Polar Seltzer and the Evolution of Flavor

Hello! It's been a while since I updated this blog, but now that other distractions (ahem, marriage...) are behind me, I'm back to hiking up that Sisyphean mountain (Ol' Dissertation) and hopefully will have more stuff to post up here.

One way to tell the history of flavor additives is to track their changing uses. In the early days of flavor extract manufacture, in the last third of the nineteenth century, flavor additives typically came packaged in syrups or in alcohol-based solutions. Soda-fountain operators and bottlers, ice-cream makers, makers of fruit preserves, and other food manufacturers would (presumably) purchase the kind of extract (alcohol, glycerin or sugar-syrup based) that seemed to suit their needs. Starting around the mid- to late-1940s, however, flavor additives are increasingly designed to operate as a component of processed foods -- flavors manufactured to withstand the particular rigors of processing, distribution, and the expanded shelf (or freezer) life of mass-produced, mass-consumed goods. Using an increasing stable of chemicals and manufacturing methods (such as spray-drying), flavor additives were engineered to deliver a wider range of flavor experiences to consumers at the point of consumption. 

Polar seltzer has been around for 130 years, making carbonated beverages with "natural fruit flavors." I pick on them here, because their seltzers are a great example of how flavor has changed even in cases where you'd expect the most continuity. 

I'm not a shill for the company, but, full disclosure, I am a long-time fan of their flavored seltzers. You can get them in NYC now, but until very recently, that was not the case. I remember calling their Worcester, MA headquarters four or five years ago and asking if I could find their vanilla seltzer anywhere in NYC; the lady on the phone told  me I was out of luck, but asked me if I was interested in becoming a distributor. I seriously considered it for a moment, though I probably would have gotten high on my own supply, if you know what I mean. 

Anyways, many of the Polar Seltzer flavors are, as far as I'm concerned, flavor masterpieces - and illuminate some of the ways that flavor additives operate to produce their effects. Is there anything in the world less like fudge cheesecake than sugar-free, calorie-free sparkling water? Nonetheless, Polar's Fudge Cheesecake flavored seltzer (one of their limited-edition winter 2013 flavors) marvelously evokes ... something about deli-style fudge cheesecake. As you move to take a sip of the seltzer, you get the aroma of bakery fudge - a little tinny, like the chocolate side of a black-and-white cookie from the bodega - and then, after you've swallowed, the aroma that reaches your nasal cavity from the back of your throat subtly recalls cheesecake's creamy notes. It's all aroma, there's very little actual "taste" to it, but the aroma is masterfully constructed, and the bubbles of the seltzer actually seem to amplify the effect - releasing more of the volatile molecules into the air, where they do their work.

What's the right metaphor for this relationship, between the flavor and the thing itself? Polar's seltzer has almost nothing in common, materially, with fudge cheesecake. Even if they do share some of the same characteristic flavor molecules -- that is, if the chemicals Polar uses to flavor its seltzer are the same as those found in fudge cheesecake, which is in no way a given -- this is a material resemblance only on the scale of parts per million. Yet we (most of us) accept that the seltzer and the fudge cheesecake are somehow related through the medium of a volatile chemical mixture that we call flavor. 

The fragility of this volatile chemical mixture is evident if you do something rash like adding stevia to the beverage. I haven't tried this with the fudge cheesecake seltzer, but when you add stevia to vanilla seltzer, the flavor vanishes. The stevia must react with the vanilla compounds in some way, rendering them less volatile.

To conclude, a list of my top favorite Polar seltzer flavors (in no particular order): 

  • Granny Smith
  • Vanilla
  • Toasted Coconut
  • Strawberry
  • Fudge Cheesecake
  • Ginger Lemonade
  • Georgia Peach