Friday, August 12, 2011

How Do Scientists Make Watermelon Flavor?

It is a summer time favorite -a venerable taste of the season. I have loved the taste of these big delicious red and green melons since I was a kid! The experience is unmistakable-with the juices that run down your neck and the seeds you can spit easily because they are slippery-the flavor unmatched. Or so I thought.

The first candies I tasted with watermelon flavor were way back in the mid 1980’s, Jolly Rancher Hard Candies. I was amazed at the flavor, the color and the smell -oh the smell! However great this new candy tasted, I was ultimately disappointed in the lack of subtlety of the candies’ flavor that can only be found in the fruit itself. It was then that I knew right there in the middle of winter, there would just never be the perfect watermelon flavor to whet my appetite. I tried, though. I tried many times to find it. It never was found.

Today, I sit eating a scrumptious piece of the real fruit and I think back to that moment. And, I wonder why. Why couldn’t there be the perfect blend of odor and taste to bring this fantastic delight to me in the wintertime? Well, besides having the watermelons flown in from the southern hemisphere.

I got to work. I looked up natural versus artificial flavors. I looked at histories and chemistry notes. I think I might have the answer.

It all starts with a chemical compound called an “ester”. A chemist can find these esters by boiling down or deconstructing the very fruit, or other natural element, into the chemical components that make it up. Then, when taking the water molecule out of such so that it breaks down even more into a compound made up of the reaction between an acid and an alcohol, one finds the ester.

These esters are the basic building blocks of taste and scent for the flavor. The ester for an orange flavor is called octyl acetate (CH3COOC8H17). The “octyl” is the alcohol and the “acetate” is the acid. So, by adding these esters to a product’s ingredients, the product will taste like an orange. Well, at least to some degree.

I did some further digging and found out that my precious watermelon flavor used to be based on a strong belief that alcohols were the main contributors towards the aroma. The study by some chemists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign actually found out that a watermelon’s ester, the one that can smell like fresh cut watermelon, is identifiable but not stable enough to flavor anything. It breaks down too quickly. These chemists worked on the problem but found that if you used the ester, nicknamed “watermelon aldehyde”, and bonded it to a synthesized “backbone”, the result still wasn’t good enough to be a suitable replacement for the esters on the market now.

This process goes for every flavor you can imagine. The chemists find the esters. The food producers add the ester compounds to the products. The public figures out if the product does taste like the food producers want you think it tastes. And, we all happily go about our business.

Of course there is a huge debate whether these artificial flavors are a good thing or a bad thing. This follows along the same lines as the debate on artificial colors or news of the development of the Local Food Movement. These ideas will have to be addressed in other blog posts. In this article, I just wanted to find out “why?”

As a result of all my research, here we sit, with a mock watermelon flavor that just cannot satisfy my cravings for this summer fruit during the summer. The real thing is still the best! But, it might just do in a pinch come Halloween!

Written by Adea for the TriangleMommies Blog, part of TMN. All rights reserved. July 2011.


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