So, we've just had the last day of the workshop of the 'Flavour: From Farm to Fork and Beyond' module, a workshop which opened with Dave Bains discussing flavours, fragrances and some of the legislation behind it all.
Now Dave is a flavour chemist recognised for his enormous contribution to the field and has a wealth of experience in the legalities and complexities of it all. He is also a fascinating man to listen to and his sessions are totally interactive. He started the workshop with the question “What is flavour?” and of course there was a lot of discussion, interspersed with smelling sticks being passed round as examples. I loved that bit, facial expressions were brilliant for some – a bit like when my sister gave my baby son pickled onion flavour Monster Munch to suck! At times, there was a lot of gurning going on.
Anyway, there were some perplexed looks when he started played some Calypso music as he passed round some sticks for us to sniff while on the screen was a desert island. “What can you smell?” he asked. There were varying answers but tropically was the theme. He turned the music off, the slide changed and this time it was various cuts of raw meat, steak of one sort or another, waiting to be cooked on a barbecue. He passed the next flavour round. “Now what can you smell?” he asked, “sort of meaty” was the answer. Except they were the same chemical compound, perceptions changed through the ambiance of the setting.
Dave went on to talk about the complexities of flavour legislation and naturally (pardon the pun) the notion of natural vs artificial flavourings was covered. Wow, what a minefield that is. Having had a child that could became some sort of hellhound with just the merest suggestion of a red Smartie (probably brought on by his aunt’s monster munch) I spent a lot of time looking at added ingredients and being an analytical chemist, complex names have never frightened or bamboozled me. There was a lot of discussion about what constitutes a “natural” flavouring and like a good many more things, its definition is cloaked in legislation. I give you here a distilled version of what a “natural” flavouring is:
The three criteria for a flavouring substance being natural are embedded in this definition: 1) from natural source materials; 2) using traditional food preparation processes; 3) found in nature.
But let’s be clear about this, some of the ‘US natural’ flavouring substances are not ‘EU natural’ (which the UK currently adheres to, but post Brexit?....)
Such a coincidence, then I read about James Kennedy, an Australian chemistry teacher who wanted to dispel some of this natural ingredients suspicions.
Now, my friend Alex loved the article. And you cannot imagine how pleased I was to hear that and on so many levels. Not only does it draw in Dave’s talks and the closing session that our students will be undertaking in the lab, but one of James’ goals in labelling fruit with all of their chemical ingredients was to try to make the complex nomenclature of chemistry less, well, complex. Almost every syllable of a chemical name means something; the whole thing is just a jigsaw describing all the component parts of the molecule. The whole point of it is to de-confuse, that’s why the old names are no longer used in chemistry lessons and us old-timers have to be a bit bi-lingual.
Let’s take 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid, for instance. Huh! Terrible stuff, it must be with a name like that. And if you look at the formula, C2H8O7 or worse, the structure then most people run away howling, and this one is a mere tiddler. In fact, it might make you reach for your G&T with its hefty shot of lemon juice, or dare I say it, added 2-hydroxpropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid. You may even be tempted to sprinkle it over your avocado to stop it going brown while you drink your G&T.
I absolutely love everything that Kennedy has done, demystifying chemistry, trying to make it accessible and showing that it is part of what we are, what we eat. Alex won’t mind me telling you that chemistry, for him, sits firmly in boffin-land so the fact that he loved the article made me so happy. Kennedy had won at least one person over.
So, spare a thought for our participants, who in two teams were in competition with each other in the flavour lab to make a fruit flavoured drink. One will have made a strawberry flavoured drink and the other an apple. They will have drawn on all that they have learnt across the module and to add a drop of this and a drop of that from an array of “natural” flavourings, all with long chemical names and not having been anywhere near an apple or a strawberry in its life. The last few years I have had the dubious honour of being the judge, this year it falls to someone else. Happy gurning!
Barbara Mason, AFTP Operations Manager
AgriFood Training Partnership
The University of Reading
PO Box 226, Whiteknights
Reading RG6 6AP