The artificial banana flavor is bland, saccharin-filled, and quite far removed from the reality of fresh bananas.
Perhaps this is why artificial flavorings are often dismissed as unnatural.
However, some of them are more «natural» than they appear.
Sometimes they don’t taste like their fresh counterparts for reasons more complex than basic chemistry. That’s why flavor wizards and food creators employing clever new techniques to trick our senses.
The complexity of a banana
In the case of the banana, according to legend, the artificial flavor has authentic origins: it was developed from an ancient variety of the fruit called Gros Michel.
the mushroom Fusarium oxysporumor «Panama disease,» killed off Gros Michel during the 20th century. So growers bred another strain of plantain, Cavendish, resistant to Panama disease, but with a different flavor.
According to this story, the artificial flavors derived from Michel Gros persisted, making it different from the commonly consumed fruit.
But there are few if any verifiable sources that the artificial banana came from the Gros Michel.
«It sounds very, very unlikely to me,» says Derek Lowe, an expert in organic and synthetic chemistry.
«Banana can be easily mimicked with a simple compound called isoamyl acetate. Many chemists know it as ‘banana ether’ and anyone who smells it immediately thinks ‘banana!'»
Isoamyl acetate, present in natural bananas, is a very simple and cheap compound to produce.
Where does the myth of the Gros Michel come from?
Rob Gruz, a Hawaiian banana farmer, produces 35 different varieties, including Gros Michel. It is one of his three favorite bananas and he says it has a very characteristic flavor.
«It tastes almost like a Cavendish but sweeter, and yes, in some artificial way. It’s like the difference between something grape-shaped and bubblegum-flavored and a real grape,» he explains. «The first time I tried it, it made me think of banana flavorings.»
So while the banana essence may not have «come out» of the Gros Michel, this variety does seem to have an artificial flavor.
And this was achieved by analyzing its biochemical properties, which are consistent with the idea of a less complex flavor. There was a time, then, when banana flavorings really did taste like real bananas.
The case of the Gros Michel suggests that we should not be too quick to dismiss artificial flavors as «fake.» Many other flavorings have a very similar chemistry to genuine food.
Sometimes the flavor is not the same because it fails to reproduce other factors such as maturity or the flavors produced after cooking, for example.
There are exceptions to the rule. So-called vanillin is such a predominant compound in natural vanilla beans that laboratory-synthesized flavors are indistinguishable from the real thing.
But capturing the flavor of a good, fresh, ripe strawberry in a compound is impossible.
That’s why there’s a huge market beyond «one-shade» flavors, according to Danny Kite, flavor creator at TasteTech in Bristol, UK.
During the 20th century, Kite explains, food and beverage companies realized that volatile compounds in food were lost during storage in bakery products or concentrated fruit juices, for example, and could be captured. and reintroduced later.
«Over the years we’ve learned to trap volatile elements before they escape or condense, so we get something that some people call essence and others call aroma, but in the end it’s a liquid that tastes like that fruit,» he says.
The hard part is getting those volatile substances released at the right moment, when a consumer is about to eat the product in question.
TasteTech achieved this through a technology known as «encapsulation,» in which the compounds are encased within a matrix of vegetable fat. In cooked foods, for example, this can protect them from the heat of an industrial oven, so that they are only released later, inside the mouth.
Encapsulation can also allow compounds to be released in stages while the product is being produced. This has led, among other things, to the production of chewing gums with a longer lasting flavor.
Bompas & Parr, a London firm that specializes in unusual flavors and foods, has also experimented with multi-flavor products to replicate the three gum-focused dinner courses of Willy Wonka, a character from the novel «Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.» .
This was modified by using microencapsulated flavors, which appeared later. The release of flavors, however, is cumulative, not sequential.
«They start to layer, one on top of the other, and they blend together,» says Sam Bompas, one of the managers at Bompas & Parr.
Still, there are flavors that remain difficult to grasp. Kite mentions the freshly ground coffee, the aroma of which is notoriously short-lived.
«Many of these elements react with oxygen in the air and break down very quickly,» he says. «Creating that flavor is almost impossible.»
The sound of a gin and tonic
Often we cannot trust our senses to identify «authentic» flavors.
“The color of food, where we eat it, and what they tell us about it can affect our perception of taste,” says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University.
«Most of what we experience as the taste or aroma of food actually comes from our nose and is mistakenly located in our brain, so we think it comes from the mouth, it’s some kind of ventriloquist fictional illusion,» Spence dice. «And besides, all the other senses play a role.»
For example, if you give someone two drinks to test in a lab, where one is 10% less sweet but red in color, they are likely to describe it as sweeter than the other because of associations between red and certain fruits.
Even the sound of food influences the perception of its taste.
Spence says that we can tell if a liquid is hot or cold just by listening to how it is poured, because depending on the temperature, liquids have different viscosities and the brain has internalized the ability to perceive that difference aurally.
This type of ultra-specialist knowledge is used for the innovations of the best chefs in the world.
For example, Spence is collaborating with Denis Martin, a Swiss chef with two Michelin stars.
Martin has created a frozen gin and tonic that is served on a plate like a perfect sphere.
But, since the sound of gas is lost in the drink, the taste also changes.
For this reason, Spence has helped Martin so that his dishes can reproduce the sound of the fizzy bubbles of a gin and tonic, while diners savor the frozen version.
Today, flavor companies and researchers are incorporating this insight into their testing, and flavor production is more nuanced.
Cindy Beeren, Director of Leatherhead Food Research in the UK, he says his team examines food and flavorings in deliberately sterile environments, with a specific type of white lighting called «northern light.»
They have also tested samples at more than 9,000m, where they saw that the effect of monosodium glutamate, a common flavor enhancer, was less.
Aircraft food companies took note of this and could make saltier-tasting dishes using other methods.
For all this, instead of considering so-called fake flavors as boring and unnatural, we will be able to appreciate the tricks that can create fantastic flavors.
And the next time you eat a banana, marvel at how complex it really is to taste. Unless, of course, you can get a Gros Michel.