When most people describe the taste of orange juice they might mention the drink’s sweet or sour tang.
Flavor chemist Dr. Xiaofen Du has a more intricate sense explaining the drink’s fresh, seedy flavor or even the nuance of lemon and other fruits intermingled within.
“Generally, if you eat something, you identify three to four flavors. But, if you get trained, you will pick up much more and become sensitive,” Du said.
It’s been her job to study the chemical breakdown of foods, finding the individual components that make up taste and aroma. Once known, she can replicate flavors in the lab to find ways to amplify natural flavors or create entirely new ones.
As one of Texas Woman’s University’s newest faculty members, Du is passing on her expertise to an inaugural group of students in the school’s flavor chemistry program, which started earlier this year.
It’s the only flavor chemistry-focused university food science programs in the U.S., according to Shane Broughton, chair of TWU’s Nutrition and Food Sciences department. The Denton university also has one of the only flavor chemists in Texas.
Prior to coming to TWU, Du worked as senior research scientist in China at Firmenich Aromatics, the world’s largest privately-owned flavor and fragrance company with numerous research and development awards to its name, including a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
“It’s not easy to learn. We deal with a lot of compounds you have to memorize. You have to connect those chemicals to real perceptions.”
Becoming a flavor chemist or flavorist requires rigorous training including a seven-year apprenticeship. Broughton said there are currently only hundreds of certified flavorists in the world.
“It’s not easy to learn. We deal with a lot of compounds you have to memorize. You have to connect those chemicals to real perceptions,” Du said.
At TWU, students can earn a master’s degree in flavor chemistry or a Ph.D. in nutrition with an emphasis in flavor chemistry. It’s the background students would need to eventually become certified flavorists if they choose.
“We want to make sure we are training them according to what the job market needs are in this immediate environment,” Broughton said.
For flavor chemistry student Judee Romero, the program could help her find a career she’s more passionate about. She worked for three and a half years as a nutritionist at Baylor University Medical Center, but the work didn’t resonate. When she heard about TWU’s new program, she decided to come back for another degree.
“If I can combine my two favorite things — food and chemistry — then this is for me,” Romero said.
FLAVOR CHEMISTRY PROGRAM RESPONDS TO LOCAL INDUSTRY REQUEST
When Broughton arrived at the university in 2014, the food science program’s future was up in the air. He met with a number of local partners in the food industry, all of whom had a resounding request — “we need a flavor chemist.”
In response, TWU decided to re-orient its food science program around flavor chemistry. In addition to Du, university faculty members from chemistry and biology also will teach flavor chemistry students to offer a more cross-disciplined approach, Broughton said.
Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group gave financial support to launch the program, which helped fund Du’s salary and the purchase of specialized lab equipment.
“The interactions between my flavor technology team and what they are doing [at TWU] is going to be a good connection going forward.”
David Thomas, executive vice president of research and development for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, said the partnership is a win-win.
“The interactions between my flavor technology team and what they are doing [at TWU] is going to be a good connection going forward,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who has decades of R&D experience in the food and beverage industry, said the TWU program can be a potential workforce pipeline for Dr Pepper as well as provide support for long-term research projects.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to think about how we will collaborate in terms of research programs,” Thomas said. “Looking at flavor, flavor interactions, and flavor stability within food and beverage matrices — that’s always important and critical to us.”
Other companies have been in contact with TWU about more research collaborations, Broughton said.
Du already has performed work for Carrollton-based Truco Enterprises, the parent company of On the Border. Her research is proprietary, so she can’t go into details.
“We already got one project done with them and they came back and we are talking about another two projects,” Du said.
STUDENTS REFINING SENSES TO RECOGNIZE FLAVOR COMPONENTS
In the university’s lab students get hands-on experience performing the research with equipment that might be the envy of those in the industry. Du is working to build their knowledge of flavor chemistry and lab procedures step by step.
“It’s one thing to educate your students, it’s another one to educate them and give them the experiential learning they need to hopefully walk right into a job,” Broughton said.
“It’s one thing to educate your students, it’s another one to educate them and give them the experiential learning they need to hopefully walk right into a job.”
On a recent day in the lab, Romero performed tests on one of the machines, which performs data analysis on multiple samples to determine their chemical makeup.
“This tune is checking the condition of the machine. There may be a small leak,” Romero said.
In an offshoot lab room, students can put their noses to work at the gas chromatography/mass spectrometry-olfactometry machine. The equipment helps in sensory evaluation or linking up chemical compounds in a solution with human perception. In this case, smell.
“What I learned about flavor is what makes up a lot of flavor is actually aroma. It was interesting how that machine broke down a compound,” Romero said. “For example, when we ran vanilla through that, you can smell chocolate, a smoky [aroma], and something that smelled like brownies.”
Student Cynthia Becerra already is working as an R&D tech at Farmers Branch-based Valdez Corp., but a few weeks ago she had her first turn at the olfactometry machine.
“I find it so fascinating just learning the background of how everything works and how one reaction can contribute to so many products out in the market,” Becerra said. “ … There’s actually a science behind creating all these products. With the ever-changing trends moving toward what consumers want to eat that offers an array of possibilities.”
Photos by Heather Noel
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