The secretive, sweet — and sometimes saccharine — history of artificial birthday cake flavor

Sales of “birthday cake” flavor have skyrocketed by more than 29% since 2017. What's behind this food phenomenon?

By Ashlie D. Stevens
January 23, 2021 10:50PM (UTC)
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The Science Behind Birthday Cake Flavor (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At my local supermarket, there are currently 42 birthday cake-flavored items lining the aisles outside of the bakery section: Oreos with "birthday cake flavor creme;" Annie's Organic Birthday Cake Bunny Grahams that are "sprinkled with fun;" breakfast foods like cereal and waffles; and a smattering of health foods, such as rice cakes, protein bars, granola and collagen supplements. 

Once I started looking, it felt like birthday cake was all around me. At the liquor store, there are seven cake-flavored vodkas and one birthday cake-flavored beer. I don't smoke, but I even stopped on a nearby street where three vape shops had seemingly sprouted up overnight. Two of them sold birthday cake-flavored "ejuice," while the other sold a more generically labeled "Party Time!" variety that promised notes of rich yellow cake and sugary vanilla. 

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It was like a macro-level version of this summer's TikTok trend of slicing into everyday items — water glasses, slabs of smoked salmon, a can of baked beans — only to reveal that they were, in fact, made of cake. But in this reality, I was living inside the world's cake-filled and sprinkle-adorned center. 

Thoughts of my newfound, cake-covered landscape dominated my brain space. Through my incessant googling to try to figure out the scope of the birthday cake flavor phenomenon, I've likely permanently altered the algorithm that feeds me social media advertisements. There are so many Milk Bar B'Day Truffles knock-offs on Instagram. Videos of sprinkles being made — transforming from big blocks of dye-saturated cornstarch dough into lacquered, uniformly oblong decorations — became my ASMR analogue. I dulled my taste buds with fake cake flavor in dozens of forms, and I'm surprised that my quarantine pod members didn't enact a polite moratorium on birthday cake trivia. 

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But I was still left with several pressing questions. Namely, how did we as a society go from maybe indulging in birthday cake several times a year — at your party and others — to tossing its essence into and on everyday items like coffee creamer and popcorn? Was this a new phenomenon, born out of the dearth of social interaction (i.e. birthday parties) during these unprecedented times? And, perhaps most importantly, what exactly is artificial birthday cake flavor? 

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Flavor science is a notoriously secretive industry. There are only 700 active members of the global Society of Flavor Chemists, and I emailed just more than a dozen U.S.-based ones to inquire about the makeup of lab-created birthday cake flavor. Most of those who responded begged off, citing "industry secrets" and "client confidentiality." 

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Tom Gibson, who is the chief flavorist at Flavorman — a beverage development company in Louisville, Ky., that has worked with Ocean Spray, Jones Soda Co. and Ballotin Chocolate Whiskey — agreed to talk in generalities. 

"It can be difficult to make assumptions on specifically what unique profile a client is looking for since 'birthday cake' is a fanciful name for a wide variety of takes on a similar flavor," Gibson said. "That being said, what most people will initially have in mind is an indulgent, rich vanilla but with a twist. Ultimately, this 'twist' is what will make a particular product's version of birthday cake stand out against what already exists on the market." 

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There are some flavor elements that differentiate birthday cake flavor from just straight vanilla extract, according to Gibson. Where French vanilla has an eggy quality, birthday cake can have a "stronger, more powdery vanilla" flavor with an almost artificial almond or cherry-like quality on the palate.

On her blog, Flavor Science, food scientist Susie Bautista provided some clues about what provides those notes. 

"The aroma chemicals the flavor chemist chooses for the creamy note are also very important," she wrote. "Some creamy notes I use are delta Decalactone (FEMA 2361), delta Dodecalactone (FEMA 2401), Sulfurol (FEMA 3204) and Dimethyl Sulfide (FEMA 2746). Ethyl butyrate (FEMA 2427) will enhance the creamy character of the birthday cake flavor in addition to providing a berry top note." 

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But there's no real industry standard for "birthday cake," according to Gibson. That means the term can denote different things for different consumers. 

"As flavorists, it's our job to find the essence of the experience of eating a birthday cake— something that is universally familiar, yet simultaneously individualized for us all — and capture it as a single, multi-faceted flavor. But there is no exact version of a birthday cake flavor," Gibson said. "It's a consumer-driven fantasy, so it comes down to how that specific brand wants to conceptualize the experience. The possibilities are endless." 

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While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where the first artificial birthday cake flavor was developed — again, "industry secrets" — there are some important dates that help us narrow in on a general time frame. 

In 1858, the pharmacist and biochemist Nicholas-Theodore Gobley extracted the very first samples of pure vanillin, the active flavoring principle of vanilla beans. He eventually developed artificial vanilla flavor by evaporating that pure extract, then recrystallizing the dry compound by adding hot water. This major breakthrough in food science led to two German scientists — Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarman — to open the world's first vanillin factory two decades later. 

Vanillin is the dominant compound that gives vanilla its signature aroma. It can also be found in other, less expensive places outside the vanilla plant: clove oil, pine bark and rice bran. Because of these developments, the flavor and aroma of vanilla, which had been a rare and sought-after ingredient, suddenly became exponentially more accessible. 

This event dovetailed with the popularization of birthday cakes as we know them. People have been marking special occasions like religious holidays and weddings with sweet treats for millenia, but the 19th Century marked several developments in home baking, according to food historian Jessica Reed, who specializes in the history of cakes.

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"Temperature-controlled ovens and the hand-crank beater were invented," she said. "Leaveners, such as baking soda and powder, were introduced, and common ingredients became accessible both in quantity and cost to the masses making a celebratory cake for something as individual as a birthday possible . . . This is also the era when the layer cake is introduced." 

Though many people — Reed included — associate yellow or white cakes with chocolate icing and sprinkles with childhood birthdays, cakes with fluffy vanilla icing and sprinkles were anecdotally more of a bakery item.

"Once women were working outside of the home more and no longer baking at home as often, cakes were being bought from such shops," Reed said. 

The amount of women working outside the home spiked during World War II, which is also a point in time where new developments in food science absolutely skyrocketed. As Anastacia Marx de Salcedo wrote in her 2015 book "Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat," the need for flavorful rations underlie a number of grocery store staples. 

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"In the universe of processed food," she wrote. "World War II was the Big Bang."

Flavor additives were an easy way to make shelf-stable items more palatable, and since there was a shortage of many foods and spices, the U.S. flavor industry quickly developed artificial substitutes for ingredients like black pepper, mustard and warm spices. 

Following the war, boxed cake mix really took off in supermarkets. Gibson said he would place the invention of artificial birthday cake about a decade after that. 

"My best guess is that the birthday cake flavor — at least as we know it today— appeared sometime between the late '60s and early '70s," he said. 

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It would go on to be perfected as advances in food science directly paved the way for McCormick to begin experimenting with creating its own fake vanilla flavor — one more complex than basic vanillin — in 1976 using modern technology like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry after the price of Madagascar vanilla beans skyrocketed. It was finally released on the market in 1982. 

In 1989, Funfetti, a portmanteau of "fun" and "confetti," was developed by Pillsbury. The original commercial featured the Pillsbury Doughboy pushing a purple tub of frosting with a short, lit fuse sizzling from the top.

"Want a bigger bang out of your next birthday?" the deep-voiced narrator queried, before the frosting bursted like a firecracker, revealing a cake flecked with neon sprinkles. "Nothing says lovin' like Funfetti." 

And indeed, the OG Funfetti flavor —featuring those tiny saccharine sprinkles suspended in light, boxed white cake — soon became synonymous with kids' birthday parties, likely solidifying the white (or yellow) cake adorned with vanilla frosting and colorful sprinkles as the de facto birthday cake flavor for another entire generation. 

***

One of the first major brands to release a special-edition birthday cake flavor was Oreo. It was part of the cookie company's 100th anniversary celebration. At the time, the Huffington Post described the cookies by saying they "look like standard Oreos, except the white frosting has flecks of rainbow sprinkles inside." 

"As soon as we opened the package, there was a familiar (and potent) smell that was reminiscent of a supermarket bakery aisle, but in a pleasant, albeit slightly overpowering, way," the outlet added.

Within a year of the limited-edition Oreos launch, at least 17 more birthday cake-flavored items made their way to market — ranging from blended coffee drinks at Coffee Bean Tea & Leaf, to Good Humor Birthday Cake bars, to "Party Cake Peeps."

After the initial influx, there seems to have been a lull in new items hitting the shelves. But more products flooded the market in 2017, and their popularity continued to surge. According to Nielsen, the flavor "birthday cake" has seen sales increase "more than 29% since 2017."

Part of this trend is tied directly to a parallel Funfetti craze —which I've reported on, and which the New York Times termed the "Funfetti explosion" — both of which got a boost from social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest because of inherently photogenic nature of bright sprinkles against a vanilla-cream background.

Another element of the appeal of birthday cake flavor — especially for well-known brands — is that it's pretty universally known. Manufacturers don't need to educate consumers, because they already have an innate sense of what flavors they're about to unwrap. "It appeals to a wide variety of consumers and is easily understandable of what it will deliver," a spokesperson for Kit Kat told me via email.

In 2020, Kit Kat released limited-edition birthday cake-flavored bars, which were made with the candy's trademark crispy wafer interior but coated in "birthday cake flavored crème with the addition of sprinkles." "The flavor is unique, while not polarizing to the mainstream consumers," the manufacturer added. 

While some assert birthday cake flavor isn't polarizing, my polls of food professionals indicated that might not be completely accurate. The intrinsically artificial nature of it is really off-putting to some people, and it can result in a very saccharine product that's almost waxy from the use of butter-flavored vegetable shortening (which is simply another layer of artificiality). 

Peg Aloi, a baker and writer, told me that she felt like artificial birthday cake flavor was "the Axe Body Spray of food flavoring," while Jonathan Exum — a Louisville-based chef with a killer palate — described trying a product that "used a 'white chocolate' that coated the roof of your mouth like cheap frosted doughnuts." That being said, Exum is a fan of the flavor overall, because it denotes both nostalgia and indulgence. 

"It goes against any kind of 'whole foods' or natural foods preparation," he said. "But I also think that's why a lot of people love it, because it's a quick way to 'cheat' on a healthy diet that basically summarizes all the flavors of processed food into one sweet morsel and brings back memories of childhood or stoned [or] drunk binge-eating." 

Cake historian Jessica Reed echoed this sentiment, citing two overarching reasons for the flavor's popularity. First, birthday cake is a food of comfort and happiness. "To companies looking to sell a product, this is gold," she said.

"Two: We live in a society that prizes restriction when it comes to sweets," Reed continued. "If you can't eat it, taste it from your lipgloss or in your cocktail — which is oddly not as maligned."

According to flavor scientist Tom Gibson, birthday cake flavor has always experienced waves of popularity when people need comfort. Christina Tosi's beloved Birthday Cake, which was Funfetti-inspired, helped put her bakery Milk Bar on the map back in 2008 amid the economic recession.

As stress surrounding the Trump presidency began to really accelerate, so too did the mass production of birthday cake-flavored snack foods. Consumers are now seeking simple comfort food amid the pandemic, Gibson said.

"Classic, nostalgic flavors like birthday cake are not only familiar but offer a sense of decadent indulgence," he said. "This is especially significant during a time when we've had to go without many experiences, including birthday parties. It's been a tough year, so we can all use something to celebrate. Birthday cake-flavored products allow us to treat ourselves despite these limitations."


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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