Playing God (or Carving Venus): Food Product Design

When writing my article on terpene removal a search for an author I quoted led me to this interesting 1998 article, The Sweet Taste of Success, published by Food Product Design. I have bunch of masters program text books on food science for food product designers and some of the ideas from industrial food scientists range from insightful & interesting to startling & creepy. They sometimes pen justifications for using artificial ingredients they call nature equivalent and rationalize them as more friendly to ecosystems than growing natural ingredients. They are known for not liking to waste anything so they take every fatty scrap and invent snacks for children (the road to hell is paved with good intentions).

But there is also great ideas to be found and I’m only high lighting this article because when I started collecting vermouth literature so many years ago, I was looking for unique language that flavor professionals used to discuss the very complex things they were constructing. Did they have language the flavor layman didn’t have and did that help them achieve so much? Sadly, I didn’t find anything too unique and I started creating my own language using ideas from aesthetics, sensory science, cognitive linguistics, metaphor theory, and category theory.

Here goes, lets highlight some passages.

Before becoming a food scientist, I couldn’t understand why my homemade yellow cake and freshly squeezed lemonade didn’t pack the full flavor of grocery-store products. It was only after touring my first flavor-manufacturing facility did I understand why my creations paled next to commercially prepared foods.

Oh god, what an introduction. What author Lisa Kobs is getting at is how commercial food manufacturers use every trick in the book to create a supernormal stimuli.

Flavor chemists have access to thousands of flavor compounds capable of accentuating the subtle nuances of sweet goods. The literature tends to focus more on the application of flavor to savory, rather than sweet, food products. But with a basic understanding of how to properly use flavoring ingredients, the food scientist can create the right flavor system for sweet applications.

This implies fragmenting something into a series of categories and manipulating them independently until you can create a seductive experience that exploits all of our reward mechanisms.

The four most common processing methods – Bourbon, Mexican, Tahitian and Java Indonesian – vary in the length of time beans are grown before picking; duration of drying; and the drying method used, which can include sun-roasting and fire-curing.

This differentiation of vanilla beans is new to me and very interesting. She describes vanilla as the chief way to enhance sweets but personally its a flavor I’ve rebelled against, often seeming too plebian and ordinary.

An aroma profile common to all vanillas is described as sharply acidic with slightly bitter back notes and a pronounced pungency.

In this statement note that she is describing olfaction in terms of gustation which is the first layer of my aroma categorization schema. I had also never seen vanilla referred to as acidic before.

However, vanillas have characteristic flavors and aromas based on their country of origin. Bourbon-processed vanilla beans, grown mostly in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, produce a high-vanillin-content vanilla described as rich, smooth, rummy and full-bodied. Mexican vanilla beans have a lower vanillin content and the vanilla lacks the body associated with the bourbon beans. Its flavor profile has been described as sharp, slightly pungent, woody, resinous, sweet and spicy. Tahitian vanilla is distinctively sweet, very fragrant and perfume-like, with coumarinic flavor and heliotropine notes. Java vanilla beans, from Indonesia, produce a vanilla described as deep, full-bodied, harsh, smoky and phenolic.

Awesome descriptive language and differentiation here. She uses varying categories to describe each of the beans even using two iconic object comparisons for the Tahitian beans.

Ethyl vanillin is a chemically processed flavor made from the coal-tar derivative, guaiacol. It has an intense, vanilla-like odor, and has a more powerful flavor than vanillin. It can feature a harsh “chemical” character when used at too high a level. A number of other, less well-known components delivering a vanilla flavor include: veratraldehyde, which is herbaceous and warm; heliotropine, which is sweet, spicy and floral; anisyl acetate, which is powdery and floral; and vanitrope, which has a warm, spicy medicinal sweetness.

Coal-tar, who would have thought? I’m not afraid of that kind of thing but it is surprising. Here we see a “chemical” descriptor among many other categories. Powdery is a surprising one and the paper Understanding the Underlying Dimensions in Perfumers’ Odor Perception Space as a Basis for Developing Meaningful Odor Maps helps correlate such descriptors to others that are better known.

The category of sweet, brown flavors includes those flavors having the connotations of roasted, burnt or caramelized flavor systems, according to Carol Pollock, director, sweet and beverage flavor creations, Wild Flavors, Inc., Cincinnati. They can be extracted from botanicals and supplemented with other natural and artificial flavors, or they can be created by a reaction process. Flavors within this category include brown sugar, graham cracker, malt, honey, maple, molasses, caramel, butterscotch, coffee and chocolate.

Here she uses the term category which may seem insignificant but believe me its significant.

Flavor profiles for the base notes in many sweet brown flavors are similar. St. John’s bread, an extract of the carob plant, forms the base note for many brown flavors. Brown sugar gets its distinctive flavor from a thin coating of molasses on the granulated sucrose. Butterscotch flavor is made from heating butter, sugar, fat and salt. Lipase activity from the butter, caramelization from heated sugars, and Maillard reactions from the sugar and protein generate this flavor. Many of caramel’s flavor notes can be found in butterscotch, but with a twist. Botanical extracts that make up the sweet browns include black hawthorne, fenugreek, yerba mate and lovage. Brown flavors tend to contain more backnotes and mouthfeel rather than aromatics, and many of them have actual extracts of the ingredient in them, such as coffee or chocolate.

I love the idea in here of yerba mate. Flavor formulators love to surprise and here is an example of it in action. Yerba mate is a fragment or sub category of a larger category like sweet-brown so it fits because it fills its category role but it turns heads because its different and that is relatively more extraordinary. A pattern is found and put to use with a fun variation.

Honey. Honey is considered a sweetener, but one with a characteristic flavor. A complex flavor results from the sugars, acids, tannins, and volatile and nonvolatile components within it.

This is one reason why I specify non-aromatic when I use white sugar. It eludes to variations that could provide aromas such as using honey which is more than just aroma but rather flavor.

Using honey at high levels also can be quite expensive. The solution may be a honey flavor. The flavor chemist can engineer an excellent artificial honey flavor, and a blend of honey and other sweeteners boosted with a honey flavor would provide the desired flavor characteristics at a lower cost without the accompanying texture problems. Often a mixture of real honey and honey flavor can taste more like honey than actual honey does.

Lets quote that last sentance again:

Often a mixture of real honey and honey flavor can taste more like honey than actual honey does.

Text book supernormal stimuli: where there is a response tendency we create an exaggerated response tendency. Boom! Don’t let flimsy symbolic constraints like being natural get in your way…

Maple syrup. Maple syrup, the sap of black maple and sugar maple trees, is another sweetener containing a characterizing sweet brown flavor. The sap is concentrated through an evaporative process, which thickens it and intensifies the flavor. Syrup right out of the tree is mostly sucrose. Evaporation produces some glucose and fructose upon inversion at a low pH. One group of flavoring components comes from the ligneous materials from the sap, but a second group is formed by the caramelization of sugars.

A really interesting way to sum up maple. I didn’t know it started as sucrose.

Maple flavors have been developed by the extraction of botanicals, such as fenugreek and lovage, or chemical compounds, such as cyclotene and methyl cyclopentenone. It’s important to distinguish real maple flavor from maple syrup flavor. Processed, artificially flavored maple syrups have become almost a standard of maple flavor, while a true maple flavor has a completely different character.

Really interesting ideas on how to elaborate maple. And then the ubiquitousness of the artificial version has superseded the natural version? Interesting.

Chocolate flavors typically contain actual chocolate, or extracts and distillates from the cocoa beans. Artificial chocolate is difficult to make without any real chocolate extractive components because of the complexity of the flavor, according to Gary Reineccius, professor in food science, department of food science and nutrition, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. “It’s very difficult to make a totally natural chocolate flavor, because the chemicals comprising chocolate flavor aren’t available in natural form, and the flavorist won’t even get close to a mediocre natural chocolate flavor by putting together pure chemicals without adding chocolate products.”

Its amazing how chocolate can elude forgery. Is the word forgery appropriate?

Vanilla and vanillin are commonly added to enhance the flavor of chocolate. They also are the primary source of flavor in white chocolate, which is a blend of cocoa butter, sugar and milk. Another developer’s trick to increase the perception of chocolate flavor is to darken the food matrix. The deep brown color of a chocolate cake will send connotations of rich chocolate flavor to the consumer’s mind before it is ever tasted.

Perception is the meeting point of incoming sensation and outgoing recollection. He color primes your recollections before you even taste. #phenomenology.

Aside from the adjective “coffee-flavored,” it can be called acidic, full-bodied, mellow, mocha, soft, nutty, rich, smooth, acidic, spicy, smoky, winey, heavy, chocolate, bright and earthy.

She goes from one upper level object comparison to other lower level object comparisons, sensations, and grounded metaphors where one sense in described in terms of another. Separating sensations like acidic from grounded metaphors like heavy is not always easy. In another context without much cluing, acidic could also be a grounded metaphor.

Coffee flavors have been developed by profiling the extractives of the native beans for their flavor, and then analyzing these chemicals and their composition. Reineccius explains that a compound called furfurylmercaptan can help the developer create coffee flavor without using coffee. Since this flavor isn’t available naturally, it must be labeled as artificial. It’s impossible to make a natural coffee flavor without starting with some coffee, as there are no other naturally occurring substances that capture this flavor. “Making coffee flavors challenges the flavor chemist because different levels of oils exist in the beans themselves,” Pollock explains. “In addition, different amounts of oils can be extracted, and coffee contains many reactive ingredients. Coffee flavor is temperature-dependent; freshly brewed coffee loses its impact within a minute of brewing.”

Adding furfurylmercaptan to coffee to stretch it would fit the intention of creating a supernormal stimuli. Interestingly its not to be more seductive but to be more economical. Like chocolate, coffee might be very symbolically significant to our culture because it resists forgery. #mythologies

Caramel. Applying heat to sucrose above its melting point catalyzes the reaction of caramelization. Sugar breakdown products create a mixture of aldehydes and ketones and, most importantly, furanones. These can be characterized as caramel-like, sweet, fruity, butterscotch, nutty or burnt, and are the backbone of the caramel flavor. “The decomposition of sucrose by heat is a challenge in a plant situation because it is difficult to control the reaction,” Pollock says. “It’s much easier to simulate caramel flavors by using compounded flavors.” Maltol, ethyl maltol and cyclotene are components commonly found in caramel flavors. Caramel candy’s flavor comes from heating and concentrating sugar and milk, so simulated caramel flavorings often are enhanced by added dairy notes. Caramelization occurs in baking and cereal manufacturing, and the product base can be enhanced by adding caramel-type flavors.

Wow, the inputs seem so cheap, but because its difficult to control the reaction at the large scale formulators often go artificial.

Fresh-fruit flavor can be achieved by blending juice with aromatics recovered from the rest of the fruit. Natural and synthetic flavors can be added to juice to boost flavor and reduce expense.

Good advice, press and then distill. This is very important for liqueur manufacturing. And then synthetic flavors make it go turbonormal stimulating.

Concentration via vacuum distillation separates solid matter from the aromatic substances. These can be partially recovered and added to the concentrate, but the finished product still will be deficient in top notes. Freeze concentration uses no heat, so the finished product’s profile is closer to real fresh fruit.

I tried to turn freeze concentration into a trend yeas ago because it is so cheap and easy on the small scale but no one bit.

Citrus fruits are made into essential oils because much of the characteristic odor is found in the peel’s oil. Citrus oils have a high percentage of terpenoid hydrocarbons. These carry smaller levels of oxygenated compounds such as alcohol, aldehydes, ketones and esters. These are responsible for the characteristic odor and flavor. The terpenes contribute an odor/flavor of their own, and a citrus oil with the terpenes removed will be flatter-tasting and lack freshness. Terpenes are typically removed because they will oxidize, resulting in lower flavor quality.

This is why I found this document. Interesting sensory descriptors of terpenes.

To develop a fruit flavor, flavor chemists start with what nature starts with: amyl, butyl and ethyl esters, organic acids, aldehydes, alcohols, ketones and lactones. These build, characterize and enhance fruit flavor. Some chemicals instantly conjure the image of the fruit they are meant to depict, such as amyl butyrate with its banana-like scent. Others, such as ethyl acetate, will suggest an overall unidentifiable fruit note that will enhance and round out the flavor. Green, fresh, earthy, overripe, cooked and floral notes all can be added for complexity.

Playing God. What a great rationalization in the beginning.

Organic acids occur naturally in fruits, giving them their distinguishing flavor and bite. The same flavor will deliver differently depending on the acid used to enhance it. While citric and malic are very close to each other chemically, their profile and sharpness in the mouth vary considerably, and each individual acid will enhance fruit differently. Citric acid enhances cherry and strawberry flavors, Pollock explains, and malic works with apple and pear. Blends of malic with tartaric are great for raspberry as the tartaric has a slight metallic aftertaste that fits with the seediness of a berry. The goal is stimulating other areas on the tongue. A subliminal amount of acidity, not specifically tart, can work well to add a different dimension. Phosphoric acid at less than 100 ppm, or acetic acid used at a level at which the scent isn’t noticed, are other atypical ways of using acidity.

This is great stuff and the descriptors are spatial. One problem with spatial descriptors like sharpness is that they are hard to make scaler with any concensus on meaning. I proposed to overcome that by using hypertext controls.

Grape typically has been associated with the use of malic and tartaric acids, according to Jim Lewis, director, flavor applications, Bush Boake Allen, Montvale, NJ. Today, citric acid is often used to enhance grape flavor, and many people have become accustomed to the different flavor that results. Because of this, some will perceive an off-note to grape enhanced by tartaric or malic acids.

We have been so warped by the works of flavor formulators that the artificial has become the norm and the natural seems off. #JorisKarlHysman #AgainstNature

Another option is using a nut flavor. “True and characteristic nut flavors can be developed from synthetic ingredients that not only convey a nutty characteristic,” Pollock explains, “but can simulate the specific nut, such as a filbert, hazelnut, cashew or pecan.” Many nuts contain allergens, so a great need exists for flavors that aren’t nut-based. Using only natural flavors restricts the flavor chemist’s compound options. A nutty character can be developed, but it won’t possess the unique nuances of the individual variety that can be found in the artificial flavors. Since these natural flavors require the use of actual nut extractives, it’s not easy to develop an all-natural flavor that is allergen-free.

Giving us allergies by saving us from allergies. Here the main category nutty is broken down into sub categories which are object comparisons.

Lets requote this:

A nutty character can be developed, but it won’t possess the unique nuances of the individual variety that can be found in the artificial flavors.

This refers to using natural non nut ingredients to synthesize the character of nuts. Kobs claims only artificial ingredients can push natural non nut ingredients into believable nut territory. I personally like artistic constraint and don’t feel the need to have nut named stuff when no nuts are present. This is a semiology issue, they are forcing a symbol on a sensation.

Spices. What would pumpkin pie be without the spiciness of cinnamon, ginger and cloves? Spices are defined as natural vegetable products used for flavoring, seasoning and imparting aroma to foods. Small quantities of spices add dimension to a food product, and their connotations of naturalness appeal to the consumer. However, spices vary in strength and flavor profile; their flavor is often less evenly distributed within the food matrix; they can represent a microbiological hazard; and they lose flavor strength upon storage. Occasionally, a large spice volume can make the food matrix muddied or speckled and bitter-tasting.

Connotations of naturalness… so what something symbolizes is important. #semiology

Often, an essential oil or extracted oleoresin is preferred. Essential oils help control flavor strength and character. They are microbe- and enzyme-free, and are stable under good storage. One drawback of the essential oil is that it only represents a portion of the total available flavor in a spice. The volatile oil of ginger won’t provide any of the pungent qualities because these qualities come from non-volatile components. Oleoresins contain the volatile and nonvolatile compounds from the spices, so their flavor is more characteristic of the spice. Oleoresins are thick, viscous liquids, making them difficult to incorporate into the food matrix evenly. They also are very concentrated, so weighing errors are dramatic.

A very interesting differentiation between an essential oil (only the volatile part) and an oleoresin (volatile and involatile). This fragmentary thinking is so much more important than people think.

Spices also may be found in the form of essences, emulsions and encapsulates, and plated onto sugar. Often, a blend of forms represents the perfect solution. In a cinnamon roll application, cinnamon essential oil will provide the flavor strength, while a dusting of ground cinnamon will give a quality, homemade appearance.

Homemade appearance. We’ve jumped from sensations to what something symbolizes.

Maltol and ethyl maltol can improve overall flavor, potentiate sweetness, increase the sensation of creaminess, mask bitterness and suppress an acid bite or burn. Marketed under the name VeltolÆ by Cultor Food Science, Ardsley, NY, these ingredients have a mild flavor and sweet caramel-like odor. While both compounds must be labeled as artificial flavors, the product line also includes product enhancers that can be labeled as natural flavor.

Potentiate sweetness here might be what I call olfactory-sweetness.

Licorice extracts, derived from the roots of the licorice plant Glycyrrhiza glabra, also possess flavor-potentiating properties.

More potentiating. What I’d love to know is if its an industry term or the authors personal term.

Going beyond the obvious can lead the developer into flavor areas that might sound unlikely, but the results speak for themselves. There’s no reason why a grape flavor can’t be enhanced by a less recognizable flavor such as melon or plum, which provides roundness and depth. Fantasy flavors, or flavors with no real characterizing base flavor, can come from all sorts of unlikely blends and can be great fun to the creative flavorist.

This is really great and it elludes to the power of the grotesque to be attractive and extraordinary.

“What the developer is doing is adding interesting notes,” says Reineccius, “and even though the product is sweet, the flavors don’t necessarily have to be. Odd items can contribute interesting notes – there’s really no limit. Garlic oil works nice in butterscotch because it provides a warm feeling, and chocolate often has been enhanced with low levels of fermented soy-based flavors.” Using 300 ppm of monosodium glutamate in maple syrup will help open up taste buds, and make the flavor come alive through this very viscous product, Pollock says.

Collage creative linkage. A plane is a fragment of the architecture of space -Hans Hoffman.

When 20 new flavors come in, it’s tempting to open the bottle, take a sniff, and make a decision. But flavors shouldn’t be screened in their pure state, as many of the notes will appear unbalanced or even unpalatable. The best screening method is trying a flavor in its final application. With a cake, bake a plain batter containing the flavors and evaluate to determine how they interact with other ingredients and heat. With time lines as short as they often are, and 30 flavors staring at you from the shelf, this may be unfeasible. The next best thing is to dilute the flavors in water, comparing them for quality, character and impact. Just as a sprinkle of sugar will tone down the bitterness of a slice of cinnamon toast, sweeteners make flavors come alive. This phenomenon is apparent when screening flavors. Diluting an almond extract in plain water will produce a slightly bitter and unpleasant liquid that would appear to contribute very little to the finished product. Adding sugar will accentuate its rich and fruity notes and bring out flavor more realistically. Many of the components of sweet flavors don’t have a very pleasant flavor on their own, so it’s important to screen sweet flavors with sweetened water. It also takes a great deal of imagination to recognize the capacity within a flavor.

This parallels my idea of making a series of sketches to get familiar with flavor fragments when making products like amaros or aromatized wines.

The way sweeteners interact with flavors and deliver to the human olfactory system is quite complex and almost totally unpredictable. When flavoring based on sweetness concentration, mildly sweetened products require the use of less flavor as the flavor comes through more clearly. At very high levels, sweetness becomes intense and begins masking the overall flavor. As a result, higher flavor levels are required.

When sweetness masks the overall flavor, I’ve called this cloying. Sweetness can be a aroma enhance to a point then it is an aroma distractor. Enhancement could be defined as lowering the threshold of perception.

The best method for developing products with balanced flavor is learning to speak the language of the flavorist, and to have them involved at the conceptual get-go. Don’t be afraid to answer their questions truthfully. The flavorist isn’t trying to steal your concept. Instead, he needs this information to provide the best product possible for a given application. How many hours, dollars and pounds of ingredients have been lost because a flavor didn’t act as predicted? Granted, there’s no guarantee changes won’t occur, but at least you’ll rest easier knowing you did everything possible to prevent it.

Does the flavorist actually have a language like aesthetic sensory language? or is she talking about business language and logistics of developing a formula?

It’s important for every food scientist to learn the language of flavor, because within every flavor category, a subset of many characterizing flavor descriptors exists. A fruity strawberry can be very unripe and green, very ripe, seedy tasting, or cooked so as to resemble preserves. It’s not enough to say one is seeking a chocolate flavor, because the terms tobacco, barny, fruity, musty, milky, woody, oily, green, hay-like and floral all have been used to characterize chocolate flavor. Telling the flavorist one is looking for a vanilla that is creamy, custardy, spicy, smoky, floral, caramellic, baby-powdery or fatty will save time by reducing the number of samples that need to be submitted and screened, resulting in shortened development time. Discussion can be promoted and expectations clarified by using food-item terminology, such as fruit punch, cough syrup, vanilla wafers or even brand names like Captain CrunchÆ cereal and Juicy FruitÆ gum.

So they think the have a language…

Developers and flavorists must have this list of vocabulary words, and agree on what flavor is being perceived. If one person describes a flavor as “hay-like” and the other person describes the same flavor as “barny,” then there should be a common word agreed upon so everyone knows this particular flavor will be described as such. This is not as easy at it might appear, as each individual has his own sensory strengths and abilities to communicate their reactions.

Agreeance is what I called Endoxa in my analysis of wine descriptors.

Granted this article is from 1998 and a lot has happened since in the industry, but it seems like there is tons of room to advance. The skills and ideas of the industrial flavor formulator are relevant to the cocktail creator or the micro distiller formulating new non traditional products.

Nature vs. Nurture vs. Cocktail: Holistic vs. Salient Creative Linkage

“Westerners also prefer uniqueness in the environment and in their possessions. Social psychologists Heejung Kim and Hazel Markus asked Koreans and Americans to choose which objects in a picture array of objects they preferred. Americans chose the rarest object, whereas Koreans chose the most common object. Asked to choose a pen as a gift, Americans chose the least common color offered and East Asians the most common”. – Richard Nisbett, Geography of Thought

I got into an argument with a brilliant woman I adore and she recommended I read Richard E. Nisbett’s Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently… and Why? so naturally I took her advice. The book is interesting on so many levels and does the best job I’ve ever come across of contrasting the two cultures. Nisbett provides excellent background on concepts I only vaguely knew about such as the behavioral significance of coming from an individualist versus a collectivist society. Behavior in this regard, has been linked in countless studies to nitty-gritty perceptual differences such as the ability to detect contrast and remember salient items in photographs. As usual, I wondered if differences of the type Nisbett describes affect any of our flavor preferences and the answer I think is yes which may reveal a lot about a very prestigious flavor mystery.

My position has always been that we have innate drives to seek out the extraordinary as exemplified by Nobel laureate Niko Timbergen‘s super normal stimulus concept, but that may not be the case when you factor in culture as illustrated in the above quote. For decades we have been seduced by the explain-all ideas of genetics & DNA, also that we may be inescapably hardwired for certain behaviors, but this might have denied & downplayed the staggeringly significant power of cultural override.

Nisbett claims that Eastern and Western cultures at times are so different that it has shaped the programming of their attentional spot lights on even the relatively micro level and thus the rest of their thinking. I had previously been influenced by ideas in Slights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde which led to my teasing out the order of operations of the multi sensory perception of flavor, as confirmed by Spence & Auvray, and ultimately developing the simplified gustation model which explains a lot of the patterns that exist in cocktails. Simplified gustation posits how the path to perceiving olfaction can be flattened when the motive is to compete for attention with the other senses in a flavor experience and win. The idea makes assumptions that things about attention are hardwired. Macknik & Martinez-Conde explain how attention can work so consistently that a magician can manipulate an entire room full of people (with the sometimes exception of the autistic).

But if Nisbett claims Eastern attention can differ markedly from Western attention, can magicians just as easily manipulate rooms of Eastern observers with tricks designed for the West? Westerners often get hung up on foreground salient features while Easterners are more capable of noticing background, relationships, and context which is at the heart of collective thought. Believe it or not, food experiences have all the same attentional features used by the psychologists in studies that Nisbett examines so can any of it apply to flavor?

Westerners focus on objects while slighting the field and they literally see fewer objects and relationships in the environment than do Asians. – Geography of Thought
(p. 109)

Previously the journal, Nature, had published a study, Flavor network and the principles of food pairing, which was exciting and well discussed but came up sort of dry in its conclusions. Inspired by the work of poets, I had been naming the two creative linkage strategies the study described alliteration & collage and I had even singled out a few drinks that typify them which I was recently able to present to some illustrious food scientists after their lecture at Harvard (these chemistry focused guys loved the drinks but seemed to have zero curiosity about categorizing creative linkage). I consider these creative linkage strategies as a means of creating a super normal stimuli and I’ve tried to explain what these experiences do to us and why we return & gravitate towards them (the argument which led to the book concerned those ideas).

Remember, where there is a response tendency, we are creating a delicious exaggerated response tendency through flavor pairing. In Western food, the study found aroma compounds repeated which creates extraordinary, individualistic, salient, foreground objects to pay attention to (hang a set of breast implants on it) while in Eastern food, aroma compounds are typically not repeated but rather linked as a collective collage of relationships. To apply the ideas of Nisbett, the collective collage of aromas appeals to the Eastern mind. Besides the super normal stimulus idea, this new idea of why each creative linkage strategy developed within each culture explains a gigantic piece of the puzzle, which was not seized upon by the study in Nature. We end up with different creative linkage strategies for minds of different attentional proclivities.

But where do we go from here and what is nature and what is nurture? Our nature might only be to pay attention and nurture, or rather culture, might be what to pay attention to. It must be pointed out that we are capable of enjoying and finding powerful repose in each creative linkage strategy. The forces of culture make it hard to create but not to enjoy and this raises some interesting other ideas.

In food, the often utilitarian realm of merely decorated sustenance, some short sighted famous person(s) claim there is no art, and within this criteria being discussed, they might be somewhat correct because according to the paper in Nature, East & West really stick to their patterns. Yet somehow the cocktail came about and things truly got creative, as evidenced by analyzing drinks in the Savoy cocktail book. Something happened to flavor which might reveal a property of artists and that is a unique structure of their attention, and thus ability to construct the world in a way which they can break away from their culture and its sweeping inertia. (Wassily Kandinsky explained this in a very grasping mystical way but it might be useful to psychologists to examine the concept in terms of attention and perceptual differences relative to the surrounding culture.)

Cocktails in the West, even early on, had both alliteration, which I hypothesize is a product of individualism, and collage, which I hypothesize is a product of collectivism. The layman has only the patterns of attention of their broader culture but the artist has their own patterns of attention, and thus own one-person culture (but yes, schools of art do form!). These early cocktail artists were able to see possibilities and create what Western food culture could not for nearly a century.

I hypothesized long ago that the cocktail might actually have led to modernism. Cocktails, which were able to break away from the patterns within food described by the study in Nature, may have dissolved crystallized culture thus incubating artists of other mediums and inspiring them to break away. Of course this is wildly speculative and I have no credentials, but if you look at the time line of art history, the abstract expressionism of the cocktail, a very popular medium, does precede so much other modernism. Hopefully by now I’ve painted enough of a picture that the creative linkage of the cocktail is especially anomalous relative to the rest of food culture.

Long ago I waged war on the word balanced in the culinary arts and tried my damnest to trade it in for the more expansive concept of harmony which I thought better respected acquired tastes. To apply Nisbett, I may have been shifting to an Eastern relatively more holistic mentality, accepting context and the multitude of factors that could effect an experience. As part of my theory of acquired tastes, things are harmonic only in the context that someone possessed the relevant acquired tastes. Balance considered no such context which is typical of Western mentality.

But if Eastern thought has a tendency to emphasize context, should they not have the foremost thinkers on the topic of acquired tastes and flavor theory? I would say no, because both cultures have not developed the categories for which to apply their unique points of view and according to Nisbett, Eastern thought is less concerned with categories. So, flavor, a gigantic hole is our knowledge, is caught between a culture that neglects context and another culture that neglects categories. My work is very big on categories and until you have them, you cannot detect contrast and cannot find patterns to develop theories. Embracing the advantageous qualities of East and West is what it is going to take to unravel flavor, but no need to reinvent the wheel, the harmony concept can borrow ideas from subjects like musicology (cough, cough, Arnold Schoenberg!) which have already seen plenty of intellectual investment. (Kandisnky actually borrowed heavily from Schoenberg to expand ideas about painting and the visual arts.)

Countless people in the food world tell grim tales of how we are hard wired for junk food and unhealthy eating but this meditation on the differences of the East & West show that it may just be culture. Culture comes with serious momentum but it is also quite malleable so our problems can be overcome. But is all this just academic nonsense? Sort of, but it does support and add critical mass to the underdog culture idea. Many of Nisbett’s ideas were supported by ingenious experiments and throwing food ways into the fold adds avenues of potential perceptual experimentation. Many people are also itching to throw cocktails into solid discussions of art history right alongside cubism or abstract expressionism.

What is going to hold a lot of these ideas back is the strange interdisciplinary nature and the lack of a nitty-gritty perceptual understanding of flavor to see these patterns. The culinary world barely recognizes the concept of the multi sensory perception of flavor, most scientists aren’t even aware of the super normal stimuli idea (even though it won a Nobel prize!), recognizing culturally influenced perceptual differences leading to patterns in food ways will make heads spin. These ideas are doomed to be ahead of their time for years to come.

Advanced Super Stimuli Basics

Superstimulus: A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.

The cocktail, with all its highly abstracted components, is basically a liquid super stimuli.  If you need more visual and tangible examples of a super stimuli check out the Venus of Willendorf or for something newer and more contemporary; the sculptures of Botero.  If you need a tiny refresher, here it is.

You can really chase these things down some rabbit holes if you have the time.  Some people feel super stimuli are dangerous while others feel they are therapeutic. I guess all things in moderation.  The first time I had heard of the term was when the magicians in sleights of mind used various super stimuli to control your attentional spotlight during the magic trick.  Intuition tells me the cocktail uses them to dispel anxiety by controlling our attentional spotlights.  Because olfaction and gustation are so closely tied to memory, super stimuli, as found in cocktails, might also be used to cement important memories.  The ability to cement memories might explain the success of acquired tastes like Fernet & Jagermeister.

We can say most all cocktails are beverage super stimuli, but some are probably more super than others.

A 2:1:1 sour might be more of a super stimuli than a 2:1/2:1/2 sour.  If the second and third coefficients represent sweetness & acidity, the move from 1/2 to 1 increases their tension therefore changing the magnitude of response to the stimuli.  You cannot say a person will always get more pleasure out of one or the other, but I think you can make safer generalizations as the sample size of the imbibers increases. The stimuli will also probably get less “super” with each successive exposure.

So intuition tells me I can get more mileage out of a 2:1:1 than a 2:1/2:1/2. I think I can also elaborate that coefficient which represents sweetness and say a 2:1(400 g/L):1 is more of a super stimuli (to a large sample size) than a 2:1(250 g/L):1.

The g/L in the parenthesis represents grams per liter of sucrose as found in a syrup or liqueur. Something with 400 g/L is a typical syrup while something with 250 g/L is a liqueur like Cointreau (of course Cointreau also has tons of alcohol but I am trying to simplify some things).

Another super stimuli variable related to the sour is the amount of dissolved aroma.  In previous posts I’ve discussed this as the “sweet-tart” effect that dessert wine makers are concerned with.  Dessert wine makers claim that as sugar and acidity increase (the tension grows), dissolved aroma needs to as well or the taste will be hollow like a Sweet-Tart brand candy.  This means a sour with more dissolved aroma will be a greater super stimuli than a sour with less (holding sweetness and acidity constant). For whatever its worth, Intuition tells me that this is a variable that is easy to grow tired of.

Another super stimuli lies in the nature of the aroma.  I’ve talked about this in the past with grotesque juxtaposition as well as aromatic tonality that exists in the space between two known values.

If we abstract an aroma from the ordinary to the extraordinary we will be more attracted to it and therefore it will provoke a greater response.  This is often done via blending.  Different types of orange peels are often blended together to achieve an extraordinary tonal effect.  In gin, juniper is often partnered with angelica to alter tonality in pursuit of the extraordinary and its associated super stimulation.

So far I’ve only attempted to explain what is in common use but have I come up with any new techniques for creating cocktail super stimuli? Maybe.

I have long been in search of a way to categorize aroma and have settled on my gustatory convergence method where aromas are categorized in terms of gustation (sweet aromas, sour aromas, bitter aromas, umami aromas, etc.)

I think you could test what gustatory divisions an aroma converges with by pairing an aroma with various tastants and seeing what feels most seamless.

A super stimuli would result by using a properly aligned tastant to reinforce an aroma. This might already be common in food production, but not cross modally (olfaction to gustation).  Chinese restaurants know we are attracted to super stimuli so they reinforce their dishes with isolated MSG rather than using extra Shitake mushrooms in the sauce and making the dish more expensive.

The new idea is to infuse MSG in tequila to reinforce its aroma. This idea may parallel the acidity that is already incorporated to many gins post distillation.

Perfect tequila gibson

2 oz. MSG infused blanco tequila

.5 oz. bianco vermouth

.5 oz. dry vermouth

stir and garnish with a cocktail onion.


Classic cocktails that more clearly illustrate the super stimuli concept might be the Old Fashioned and the Gin Martini.  For an Old Fashioned of Bourbon, sugar, angostura bitters, and orange peel, the bitters and orange peel pervert and abstract inherent aromas within Bourbon thus provoking an exaggerated response.

For the Martini, as stated above, the aroma of juniper converges with acidity so the significant gustatory-acidity present in dry vermouth may create a super version of gin.  No wonder it became the most popular cocktail in a world.