts to get great-tasting meats, whether at restaurants or for meals in the frozen aisle. Innova’s fake beef barbacoa tasted not exactly like the real thing, but close enough.

Mapping Nature

The flavoring game wasn’t always so sophisticated. When it began in Europe in the 19th century, companies imported spices and procured plants such as lemongrass, which yielded citronella oil, ideal for concentrating into lemon flavor. These essential oils went mostly into fragrances, medicines and candies. As the field of chemistry progressed in the latter half of the century, European scientists, particularly Germans, figured out how to synthesize flavors and fragrances from chemicals instead of having to wrench them from natural materials.

When the first flavor companies appeared on U.S. shores, they clustered along the East River in Lower Manhattan, near what used to be the Fulton Street Fish Market, within spitting distance of ships arriving from Europe with essential oils and synthetic chemicals. The area was so thick with scents that it became known as the “Aromatic Circle.”

As it did in so many other areas of commerce, World War II forced transformative market changes when supplies from Europe and elsewhere were cut off. Many companies expanded and moved across the Hudson to set up new factories. New Jersey is still a hub for the flavor industry today. Gividuan manufactures products there, as does IFF. Wild is in Elizabeth (though its U.S. headquarters is outside Cincinnati), and Symrise maintains three New Jersey sites, one of them just down the road from Savoury Systems in Branchburg.

Postwar foods were flying off assembly lines, and they needed flavoring, so companies churned out all kinds of novel formulations. Dow Chemical created allyl cyclohexanepropionate, which it touted in ads as “fresh pineapple flavor.” The Swiss company Firmenich developed the first strawberry flavoring and created a compound called Furaneol that would become essential to products like Jell-O and Kool-Aid fruit punch. The company described it as “a sweet, cotton-candy like molecule key to red fruit, tropical fruit and roasted flavors.” These and other compounds were supposed to give processed foods and drinks the same flavors as foods prepared at home, but they often fell flat. Flavors then were still vague approximations of the real thing. In 1952, “Fortune” magazine declared, “It is hardly surprising that, in the opinion of many, the flavor of American food and drink — in jars, cartons, bags, cans, fifths and pints — leaves something to be desired.”

In nature, flavor comes as a sophisticated mix of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of chemicals, each with its own unique taste and smell. Using early-20th-century chemistry tools, scientists could hope to identify perhaps a handful of these in any given plant, and doing so was cumbersome and imprecise. Gas chromatography changed all that. These machines were first developed in the fifties and put into wide use by the seventies. They move gasses along a tube and isolate molecular constituents based on different boiling points and variations in their polarity. Coupled with mass spectrometers, which identify what’s been isolated, this technology opened up a vast world of possibilities, allowing for a much more thorough (though still incomplete) map of nature’s aromas. The number of flavor chemicals known in orange peels, for instance, has gone from nine in 1948 to 207 today. In spearmint leaves, it’s leapt from 6 to 100, and in black peppercorns, from seven to 273.

Flavorists today can come close to capturing and approximating that elusive, clean taste of freshness that Marie Wright and I savored during our Rouge Tomate lunch. To do this, they trek to farms when a crop is at the peak of ripeness, taking portable gas chromatography devices with them. They drape the strawberry or tomato or pepper plants with plastic bags or glass jars, corralling the aroma gasses in an attempt to make an imprint. The aim is not to preserve the gasses, though; they’re way too fickle. Back in the lab, you work on mimicking what the machinery has identified. Wild’s scientists have done this sort of “headspace analysis,” as it’s called, in mint fields that the company operates in southern Washington state. And like most of its competitors, Wild sells “fresh” versions of many of its flavors, some more convincing than others.

One of the newer breakthroughs to come along in the science of flavor is called taste modulation. About a decade ago, a biologist at the University of California at San Diego named Charles Zuker isolated, for the first time, the receptors on the tongue that are responsible for our perception of taste. He did this using tastebud cells from laboratory mice. What he found was that each cell was incredibly specific, containing receptors for just one taste — either sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savory (also called umami). This was great news for the food industry. It meant that these tastebud cells and their receptors could be much more easily manipulated than if they were being bombarded by multiple flavors. Zuker, who went to college at age fifteen and had his PhD at twenty-six, realized he had the tools to start changing the biology of taste. He founded a company called Senomyx.

Now a public company that has done deals at one point or another with Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Kraft and Campbell’s Soup, Senomyx’s flavoring products and potential products are designed to block certain sensations like bitterness — a more targeted form of taste-masking — or to heighten them, allowing companies to trim back their use of sugar, sucralose, salt and MSG in products while still preserving the sweet or salty taste. Senomyx says that items containing its sweet enhancers and savory enhancers, both of which have no taste themselves, are currently being sold in the United States, appearing on the label under the catchall “artificial flavors.”

Not surprisingly, Senomyx no longer has the business of taste modulation to itself. All of the major flavor companies, including Wild, have similar research programs underway. Many of these enhancements are targeting the creation of healthier packaged foods, with less sugar, salt, and MSG. In an interview with”Scientific American” in 2008, Zuker, who is now at Columbia University and not involved with the day-to-day running of Senomyx, spoke about the formation of the company. “We thought, here perhaps we have an opportunity to help make a difference.”

As Wright would put it, we all can’t live at the top of the food chain, a place where meals aren’t loaded up with excessive salt, sugar and MSG. During our lunch, I got the sense that in a parallel universe — one where processed foods don’t pay all the bills — she’d be designing potions mostly for experimental, fancy foods — those passionfruit chocolates and dirt-infused brownies. That is to say, foods she consumes and wholeheartedly cherishes. When I posed this idea to her over email, she said that she would, in fact, one day love to have her own flavor studio for “the creation of exquisite tastes.”

“That remains my goal when I do not need to earn much money.”

From “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal” by Melanie Warner. Copyright © 2013 by Melanie Warner. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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