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What a scent called ‘cheesy vomit’ taught me about artificial flavor

NEW YORK — I never knew I could like a smell called “cheesy vomit” until I visited the Museum of Food and Drink.

The museum, which opened last week with an interactive “flavor lab” in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, explores the history of how flavor is produced and maps the beginnings of what we call “artificial flavor.” The story is as much about chemistry as it is about capitalism and colonization, which both brought flavors from the Americas to Europe and created a worldwide demand for their production.

At the center of the lab, which is housed in a former storage warehouse, an interactive smell machine lets visitors smell the separate flavors that make up familiar foods. That’s where I saw it: a flavor labeled “cheesy vomit,” which museum founder Dave Arnold developed with research from flavorists and neuroscientists. It turns out “cheesy vomit,” otherwise known as the smell of butyric acid, forms an important component of cheese, along with a flavor dubbed “butter sweet cream,” which comes from the organic compound diacetyl. Separately, they both smelled terrible. Together, they took on a savory, cheesy scent.

Below, check out what else surprised us from our visit.

“Artificial” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

The question of which flavors are “natural” and which are “artificial” have inspired a great deal of debate — but our brains usually can’t tell the difference, according to Emma Boast, the museum’s program director. “There isn’t, oftentimes, a very big difference between these flavors that are natural or artificial,” she said. This is because even artificial flavors, those that were produced in a lab, usually share the chemical makeup of their plant-based counterparts, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between the two, she said.

I asked Boast and Peter Kim, the museum’s executive director, how they would define “artificial flavor,” a conversation that became philosophical very quickly. “What does natural mean in the first place?” Kim asked. “You might argue that food, inherently is artificial, because agriculture is artificial. Breeding is artificial. What we’re cooking is artificial.”

And some flavors that carry the “natural” label were actually created in a lab, but received the “natural” designation because they come from a botanical source — like citrol, the molecule that gives lemon its flavor and can be derived from lemongrass, Kim said.

These details speak to a larger point — that flavors created in a lab are chemically the same as many so-called “natural” flavors, making those labels irrelevant, Kim said. “No matter where a chemical flavor comes from, it is chemically identical at the end of the day,” he said.

Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee

“One of our underlying theses is that food connects to pretty much every aspect of human life,” says Peter Kim, the museum’s executive director. Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee

A 12-year-old enslaved child made it possible to taste vanilla around the world.

Vanilla is native to Mexico, and according to a number of accounts, it first reached Europe after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought the vanilla orchid across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, it was not widely known how to cultivate the plant. But in 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old enslaved child in the French colony of Réunion, found a way to easily pollinate vanilla orchids by hand using a blade of grass.

His method made its way to vanilla production in Madagascar, which leads worldwide vanilla production, and is still used today. But Albius is seldom credited for this discovery, Boast said. “A lot of people don’t know about him,” she said.

Most vanilla-flavored things we eat do not contain vanilla…

…but they do contain vanillin, a compound found in vanilla beans that contribute to vanilla’s taste. For that we can thank Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, a French chemist who isolated vanillin from vanilla beans in 1858. German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann discovered the molecular structure of vanillin in 1874, opening the door for synthetic vanillin production from other materials. It is possible to synthesize vanillin from many different substances, including pine bark and lignin, a waste product from the paper industry.

Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee

The coffee smell machine isolated two scents that are present in coffee, allowing visitors to try them separately. Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee

Coffee’s aroma comes from a “skunk” smell.

More specifically, it comes from a combination of coffee grounds and furfuryl mercaptan, a chemical in brewed coffee that contains sulfur. Furfuryl mercaptan is also present in grilled fish, garlic and rotting eggs. Using the museum’s coffee smell machine, I smelled both scents separately and together — on its own, the compound smelled like a skunk, but in combination with coffee smell, it created the sense of fresh-brewed coffee.

The U.S. doesn’t understand umami.

Of the five tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami — the least-understood, especially in the U.S., is umami, a savory taste present in mushrooms, cheese and cured meats, Boast said.

Some of the umami taste we encounter in savory foods comes from monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. It became popular as a food additive among food manufacturing companies in the 1950s as a way of enhancing the “mouth-watering” flavor of umami, Boast said. After a widespread, now-debunked rumor took hold that it could cause physical reactions like heart palpitations in the 1960s, MSG gained a negative reputation. But it continues to be present in a variety of common foods, Boast said.

“[MSG] never really took off with American consumers in the home, yet it found its way into everything we eat,” Boast said. “We just don’t really realize it.”

You can visit the Museum of Food and Drink at 62 Bayard St., Brooklyn, New York.

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