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Unchicken? Synthetic Flavors Get More Authentic

New and improved synthetic flavors mimic the real thing.

Unchicken? Synthetic Flavors Get More Authentic

If you notice sometime in the not-too-distant future that those chicken fingers you ordered taste different, well, you might be onto something. International Flavors & Fragrances and Givaudan, two of the world's largest flavor companies, have separately embarked on major research projects in pursuit of "more authentic" chicken flavors. "We thought we already had them," says Jos Muilwijk, IFF's head of global savory category management. "But when we started to screen those flavors against true culinary benchmarks, we saw that there was still a significant gap."

IFF flavorists decided they needed a new standard to replicate, so they dispatched the company's master chef, Florian Webhofer, to source the widest variety of raw chicken he could find and to prepare it in countless ways. In a series of blind tastings, the team picked "gold standard" dishes, simply cooked using methods such as boiling and sous vide. Lab technicians then copied those flavors to build a new chicken "tool kit" with five core flavors — boiled white meat, boiled dark meat, skin, roasted, and grilled — which can be blended to flavor everything from packaged soup to instant noodles to chicken burgers.

At Givaudan, researchers visited 14 countries to observe cultural differences in chicken prep in homes and restaurants. "A chicken profile for South America must be different from a chicken profile for North America," says Michael Peters, head of global flavor-creation technology. After creating a family of chicken flavors, Givaudan used its Virtual Aroma Synthesizer — a device that sprays scented air at subjects — to test those flavors. "When it comes to flavor, the difference is all in the aroma," explains Peters. While taste buds are normally overwhelmed after three or four dishes, the synthesizer allows subjects to test dozens of aromas in one sitting.

These industrial approaches to flavor development may be disconcerting, but they're also responsible for the taste of thousands of products on supermarket shelves. Artificial flavors can often mean lower prices. But "eating foods in their more natural state is a lot more healthful for the variety of nutrients they provide," says Christine Gerbstadt of the American Dietetic Association. In other words, if you want authentic chicken flavor, you could just eat chicken.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.