Pushing flavors to new frontiers

Flavor maven Marie Wright sees a future where healthy foods taste even better, thanks to good chemistry.

With upwards of 1,000 flavors to her credit and counting, flavorist Marie Wright knows her way around consumer taste buds.

The chief global flavorist at Erlanger, Ky.-based WILD Flavors also knows how important flavors will be in the decades ahead, as the food industry strives to meet increasing demands for more nutritious processed foods. Flavorists such as Wright are finding new and better ways to mask the unpleasant notes in some healthy fare, such as bitter flavors in whole-grain breads or disagreeable tastes in a vitamin-packed beverage, in order to make good food taste good.

“People may eat a healthy food once or twice for its nutrient value,” says Wright, “but only if it tastes good will they make it part of their diets.”

Consumers are also demanding more natural options, says Wright, and developments in technology are propelling natural flavors forward.

“Twenty years ago, our palette of [natural] materials was extremely small,” she explains. But as extraction and concentration technologies have improved, it has become easier and more cost-effective to pluck flavor notes from foods to create a whole new portfolio of natural oils and essences, such as tastier natural fruit flavors.

Wright believes she and her colleagues are also finding successful new ways to fuse those flavors. “Instead of layering flavor over flavor, we’re starting to really blend things that pair well together and have a balance,” she says. The result: Better-tasting foods that bring the consumer back for more.

A taste for science

Using science artfully has long been a passion for Wright, who concocted new tastes for International Fragrances and Flavors in New Jersey before she joined WILD in 2011. Her interest in flavors started early, while she was growing up in Hatfield Broad Oak, a small village in the English countryside. With a Turkish father and a half-Italian mother, their family functions revolved around food, she recalls.

From pastas with homemade sauce and olive oil to stuffed vine leaves and pickled turnips, she says, “my sister and I were exposed to a great variety of foods growing up–cuisines based on vegetables, spices and herbs” such as lamb with pomegranate, a childhood favorite.

“In retrospect, I probably could have been a chef,” Wright says. But she excelled at science and loved chemistry and math. After earning a degree in chemistry from Kings College London, she took a job doing analytical sensory research and soon began training as a flavorist, engineering artificial and natural flavors of her own.

Initially, being a woman in the industry presented some challenges. “I think successful women have to work a little bit harder than their male counterparts” in order to be fairly compensated, she says. But she didn’t let that deter–or change–her. “I have not become manly to work in a man’s world,” she adds.

These days, Wright says she is excited by the growing number of women in food science. And though senior management is still dominated by men, she says, she believes things are getting easier for women in the field. Just as a successful flavor requires balanced components, she believes a company excels when it has a good mix of men and women working together. “We have different things to offer,” she says. While she says her male colleagues tend to be more pragmatic, “I think women are more nurturing; we see food as a way of bringing good health to people.”

Trend spotting

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Marie Wright

Mixing and blending ingredients in the lab, however, is only one part of Wright’s job description. As a flavorist, she also has to be a trend spotter, keeping tabs on global developments in food culture. That means traveling, visiting bars and supermarkets with a discerning eye, and even staying current on trends in architecture, fragrance and fashion. “For example, if fashion dictates flowing fabrics, that could be translated to a light layered wafer cookie with whipped cream and vanilla flavors,” she says.

Wright also borrows inspiration from the world of fine cuisine. She follows food stars such as the Danish chef René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, who launched the local foraging movement and brought quirky flavors such as sea buckthorn and reindeer to the table. Modern chefs are really educating the public about ingredients and taste, she says, allowing her to design exciting new flavors for more knowledgeable consumers.

But white tablecloths certainly aren’t necessary for pushing food boundaries. Microbreweries, for example, are introducing beer lovers to complex flavors from roots, seeds and herbs, says Wright. And the supremely popular food trucks and market stalls are driving culinary creativity through cheap eats. “They’re doing splendid work fusing together foods and tastes from all over the world,” she says.

These new and inventive flavors aren’t created in a vacuum, of course. Consumers are traveling more and becoming more adventurous eaters, Wright says. They experiment with more distinctive foods (think fermented flavors like those found in kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, or kefir, a sour dairy drink). The experienced eater no longer settles for the plain old flavor of lemons and pears but craves the specific nuances of a Sicilian lemon or a Bartlett pear. “The consumer is getting more and more sophisticated, and people are more open to different ideas,” she says.

Instead of layering flavor over flavor, we’re starting to really blend things that pair well together and have a balance.”
—Marie Wright

That makes it an exciting time to work in the world of flavor creation, but Wright doesn’t want to merely mimic the tastes created by others. She also aims to create entirely new flavors that resonate with consumers and tap into the emotional connections people have with food. Orange is often associated with refreshment and happiness, she points out, and it happens to be one of the most popular flavors in the world. Vanilla–linked to indulgence and relaxation–is another global favorite. The trick for flavorists will be to craft new flavor combinations that evoke similar feel-good feelings.

“When I’m thinking about that next flavor, a lot of thought goes behind it before I actually create anything,” Wright says. Eventually, all that mulling will be translated into mouthwatering new products like peony white tea or pickled-onion seasoning. And just maybe, someday soon, her ultimate dream: yogurt that tastes perfectly of sun-ripened strawberries, fresh off the vine.

Kirsten Weir

Kirsten Weir is a freelance science writer based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American Mind, U.S. News & World Report and many others.

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