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The Flavorist's View: the Economy’s Impact on Consolidation, Unique Formulation, New Raw Materials and Training

By: John Wright, flavorist and author
Posted: January 16, 2009

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Flavor and functional fragrance sales have normally been relatively immune to recessions, but the current situation will undoubtedly reduce the frequency of new launches and shift the focus of some customers to cost cutting. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most formulations have way, way too many ingredients. Many have more than a few “Friday afternoon” ingredients —which can easily be seen in retrospect to have a malign influence. “Simplify and add more lightness” to quote a namesake, Wilbur Wright.

The recession will probably also hasten the segmentation of the flavor business into a high-end, quality driven sector and a low-end “bang for the buck” sector. The challenge for flavorists will be to create individual, economical but still characterful flavors in the face of sensory panels that tend to shift every flavor in the same boring direction. A flavor that offends nobody will often score best in panel tests but, in equal measure, it will often fail to inspire anybody to remember it and want to buy it again.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that fine fragrances suffer most in an economic downturn. This is partly true, but I suspect that many consumers value these "little luxuries” particularly highly in hard times.

Most F&F companies assume that raw material R&D in both flavors and fragrances will continue for many years along relatively conventional lines—ever more detailed analysis of nature and ingenuity in organic chemistry. These approaches still appear to be delivering the goods; GRAS 23 alone added more than 170 new flavor ingredients! Closer examination tells a different story. Many of the additions are not exactly new and many more simply represent small variations in structure. I suspect that each truly novel ingredient will become more and more difficult to find and, sadly, less and less game-changing in its impact.

This does not necessarily denote the gradual demise of ingredient research. Our industry will learn from the pharmaceutical industry. Combinatorial chemistry and rapid screening assays will expand from their current limited niche in the area of basic tastes to the far more promising area of aroma research. Most flavors and fragrances actually derive the vast majority of their raw material costs from a small number of ingredients in a very limited range of aroma profile categories. Imagine if combinatorial chemistry enabled us to discover alternative novel ingredients that were many times more cost effective than the ingredients we traditionally use! Such discoveries could be protected effectively by patents and would enable the discoverer to truly corner the market in a broad range of flavor and fragrance types.