How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors

"A painting cannot equal the beauty of nature, and nature cannot equal the beauty of a painting."
- Dong Qichang (paraphrased)

The Roots of Revulsion

The term "artificially flavored" has long drawn scorn from food lovers. Products besmirched with the term are deemed cheap, vapid, and vaguely evil. Such foods declare themselves to have been produced via methods diametrical to the artisanal credo that yields true and proper deliciousness.

We've learned that natural flavorings are not always so natural, either. Anything extracted, distilled, or otherwise derived from plant or animal matter (fern mold, hyena lips, etc.) may be called a "natural flavoring," even if it's a thoroughly unnatural substance created in the same laboratories and via the same methods as artificial flavors. Manufacturers escape the stigma of "artificial" by touting wholesome-sounding "natural flavorings" every bit as divorced from actual food.

Objection to food additives first stemmed from health concerns. In the 70's and 80's, a succession of additives were declared carcinogenic, and consumer indignation swelled over "the junk they're putting in our food," creating a demand that gave rise to the organic and health food markets. This has become less of a concern, though, as the recent crop of flavor additives is, for the most part, vastly more potent -- which means they're used in vastly smaller quantity.

Aside from the unlikely case that one of these substances turns out to have the toxicity of, say, botulism toxin, health risks are less of a factor these days. In fact, given that artificial flavors are usually more potent, and therefore used in smaller quantity, so-called natural flavorings may actually be more risky.

And even undeniably wholesome foods may carry risk. New York state assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried (a leader on public health legislation) notes that "if, unbeknownst to us, a gamma ray from outer space jiggles the DNA of a tomato so its descendents are bigger, redder, juicier, etc., and we promote that tomato, we celebrate. Yet who knows whether that naturally-gamma-engineered bit of DNA makes bad things happen? Yet if the exact same piece of engineering is done by a bioengineer, many people consider that tomato a threat."

What's most worrisome about flavor additives, however, is the evils they may conceal. Good, wholesome food doesn't require such things, so foods containing artificial flavors tend to be neither good nor wholesome. Consider that even the cheapest, most careless from-scratch chocolate chip cookie tastes reasonably good with no additives whatsoever. No one would claim that additives make good cookies taste better; rather, their function is to make awful cookies taste so-so. Any manufacturer resorting to flavoring additives is likely doing something so dishonest, so unthinkably cheap and nasty, that industrial-strength masking is required to restore them to a semblance of palatability. It's the deodorizer issue: one applies strong deodorant only to cover up more objectionable odors.

The final factor fueling consumer displeasure with flavor additives is their sheer vulgar lameness. Artificial banana flavor, for example, is to bananas what Swanson's frozen Bar-B-Q dinner is to Arthur Bryant's ribs. Artificially flavored foods are the apotheosis of suckyness, and smart consumers recoil from them as they would from an electronic gadget labeled "made in Japan.”

Wait, that's not right. Japanese gadgets are no longer slipshod. While the doddering still make "made in Japan" cracks, changing times have rendered such jokes obsolete. Reality changes, and preconceptions must change with it.

And so why am I apparently the only eater who's noticed that flavoring additives have gotten really good? Why are my fellow fressers locked into dated arguments with a technology destined to launch us into dreamy new realms of deliciousness?

A Taste of Virtual Reality

My turnaround from disgust to giddy boosterism came as the result of observation. I've not huddled with gaggles of food scientists in their secret lairs near the New Jersey Turnpike. The only laboratory analysis I've performed has been via my time-tested techniques of biting, munching, slurping, and swallowing. It all started, in fact, with munching -- specifically, Lay's Bistro Chips, a product ahead of its time that was summarily discontinued and is today hardly recalled by the eating public. Here's what I wrote about these chips in 2001:
And their taste is startling; where other seasoned chips hold only vague resemblance to broad flavors such as "barbecue" or "sour cream and onion", these evoke laser-sharp emulations of their specific flavors. "Applewood BBQ and Smoked Cheddar," for example, is not just cheddarish, it's a cheddar hologram. The barbecue flavors are equally, eerily, vivid.

Their ingredient lists brim with gourmet-sounding items like Monterey jack and Colby cheeses, butter, Worcestershire sauce, etc. But a dusting of powdered cheese cannot possibly sear such specific sensations into one's palate and mind so those fancy ingredients are doubtless red herrings. The magic's in the "natural and artificial flavors," both surely produced in labs. While most seasoned chips contain additives of some sort, these represent a whole new level of flavor science; a glimpse into a future of seamlessly fake flavor effects. The palate can now be fooled as completely as modern photo retouching fools the eye.

Mounting Evidence

That was my first glimmer. After the Bistro Chips, I kept coming across foods that surprised, delighted, and knocked me off my prejudices.

Next in the chain of edible evidence was an elusive brand of Filipino corn snacks found, infrequently, only at a small grocer in Hicksville, Long Island. The Filipino corn snack enigma presented itself: how could junky corn puffs -- an extraordinarily refined product -- evoke waving fields of golden, milky corn on the cob? These puffs didn't taste "like" corn, they were corn. The effect was nothing less than a sensory ride through the Platonic ideal of fresh corn. As with the Bistro Chips, real-world flavors this true couldn't possibly reduce to a dusting of powder. The effect was truer than true.

Then I came upon some eccentric British potato chips flavored with things like "lamb and mint" or "roast chicken." Like the Lay's Bistro Chips, they evoked the real thing way beyond what a bit of desiccated seasoning might do.” The problem, though, was that the earthy fried potato flavor remained utterly unintegrated.

Difara Pizza, the temple to pizza that draws gastro tourists to Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood, has a beverage case, always stocked with eccentric and intriguing drinks. One evening, chef/owner Mr. DeMarco suggested I try the peach iced tea. And I found that San Benedetto Peach Ice Tea bursts with the transportive, nuanced flavor of ripe peaches. This drink is imported from Italy to both America and the UK, where labeling laws require manufacturers to disclose the proportion of the featured ingredient. And so we know that it contains .1% peach juice. That's less than 1/4 teaspoon juice per liter, far too little to lend flavor. Artificial flavoring is disclosed at the end of the ingredients list.

The Stop and Shop supermarket chain has a house brand, Nature's Promise, that I've found uniformly terrific. Every Nature's Promise product I've tried, from meat to cookies, has greatly impressed. The cookies are made from wholesome-sounding (and tasting) ingredients, but they also contain natural flavors. My taste buds assure me that those flavors mask no evil. They truly make good cookies better. In fact, these are the best mass market chocolate chip cookies I've found.

But the coup de grace came from Dare coconut sandwich cookies. These cookies, made in Canada, plunge you into a deep vat of fragrant coconut milk. Coconuts have grown for millennia, never realizing their full potential, but mankind has now picked up nature's slack to deliver not just a clean, pure evocation of coconut, but a fully rendered rhapsody of what we dream coconut ought to taste like. And there's integration, as well. Fake uber-coconut filling dovetails flawlessly with outer cookie. The result is compellingly delicious. Eating my first Dare coconut sandwich cookie was, for me, a watershed moment. Just as chess masters knew that one day a computer would beat a human at chess, it was inevitable that one day food chemists would create additives we'd deem delicious. Dare coconut sandwich cookies tell me that day has come.

Molecular Gastronomy: An Entirely Different Shtick

None of this has anything to do with the molecular gastronomy movement, the burgeoning food trend wherein laboratory methods and contraptions deliver chocolate vapors via nasal suppositories, conjure up pizza lozenges, and serve anything and everything as foam. This movement, launched by Catalan chef Ferran Adria at his restaurant-cum-laboratory El Bulli, is taking the culinary world by storm, with a succession of also-rans cropping up to capitalize on the trend.

For all the hype about how molecular gastronomy is revolutionizing our notions of food, it's actually more reactionary than radical. As has been pointed out, it's just another iteration of the old California cuisine/nouvelle French philosophy of elevating the goodness of simple ingredients. A thimble of frozen artichoke foam is just another way to get diners to appreciate -- no, really appreciate! -- the to-die-for glories of the artichoke. It's been decades since restaurants first offered the spectacle of an exquisite this-or-that centered on a spotlit platter. The continued insistence that we open our supposedly clouded eyes to the banal has become strictly to-yawn-for.

Molecular gastronomy is a tricked-out retread of a tired culinary sensibility, rendered in foam and froth. The true revolution is coming from real scientists, not cooking school grads playing at being science nerds. We're at the brink of a reinvention of food science -- a major gastronomic revolution.

Music Synthesizers and Flavor Synthesizers

When digital synthesizers first appeared, there was much hue and cry among music hounds. Many feared that the new technology augured the death of real music -- music produced by people blowing into tubas and bowing violas, as opposed to people triggering soulless machines.

In retrospect, it was a Luddite concern. Music survived and incorporated intriguing new textures. Quality is all that counts, and quality isn't exclusive to a given set of tools. After all, tubas and violas were themselves radically high-tech in their time.

A great musician playing a synthesizer will create great music, and great chefs will one day likewise create great dishes from all manner of newfangled food technologies. Any protestations will, in time, seem as quaint as the digital music uproar.

Chains Get Better and "Live" Food Becomes an Event

One likely result will be a massive improvement of chain restaurants.

Deliciousness has always sprung exclusively from the caring touch of a skilled human cook, but chains eliminate the human element from the process. McDonald’s couldn't possibly recruit skilled, caring chefs for each of its outlets, and, even if it could, there'd be no hope of maintaining the requisite high level of consistency. Chain restaurants, like all mass production, work to purge creative human intervention, and the result has been horrendously bad food.

There is, however, human input at the head of the process. A squadron of executive chefs design the automatic processes, and they're not aiming to produce bad food. They are simply constrained by insurmountable limitations: highly processed foods centrally produced and assembled by machines supervised by minimum wage workers. A delicious steakburger on paper emerges from this system as a soulless patty indeed.

But the same was once true of music. Early recording and playback technologies offered tinny recreation of the original performance. But technology drastically improved, and while recordings may never yield the visceral experience of live performance, one's musical soul can nonetheless be nourished these days via an automatic process.

Additives, similarly, will allow the faithful conveyance of a chef's vision to remote audiences. Much as live musical performance is now a premium experience offered by an elite cadre of musicians (as opposed to a century ago, when people made their own music), the chef's physical immediacy will be optional. Of course, flavor is just one facet of cuisine; but it's arguably the hardest part.

The classical culinary arts, executed by trained chefs, won't completely die off. A few super-talented chefs will serve a small, discerning following (like aficionados who attend chamber music recitals). But the creative team at, say, McDonald’s, will find it easier to project their visions from afar without compromise or degradation. And as they do, chains may become bastions of deliciousness.

The Bad News

While health concerns are somewhat reduced (given the potency of modern flavorings), the issue is nowhere near resolved. The problem is that safety testing and regulation are more lax for food additives than for medicines, even though the latter are consumed voluntarily by specific groups, whereas the former are consumed unknowingly by masses.

But there's a more insidious danger. Flavor cues which have for millions of years helped us gauge the healthfulness of a given morsel of food are about to fly out the window. Without such cues, we'll lose the mechanism by which consumers keep food purveyors honest. It will be a return to the dawn of cuisine, when salt, smoke, spices, and sundry culinary tricks served primarily to conceal rot. The ability to thoroughly cloak palatability will get a powerful boost.

The Futility of Resistance

A tool is neither good nor bad. Quality is in the specific rendition. The arts have always embraced new technology over all objections, because artists love to expand their palettes. And, as always, objection is moot. This is the future of eating: the presence of synthesized flavorings will grow increasingly common at every level of food production. And since chowhounds embrace all manifestations of deliciousness, it's our task to get in early to find and embrace the good stuff. That said, there's not much good stuff out there yet. As with all tech innovations in art, new tools will show their full potential only when they're adopted by visionary artists. And that has not yet taken place.

But the timing is right. Over the past half century, gastronomy has retracted to singularity. Having recognized the goodness of simple ingredients, we're poised to reenter the spicy sea of complexity. Imagine the realms to which we'll be transported when chefs can effortlessly draw upon any taste or aroma -- or create entirely new ones beyond imagining!