Aroma chemicals are singular compounds that have been synthesized or isolated. There is quite a lot of controversy surrounding these materials and many food bloggers have tried to use scare tactics to steer people away from anything that says Flavor on the label. Why? Probably as a result of trying to push their own products or possibly because they fear what they do not understand. The word chemical has come under a lot of scrutiny because it sounds dangerous. Well I am here to tell you not to fear! The entire universe is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical: Dihydrogen monoxide. The air we breathe is made of chemicals: Oxygen, Nitrogen, Hydrogen and many more. We are made of chemicals (mostly made of water). Everything is made of chemicals!
To understand Aroma Chemicals, we have to take a step back and talk about where Aroma Chemicals come from. Aroma Chemicals are Odor Active (meaning we can smell them) Chemicals that occur naturally in the foods that we eat, the flowers we smell, the juices we drink. Aroma Chemicals occur all over nature, in honey, in oranges, berries, flowers, etc. Originally, Fragrances and Flavors were made of materials extracted from living material such as Essential Oils, because that was the understanding of the chemistry at the time. As Scientists began to break down what makes up these natural extractives, they began to identify individual compounds within these materials. These compounds could then be synthesized in a lab environment to produce Synthetic Aroma Chemicals! The modern Flavor Industry was born!
So you see that these chemicals in flavors are really the very same compounds that make up the things that we consume everyday!
Why do Aroma Chemicals work and not just use the Natural Material?
Aroma Chemicals work by activating specific receptors in the nose that triggers the brain a particular aroma is present. When a number of aroma chemicals active a variety of receptors a complex aroma is detected.
Here is a simplified example of a Strawberry: Strawberry is a Complex Aroma and is made up of many Simple Aromas. Sweet, Fruity, Creamy, Green, Floral, Sour(Acid) when combined correctly signal to the brain that the aroma is actually Strawberry (the sum of the parts). Translated into the chemistry: each one of those aromas can relate to a particular Aroma Chemical. When the Aroma Chemicals are separate, they only active one type of receptor (Sweet Chemical activates Sweet Receptor). However when all the chemicals are combined at the right concentrations, your brain recognizes the sum of the parts as Strawberry, not as each individual aroma.
By using this as a basis, Flavor Chemists (or Flavorists) can create flavors using a limited number of Aroma Chemicals to create a complex aroma, without all the extras that natural extracted materials contain. Also, Natural Extractive materials are dependant on crops, seasons and natural disasters; meaning that if a crop is wiped out, or yield is low, the availability of that material will be affected.
All Aroma Chemicals are Artificial?!
No, Aroma Chemicals come in two classes: Artificial and Natural. We discussed Artificial Aroma Chemicals (or Synthetic) above. Artificial Aroma Chemicals are chemically synthesized using traditional Organic Chemistry techniques. Natural Aroma Chemicals are produced in an entirely different way. These Chemicals are produced using living organisms, such as plants. Biochemical pathways are identified where aroma chemicals are produced naturally inside a living organism and then isolated from that organism to collect an Aroma Chemical. The two produced compounds from a chemistry perspective are identical. They have the same structure. They behave the same way in the body. They are identical in virtually every way.
Aroma Chemicals are Not SAFE?!
WRONG! Aroma Chemicals are safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certifies any aroma chemical as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) prior to its consumption by the public (Other countries have their own regulations). That means any Aroma Chemical that a Flavorist wants to use, must be certified by the FDA prior to use. The FDA requires a massive amount of information regarding the use and safety of every material intended for human consumption. If you are interested in very dry reading but want more information, here is the FDA Food site where you can read up on all the nitty-gritty details: http://www.fda.gov/Food/
There is a third party organization that assists with ensuring the safety of every material intended for human consumption in terms of flavor called the Flavor & Extracts Manufacturer Association. They have two sites: one dedicated to the regulatory and compliance, and the second, dedicated to the proper education of the public.
These sites are great for reference and helping debunk some of the misinformation on the web.
Future posts will dig much deeper into the various myths surrounding Flavors, as well as the chemistry and creation of flavors.
Please submit any questions in the comments!!