CRANBURY, N.J. — Marie Wright dips four long strips of paper, the kind you’d use to sniff a perfume sample from Sephora, into bottles of clear liquid marked methyl cinnamate and furaneol. She holds the four strips together and wafts them, fanlike, under her nose. Suddenly, the lab smells of strawberries.
Wright is the chief global flavorist for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the world’s largest food processors and suppliers. She’s a former perfume industry chemist who has created more than 1,000 individual flavors for major food and beverage companies, and she’s now facing one of the biggest challenges of her career.
Consumers are beguiled by flavorists without even being aware of it. Flavorists are the people who tinker with nacho cheese dust, Hot Pockets, and pumpkin spice lattes. They are the tastemakers, making food craveable.
Wright and the planet’s 200 or so other flavorists are bringing their alchemy to plant-based meat. It’s the biggest craze that the food industry has seen in a long time, driven by concerns about climate change, animal welfare, and human health. It is still dwarfed by the $49 billion beef industry; however, the Swiss investment firm UBS predicts that growth of plant-based protein and meat alternatives will increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030.
Despite its swift ascent, plant-based meat is the antithesis of recent trends, such as local and farm-to-table dining, representing an embrace of highly processed foods made palatable in a laboratory by technicians such as Wright.
First, there is the masking of the vegetal “green” notes in pea protein and the “beany” notes in soy, often by adding other ingredients and chemicals.
Then comes the insertion of the mineral, musky, charry, “umami” flavors that we associate with meat.
At this plant in Middlesex County, Wright huddles with fellow flavorist Ken Kraut, who works only on the savory side. They swirl little plastic cups of clear liquid, sniffing and tasting. Too yeasty, they say. They want a little less soy and a bit more umami — that elusive, savory flavor. Mushrooms give that umami flavor, as does Japanese green tea. Meat’s mineralized note can be mimicked by concentrated extracts of broccoli and spinach.
They’ve got a deadline. A big client is coming in the following week to test veggie-chicken meatballs and a plant-based burger. Everyone is launching a plant-based burger these days, and as quickly as possible.
“They want to do it in anywhere from six weeks to three months,” Wright says. “Usually, a product is a year to 18 months to complete.”
Wright says an ordinary product — a snack bar or a protein drink — might cost a client $10,000 to $200,000 to have ADM formulate a recipe, which the company can then produce in its own processing facilities.
Plant-based meat is different. “Something like this, you’re talking $100,000 to $1 million.”
Nutritionists warn that if companies increasingly rely on chemists to insert desirable flavors into food, consumers might temper their enthusiasm.
With their pea protein isolates, their gum arabic, and yeast extracts, these new foods are the opposite of whole foods. Some nutritionists and industry leaders are wondering whether their field is being led astray by foods that have flavor and appeal inserted by industry.
“It doesn’t resemble the foods from which it came; it has a vast number of ingredients. It fully meets the definition of ultra-processed food,” says author Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. “These are industrially produced food to which flavors and textures and colors are added so it’s attractive. What they do is cosmetics.”
Back at the lab, Wright and team nudge the burger formula, trying to achieve the aroma and flavors resulting from the Maillard reaction, a chemical process between amino acids and sugars that gives caramelized meat its distinctive seared flavor.
They dry liquids in a spray dryer, the water driven off to produce powders. They consider the protein, the flavorings, and the binders, looking for a mineral, bloody note and seeking appealing top notes that mimic seared sirloin. They reach for a lesser-known “sixth taste” sensation that the Japanese call kokumi, which translates as “heartiness” or “mouthfulness.”
Wright grew up east of London and studied chemistry at King’s College London. She worked in Europe for years, moved to New Jersey, and commuted back and forth to South America to set up flavor labs. Salaries for flavorists vary widely, she says, from $50,000 to $500,000. Flavorist is a mentoring profession, with trainees spending years as underlings in places such as ADM’s Academy of Future Flavorists program. It takes seven to 10 years to achieve flavorist status, and 20 to be a senior flavorist, Wright says.
“Learning the materials takes three to four years. Like being a pianist, you have to practice. A trainee may do 20 to 30 versions of a flavor,” she says.
Designing an average of 300 new products a year, flavorists have tens of millions of dollars riding on their gut instincts.
“If you’re going to hang your hat on a flavor for next year, you may be wrong,” Wright says. “Trends only used to come from high-end restaurants. Now, a lot of trends are coming from street foods.”
She points to smaller food companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have pushed food giants such as Cargill, Tyson Foods, Kellogg, and Smithfield Foods into a headlong race to produce signature plant-based meats.
Before the day is over, Wright checks in with a flavorist working on an energy bar flavored with salted caramel, then with a team in the mint lab working on a gum that both cools and tingles.
And about that burger. Nondisclosure agreements prevent her from identifying the company behind this plant-based burger, but the meeting is a success, the company’s team staying for two days to hash out the details.
“They liked aspects of it, and they also wanted some changes in the fat delivery. They wanted a bit more of that bloody, minerally note and more of that seared taste, as well as that melty quality you get with animal fat,” Wright says.