Flavors, Formulas, and Flavorists

Harrison's Extracts, the best in the world. Some of these flavors were likely made with "natural" ingredients (clove, cinnamon, ginger, lemon), some with synthetic chemicals (pineapple, peach, banana, strawberry, raspberry.) Image from Library of Congress.

Harrison's Extracts, the best in the world. Some of these flavors were likely made with "natural" ingredients (clove, cinnamon, ginger, lemon), some with synthetic chemicals (pineapple, peach, banana, strawberry, raspberry.) Image from Library of Congress.

Not too long ago, I was a guest on the fantastic podcast Gastropod, talking about the history of artificial flavors. (If you aren't already listening to Gastropod, what are you waiting for? It's a fortnightly treat for food-history-science-culture gluttons, smart and strange and ever-curious. The most recent episode was about sounds and farming, and included stories about plants listening to themselves being devoured by caterpillars; cows listening to REM; and the noises made by sick chickens.)

One of the things I talked about on Gastropod was Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making artificial fruit flavors. Vincenz Kletzinsky (1826-1882; (sometimes spelled Kletzinski) was an Austrian chemist, specializing in "animal chemistry." That is, he studied the chemical reactions underlying the physiological processes of life: digestion, metabolism, health and disease, the ways that drugs worked upon the body. He also suggested using strawberry leaves as a substitute for tea.

Kletzinsky's Table of Formulas for "Artificial Fruit Essences," originally unleashed upon the world in 1867 in the pages of Dingler's Polytechnisches Journal:

Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making of artificial fruit essences, from the U.S. Pharmacopia, 1885.

Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making of artificial fruit essences, from the U.S. Pharmacopia, 1885.

No arbor, no orchard is needed to produce the aromas of a summer's worth of fruits; Kletzinsky's table is the key to replicating these savors in the laboratory. By combining a small set of organic chemicals in varying proportions, and diluting the resulting mixture in pure alcohol, the flavor-maker can summon the aromatic specters of fifteen distinct fruity flavors: pineapple, melon, strawberry, raspberry, gooseberry, grape, apple, orange, pear, lemon, cherry and black cherry, plum, apricot, and peach.

I haven't been able to find out much about how Kletzinsky created his flavor-table — whether he developed these formulas himself, or whether he collected them from commercial flavor-makers (I suspect mostly the latter) — but I'm pretty certain about one thing. Coming up with these formulas didn't start with the fruits; it started with the chemicals. Manufacturing chemists working empirically with available organic chemicals, combining and diluting them, mixing and sniffing, until they obtained recognizable, and pleasurable, results.

So, for instance, to make a pineapple flavor, you would combine one part chloroform, one part "aldehyde," five parts ethyl butyrate, ten parts amyl butyrate, and three parts glycerine (to "blend" and "harmonize" the different components). Add all this to 100 parts alcohol. Voila! Break out the tiny paper umbrellas and the pina colada goblets! One sniff and you're back in your little grass shack in... Hackensack, New Jersey

"Chloroform! Like knock-you-out chloroform?" I hear you asking. "Really?! Why?" Apparently, chloroform has a kind of juicy, fruity fragrance. "When diluted with alcohol," Chambers' 1891 Enyclopedia tells us, it produces an effect like that of "ripe apples." Charles Sulz, in his 1888 Treatise on Beverages, says that chloroform intensifies the fruitiness of a finished flavor, but assures readers that it can also be omitted without serious detriment to the quality of the final product. Chloroform's inclusion in 19th-century flavor formulas gives us a hint about the people who most often developed and worked with these products, namely, pharmacists and druggists trained in "practical chemistry." Chloroform was a familiar material, a commercially available chemical that mixed well with others and smelled fruity. So why not use it?

By the first decade of the twentieth century, however, chloroform seems to have fallen out of favor for flavors. No doubt the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, and the increased concern about chemical additives in food, played a role in this. For instance, in 1908, Alois von Isakovics, head of the pioneering US synthetic fragrance and flavor company Synfleur, warned that the older artificial fruit flavors "contained many objectionable substances which do not properly belong in the flavor and should not be used in a food product under any conditions," for instance, "chloroform and other substances, which we find in freak formulas of that period.

For at least fifty years, Kletzinsky's table percolates through the written record: first in trade journals and professional reference books; later in miscellanies and recipe-books for amateurs. You'll find Kletzinsky's table in the 15th edition of the U.S. Dispensatory (1885), the standard manual for pharmacists, and in subsequent editions through the early 20th century. Its formulas are transcribed in Charles Sulz's 1888 Treatise on Beverages, or the Complete Practical Bottler, an important early handbook for the soft drink industry, as well as in The Complete Practical Confectioner (1890), a similar guide for the candy and confectionery business. It continues to circulate well into the twentieth century, appearing in the 1919 edition of the Scientific American Cyclopedia of Formulas and other compendia of miscellaneous recipes for manufacturing household goods, among 15,000 other formulas for glues, embalming fluids, varnishes, and descriptions of the symptoms of poisoning by sewer gas, among many other things.  

However! Although Kletzinsky's table persists more or less unchanged from its first appearances in chemistry and pharmacy journals to its last hurrah in the pages of technical miscellanies, its meaning changes; its standing in the world drops. By the twentieth century, its formulas no longer are cited in professional literature, except with caution or derision.  

Erich Walter, in his 1916 Manual for the Essence Industry, wrote: "In the course of time the public has come to look with disfavor on the artificial fruit flavors formerly employed, and in the formulas which follow no attention will be paid to such imitations." (He then goes on to supply his own formulas for imitation fruit flavors.) The 20th edition of the U.S. Dispensatory (1918) demurs from including Kletzsinky's formulas, referring readers to previous editions. However, it warns that artificial fruit essences are "vastly inferior" to concentrated juices and extracts made from real fruit, and notes that "their use is largely being abandoned" in the wake of the Pure Food Law, which requiring labels to disclose the presence of imitation flavors.

This is not at all true — the market for chemical food additives grows and grows in the twentieth century, despite the laws and labels, in order to supply the needs of food manufacturers, as processed food plays an ever-bigger role in the American diet. The persistence of Kletzinsky's table is one of the signs of the expanding commercial need for flavor additives.

Its diminishing status, however, indicates something else: a widening divide between flavor amateurs and flavor professionals, and the emergence of a new professional specialty, a kind of worker that we might call a "flavorist" or "flavor chemist."

Admittedly, it's totally anachronistic for me to use terms like "flavor chemist" or "flavorist" here, as those designations don't appear to have come into service until the 1940s, but here's what I'm trying to get at:

There's a distinction that starts to open up as early as the end of the nineteenth century between "practical chemists" who mix up flavors and fragrances, among many other things, and specialized chemical workers (affiliated with newly established firms specializing in flavor and fragrance materials) who claim a particular kind of expertise with aromatic materials, an expertise that is both scientific and sensory. The latter, let's call them proto-flavor-chemists, are not merely supplying a market, they are creating it — in part by distinguishing their synthetic specialties from the kind of products you get when following published formulas.

The difference between the professionals is illustrated in a pungent, purplish essay titled "The Formulist," which appeared in the February 1921 Ungerer's Bulletin: A Symposium of Aromatics, a bimonthly compendium of editorials, news, and gossip published by the NYC synthetic aromatic materials firm Ungerer & Co. "The Formulist" is a moral fable of the aromatic materials business, where the eponymous figure is ultimately contrasted with the "real creative perfumer or flavor maker."

"The Formulist," we are told, "is he who, on a day in the far dim past, has inherited, achieved, or had thrust upon him a formula. On that... eventful day our Formulist entered the valley of self-satisfied contentment and ceased forever to function as a builder and producer."

The Formulist's career is subsequently spent assiduously protecting his cryptic recipe, like a mystic whom illumination has visited only once. "There is nothing more to be done," intones the narrator, "but to guard jealously the precious scrap of paper containing the clue to the sublime odor or flavor of his; to make his sacred mixes in guarded seclusion; and to carry on pompously in his self-assigned role as creator of the magnum opus."

The author of the fable (an F.N. Langlois, of the United Drug Company, Boston) finds two major faults with the ways of the Formulist. First, in taking his formula as perfect and complete, the Formulist shuts out new material developments in chemistry that could enhance his formula's sensory qualities, decrease its production costs, or improve its utility.

Second, the Formulist's hermeticism is a problem because it precludes a proper market orientation. As a secretive recluse, the Formulist is incapable or unwilling to work with others in the flavor and fragrance company, to admit that other realms of knowledge are involved in shaping a commercially viable product. Advertising men, salesmen, "the container and label artist" — all these professionals contribute to the success of a new flavor or fragrance product. By refusing to share the details of his formula with them, or integrate their reports about consumer needs or desires into his working process, the Formulist dooms himself to obscurity and his product to obsolescence.

In contrast:

"Your real creative perfumer or flavor maker moves with the times. He rotates with his market. The development of one great success acts as an incentive to a series of accomplishments. If he cannot improve the odor or the flavor he casts about for a more agreeable color for it. He smells or tastes his formula with the nose or palate of the outsider. Approaching from that direction, he appreciates the inevitable fact that the world eventually tires of perfection itself. He borrows a leaf from the experience of the cigar maker, who knows that there is a certain important section of his public which prefers a new good smoke to an old better one."

This is one of the earliest descriptions I've found of the role of the flavor chemist in a flavor company, negotiating between the sensory possibilities of chemicals and the sensual desires of consumers. The meaning here is that a successful flavor cannot merely reproduce static, timeless nature. The successful flavor also must reflect consumer tastes, expectations, and, especially, fashions.

In other words, the flavorist is in a fashion business, and must constantly produce novel sensations, new variations for a public hungry for untasted fruits, unsampled pleasures, both low delights and high ones.

The real creative flavor maker appreciates the inevitable fact that the world eventually tires of perfection itself. There is no perfect. There is only the pluripotent new, perpetually refreshed by the stream of newly discovered synthetic organic chemicals.   

But even as the professional identity of the creative flavor maker begins to take shape within the ranks of specialized flavor and fragrance manufacturers, other, less exalted, ways persist of working with aromatic materials.

For instance, an 1927 Army Quartermaster Corps bulletin on the subject of flavoring extracts characterizes the trade as "chaotic," estimating that there were as many as 5,000 producers of flavoring extracts active in the United States at the time. Most producers of these products are not, but sidelines from other trades: spice-milling, coffee grinding, baking powder manufacturing.

The Quartermaster bulletin takes no note of any specialized knowledge, training, or experience that flavor makers might need. Instead, it says that flavoring extracts are "simple to manufacture," they don't require complicated or expensive machinery. You can get into the flavoring business with little capital investment.  

L.M. Hottle asks for miscellaneous formulae. From Bureau of Chemistry records, National Archives.

L.M. Hottle asks for miscellaneous formulae. From Bureau of Chemistry records, National Archives.

This idea of flavor making as an opportunity requiring small-scale, semi-skilled manufacturing is reflected in a series of remarkable Depression-era letters to the USDA that I found in the National Archives last summer.

Daniel Levine of the Bronx, an unemployed veteran, wrote to the agency in 1936 looking for information on how to get into the flavor business.

"I am writing this letter with the thought that perhaps you could send me the necessary information such as education and money needed to start a small flavoring extract business, else formulas, etc.

Not being able to find employment I thought of this business as not being over-crowded."

"Gentlemen," wrote L.M. Hottle in 1937, from the Hotel Cameron, in Cameron, Missouri, "Will you please send me the formulaes on the following articles:

Butter Color; Imitation Extract, Vanilla, Orange, Strawberry, and Banana, and Lemon; Embalming Fluid; Floor Wax; Anti-Freeze; Wall-paper cleaner; Perfumed Deodorizers; Harness Oil; Shoe Dye."

For these writers, and for many others whose letters filled the files of the Bureau of Chemistry, flavor-making was something folks could get into without too much trouble, with perhaps only a little training and little capital. Remarkably, the government answered these kinds of inquiries relatively promptly, usually not with formulas, but with referrals, bibliographies, and lists sources to consult.

Yet the 1930s was probably the last decade when this kind of happenstance manufacturing of artificial flavors was even imaginable as a commercial possibility. Professionalization, increasing complexity, and especially, increasing regulations would mean that people starting out making flavor additives in the 1940s and 1950s were almost always employed by specialized flavor and fragrance companies.  

But there's one realm where non-professional-flavorists are mixing chemicals, tasting and comparing, sharing and perfecting recipes for artificial flavors today: vape fluids for e-cigarettes, an area of commerce still largely unregulated.