season 2 | ep. 19

what exactly
is flavoring?

with Dr. Robert Sobel

Dr. Robert Sobel

steeping together podcast
- season 2 | Ep. 19

what exactly is flavoring?

with Dr. Robert Sobel

july 2022
Length: 55:53 see all
Listen on:

episode transcript

Marika de Vienne 0:18

Welcome, everyone to another episode of Steeping Together, the podcast where we explore the vast world of tea over a cup of tea with tea fans. I'm your tea-obsessed host Marika and as usual, delighted to be with you all here today. Now we get a lot of questions here at DAVIDsTEA, but none more regularly than questions surrounding flavouring. We are known to produce extremely flavorful teas, one to suit every mood and fancy, but the mechanics behind flavouring can make many a tea drinker hesitate before making a cup. Seeing a list of whole recognisable ingredients on the packaging before consumption gives you a good idea of the flavour profile you're in for. But to have that list end with the words artificial, or even natural, flavouring can be understandably off-putting. In order to promote transparency of what is in your tea we have invited an expert in the field, Dr. Robert Sobel. Hopefully, he can explain to us what flavouring is exactly. Because quite frankly, we all deserve to know exactly what is in our cups. Welcome, Dr. Sobel!

Dr. Robert Sobel 1:27

Hey, and thanks for having me on. This Steeping Together, this is pretty exciting. I think you probably want me to tell you a little bit about myself.

Marika de Vienne 1:35

It's always helpful, you know, context is valuable. But yes, please, who are you?

Dr. Robert Sobel 1:42

So great question. So my name is Bob. And I have been working in the flavour industry since about 1999. Actually a little bit before 1999, while I was doing a little bit of a brief stint, before entering the flavour world, as a high school teacher, so I taught high school chemistry and physics for four or five years. In the meantime, got offered a summer job at a flavour company known as Flavors in North America, which then turned into and was rebranded into the company FONA International. And my background is in chemistry, went to graduate school for physical organic chemistry. Specialised in developing electronic nose technology, which might sound kind of scary, but very, very interesting uses for that technology, especially in the flavour world. And from there, I've been an innovator in this space, I lead a research team here at FONA, that develops new ways of delivering flavour, whether it's through microencapsulation technology, through understanding the psycho-chemical and the way that the brain and behaviour piece works. And I know that sounds really scary, but the reality is, there's a lot of science that goes into food and beverages. And I think that's super important that we have a lot of science behind what we're consuming. And so that's another area of research, is around what we call taste modification. And then also, another area of research that we've been working on here at FONA is in the area of artificial intelligence, really trying to understand how we can use these data tools to predict flavour profiles, to predict flavour formats. And the reason for that is, you might not know this, but flavour is really, really complex. I'm not talking about what a flavour company makes, I'm talking about what nature makes. Nature is super complex. And so that complex problem really commands the need of tools like machine learning, to really understand the patterns that we find in nature, as we try to, in some cases, replicate what nature is doing. So I don't know if that's really what you were expecting to talk about today. But really, like when you kind of pull back the curtain on the flavour industry, there's a lot of really interesting science that happens in this space.

Marika de Vienne 4:06

Yeah, I think, you know, I never–I usually have an idea of what topics I'd like to touch on in any given episode. But I think this is the first time, I mean that introduction, A–well done, beautiful, what a roller coaster. I felt excited. I felt, like you said, scared. I felt intrigued. I feel like all the work that you've done over these 30 years, close to 30 years, there are so many different threads of this tapestry that I want to pull on. I mean, the artificial nose being one of them. AI in reconstructing the incredible complexity and beauty of flavours found in nature, that's a whole other episode! I mean, there's so so so much to unravel. And although flavour is like the number one thing that drives us to make the food and beverage choices that we make, it isn't something that we necessarily give a lot of consideration to, beyond the “I like it, I don't like it.” And everyone has a reason why they don't like, you know, tomatoes or artichoke or whatever. But we don't necessarily always stop to think about what flavour is, how the human brain, tongue, all the different senses perceive it, how that's transformed and really stored in our own memory banks. And I think that's what I wanted to talk about today. Will we invite you for another episode so that we can demystify the electronic nose? The future is unknown, but full of potential. Do you just want to tell us what FONA is? Because I discovered FONA when I started working at DAVIDsTEA, I've really gotten into FONA since the release of your podcast, which I highly recommend to everyone because it really talks about the innovation happening at FONA, what flavouring is, your passion and your knowledge behind it. But for those listeners that don't know what is FONA, exactly?

Dr. Robert Sobel 6:11

So FONA is what we would call a full service flavour house. It's part of an industry that is about $30-40 billion globally. FONA sits within that industry. We custom develop flavours for food products, for beverage products. If you look at different markets, you can look at grain products like cereal, FONA would make flavours for that. For the confections market, we would make flavours for that.


Like candy? Sorry. singular focus, apparently. I’m like, candy, do you flavour candy!

Dr. Robert Sobel 6:51

Yeah absolutely. We also do pharmaceuticals. In terms of flavouring pharmaceuticals, we don't make them, we just make them more palatable for consumers. So that’s a big challenge in that arena. We also do a lot for like food service, when we are developing, you know, ways of doing quick meal prep for restaurants and chain stores. And so when you think about what a flavour company does, that's what they're doing, is creating flavour ingredients that can meet different regulatory requirements. That's always a big question that I always get is, oh, you're putting that artificial thing into foods. And when I think back on the flavour industry maybe 50-60 years ago, that was primarily, you know, that was a big push–artificial, but ever since the clean movement–on the clean movement, actually, when you talk about it, you know, in primetime, it's like maybe the last five years or so. But the natural movement, the organic movement, that's been with us for probably 20 years now, if not more. And so flavour companies about innovative ways of making different ingredients in a natural format. And there are rules that you have to follow, regulatory guidelines that are set forth at least here in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. It's not something that you can just go throw stuff in food, it's heavily regulated. And there are different guidelines. In fact, if you look at here in the United States at the CFR, that’s kind of the book of all the rules, the natural definition for flavour in there, it's pretty well mapped out of what is and is not allowed for use in flavours to be declared natural.

Marika de Vienne 8:34

Well thank God somebody's written the book because sometimes it feels like the wild west out there, you know you see, sometimes you see a flavouring you're like how? I mean birthday cake continues to flummox and confuse me, right? I mean, I understand it on an intellectual level. But when I see birthday cake, I'm always like, what's happening there? Is anybody check that this is okay, because it doesn't feel natural. Let me put it that way.

Dr. Robert Sobel 9:01

I totally get it.

Marika de Vienne 9:03

So, let's set the stage. What is flavouring?

Dr. Robert Sobel 9:10

Okay, so, flavouring, 95% of the time when you're talking about flavour, you're not talking about something that is going to be perceived on the tongue. So when we look at it from the human perspective, flavour is most perceived on the nose. And so that's, like when we talk about what a flavour is. First things first, from a human perception standpoint, it's all about the nose. from a regulatory standpoint, a flavour has to be something that constitutes one or more, actually two or more ingredients. And those ingredients, their primary function has to be for flavouring purposes. And really, those are kind of, when I think about a flavour that's what I think about. I think about, hey, it's something I perceive usually on my nose. When you perceive stuff on your tongue that's more along the lines of like a tastant, that's not really a flavour. And if we want to dive into the neuroscience at some point we can because it's interesting.

Marika de Vienne 10:08

Fascinating, because maybe you and I can offline about the neuroscience at some point. But I think that the way that I've always kind of explained it to people in the past–and you're here to fact check me, Dr. Sobel–the way I've explained it is the human tongue can perceive, depending on your culture you’re from, six to seven tastes, right?

Dr. Robert Sobel



And your nose can perceive hundreds of millions.

Dr. Robert Sobel


Marika de Vienne 10:36

All right. So one of the tests, when I say this to my friends, they very politely asked me, What do you mean, but like, they don't really, it's hard to understand the difference between that perception. One thing that I do with my friends is that I get coriander seeds, just regular coriander seeds, and I asked them to chew on it while they block their nose. And what happens is that the tongue is able to perceive the texture, light bitterness, but essentially no flavour. And you chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, and then when you release your nose, the flavour aromas go all the way into your nose. And all of a sudden, you can capture a lemon, you can capture thyme, you can capture–not time, like in the space-time continuum, like the herb thyme, like there is a whole bunch of flavours that your tongue was completely incapable of perceiving that your nose is able to inform you of.

Dr. Robert Sobel 11:30

Absolutely and that kind of explosion, or that bouquet of imagery that comes by when you open up the nasal passages is really driven by obviously the nose, but the part of the brain where it gets processed, and that is in a very old part of the human brain called the limbic brain or the emotional brain. And it's interesting because the limbic brain is not really connected to our logic brain, and so it becomes very, very difficult for us as humans to express smells and emotions, because there's not that language connection. That's why we have to create descriptive terms to describe how things smell, or the way that flavour works. But it drives that emotional piece for us. And so if you have a very positive emotional experience with flavour, it will be a driver for you and can also bring back the memory of that because within the limbic brain is also your memory. And so it's very, very fascinating that like when you talk about the simplicity of the tongue, and it's not simplistic but that it's basic in comparison to what's going on in the nose. It's like night and day difference in terms of its ability to distinguish things. But 100% Spot on, I've done the same thing with even like little Starlight Mints, where you hold your nose, pop one in your mouth, and then all of a sudden you open up your nasal passage and boom, you just get this huge mint flavour. And that really is what flavour companies are making, is that bouquet that happens when you open up the nose and the air from the sinuses go up from the mouth. They call that the retronasal effect, but that's essentially what's happening.

Marika de Vienne 13:09

It's a fascinating effect. I love sharing it with people and I'm so happy that I was correct. So thank you for fact checking! What I love in the description that you gave behind flavouring is you said it's attached to our limbic brain and not our logic brain, which explains so much about how I describe tea because I describe flavours in tea very much through emotionality. And I always thought that was just you know, I don't know childhood trauma, just like, that's how I express myself but it is actually a part of the way the human brain works. And one of the things I love about flavours, I always say flavours be it in food, be it in beverages, is the best form of time travel we currently have. Because the moment you taste something that you haven't had in 10- 15 years, whatever, you are immediately jettisoned into that moment, into that memory, into the emotions associated with it, be it positive or negative. But it's just an amazing way to just discover something about yourself. And so there's a real art behind the science that you're describing here. You know, you're talking about the components and the regulatory aspect and the science of it and all this is really important but I love how there's no way to speak about flavouring without speaking about the human need to taste something new or to taste something nostalgic or to just live with flavour. We live with flavour. It's a very, very emotional response.

Dr. Robert Sobel 14:41

100% agreed and that's deeply rooted in the human experience. You know, and sometimes we don't think about it that much but it has a huge impact on our daily lives. And you're spot on when you talk about, like for me when I think about chamomile tea, I think about being young and usually, either and this is going to sound bad, but I’m like you know, sick, and my mom is giving me that tea to either help me fall asleep, or to feel a little bit better or to hydrate myself. So that is my impression every time I have chamomile tea, and just even thinking about it, I can almost form what that flavour profile is, in my mind. And that is, like I said, that's because of the union of the emotional piece being triggered with the flavour and the memory all at once. In fact, and this is from the educational psychology side of things, our first kiss is up there with our perception of flavour for most things. That's how that's how prevalent it is in our memory. That's how much flavour is burnt in to our memory. So when you say first kiss, most people can instantly take you back exactly where they're at, almost describe the whole scene. And that is the power that flavour has in your life, whether it's a positive emotional experience or a negative one.

Marika de Vienne 16:05

Right, absolutely. I think I was reading somewhere in one of the papers that you published, that the first association you make with food or the first time you try a new food, there's a certain amount of trepidation because that's just hardwired into our brain for survival. That's how dominant like it is, in our instincts. It's instinct like, well is this food safe or not? And it makes me think about my own children, I'm going to be a little less harsh on them when introducing new foods. Because as a mom, you want to introduce many new foods and many new flavours so that they become a whole human being and that you've done your job, right. But you said that it actually could activate the flight or fight response when you don't know whether this is a safe food or not. Like that's how powerful these flavours can be, it can activate the fight or flight, and I thought to myself, I have tried to make my six year old eat six new foods this week, what kind of hell am I putting this poor child through!

Dr. Robert Sobel 17:11

And I think the big thing, like for me, and I'll share this little personal, I don't like tomatoes. Now I like products that are made with tomatoes, but like when it comes to an actual tomato, I just don't like it. And I can trace that back to when I was really, really young, probably about four or five years old. And was given a little cherry tomato. And in my mind, I thought that looked like a grape. And so I had the idea in the very young mind of mind, that that was going to taste like a grape. And when I went ahead and tasted it, it was very inconsistent with what a grape tastes like. And that was very just like off-putting to the point where I don't eat tomatoes today. I love ketchup, I love tomato sauces, anything that's made with tomatoes, but like if you ask me to eat a cherry tomato, it's not going to happen. So the good news is, if you're young, actually before the age of 25, you can reprogram yourself to like different things that you maybe don't like. After you reach the age of 25 the brain kind of does its crystallisation of its neural network and it's very difficult to retrain it to like things. Because part of that is you have to have that positive experience while you're consuming that product. You know, so if you grew up not liking yogurt, and then you try to eat it at an older age to try and start to like it, it's not going to probably work out too well for you.

Marika de Vienne 18:34

Right yeah, I think we all, I think everything that we've stated here is something we all know, from a from a practical level, like we've experienced it, but it's really nice to hear it put into words that we can point to and say, that's why I don't like yogurt. So I think we kind of circled around the topic of why use flavouring, because obviously we're just conditioned as a species to seek out, you know, intense flavours, pleasurable flavours, new flavours. But why would we use it in food? You know, like, if I think, I've got my tomato, I've got my cucumber, I've got my olive oil, like I don't really need anything else, life is good, you know, I'm gonna make a salad. So why would we? I'm going to use the word engineer and perhaps I'm not using that term correctly. But why would we engineer a flavouring, be it natural or artificial and then why would we use it? If nature has given us so much of her bounty, like what's the thinking there?

Dr. Robert Sobel 19:35

Well, I think the reality there is that we live in a society that is based on technology and is advanced and it's hard pressed to go and get all the things that we would want in our food from the store the way that we want them. I guess it's kind of a way of putting it. What I'm trying to get at is if everybody on the planet wanted onefold Madagascar bourbon vanilla, you know, there might not be enough for everyone. And so we have to, and that becomes the challenge at the flavour industry, is to find ways of replicating what nature has done, so that it can go into those food products and be experienced by consumers. And so the other piece of it is, we touched on it a little bit, we talked about the emotional aspect of food, is as consumers we want consistent experiences. We want to have our tea taste the same way every time. And if it doesn't taste the same way, or there's a variance in that, that becomes very off-putting for a consumer and they will move on to something different.

Marika de Vienne 20:48

It's emotionally off-putting, if you expect, like your story of the tomato, if you're used to having your English Breakfast every single morning for 30 years. And then for some reason, it tastes radically different, that's your day, I hate to break it to you, like there goes your day because as you said before, like the emotional response is so strong, we will have that reaction. So that need to have the kind of consistency is very much linked to our emotions that we have with flavour.

Dr. Robert Sobel 21:18

Right, absolutely. And I think the other piece is accessibility, we want to give folks accessibility to flavour profiles that they don't have to travel, you know, I don't have to go to Spain to get a rosé wine, you know, I can get that rosé flavour and experience that and create the image of that, in our mind. And sometimes, where maybe a certain flavour profile hasn't been around for a while, or takes us back to some moment in time, history, maybe 100 years ago, we can experience that through recreation of flavours. So there's a lot of different reasons, but at the core of it, it's we live in a society where there, you know, we're poised to hopefully someday get to about 9 billion people on the planet. And the reality of having enough natural products to flavour things. And when I'm saying that I'm saying, you know, to be able to go to the store and get all the different natural products to make those food products at home, it's going to be difficult. And so over the last 100 or so years, we've been looking to see what nature has done. And believe me nature is super complex, if you look at like an apple, and you bite into it, you might not think about this, but there are about, you know, 4500 different flavour ingredients that nature has put into that to create that flavour profile, the apple, and it's very subtle, but it's there. And that's the definition, that's the resolution that nature has created. When a flavour chemist comes along to recreate that impression of an apple, they must give the consumer enough information about that apple through flavour chemistry, so that the consumer identifies it as being an apple. And so when you take something that has that many different naturally occurring compounds, then you have to go through and you have to look at using you know, natural extracts. And things that have, are very close to nature, is what I like to call it. The closer you are to nature, usually the more, you know, components are in it. And so that's what a flavour chemist will do. And so if you look at the hierarchy, so you start off here with like an apple and then maybe we're going to make an apple beverage, we might use some apple juice, we might use some apple extracts as flavouring, to go into that. And then we can go down until the confections, you know, and some of the iconic confection products out there. Like hard candy, like an apple, sour apple hard candy, you can analyse those items, and find out that maybe they only contain about 12 different ingredients, flavour ingredients to translate that flavour profile over. Does it taste like an apple? Probably not, if you compare them side by side, but it gives you the impression of an apple.

Marika de Vienne 24:00

Okay, so I'm going to try to summarise this in the way that I understood it. So an apple, for example, like you said, has hundreds of thousands of different components. When you're looking to recreate that flavour, you cannot manufacture that level of complexity, but you can identify those components. You then recreate those components and when we say recreation, I think everyone thinks oh god, Frankenstein, what are they, GMO! What are they doing to my food? You know, like, the instinct is like, how did you replicate it? It's a form of just reconstructing, like the chemical chain of the element, right? Did I, am I even close?

Dr. Robert Sobel 24:40

So even a little bit softer than that. A lot of times if I wanted to create that apple, I'm just going to go to nature and get apple. I can do an apple extract. Probably the best example would be like in the citrus area. If I want to create a citrus flavour I can go and I can get citrus peels from citrus plants, which are not typically going to be used in food because they're considered to be a sidestream product. Take those, press out all of that oil that's in those peels and then take that, purify it through a filtering system. And now I can use that as a material in my flavouring. So it's not like there's some guy in a white lab coat, synthesizing a bunch of molecules and throwing it into the food. A lot of it is really coming from just taking what nature has and processing it, whether it's doing an extraction. Extraction, I mean, we all do these, you can do an extraction in your kitchen if you take thyme or rosemary, throw it in some olive oil, let's say for about seven days, you've done an extract. And scale that up and now you have a rosemary or thyme extract in the flavour industry

Marika de Vienne 25:48

Right, we do it all the time. We're just not aware of it. I make my own vanilla extract by putting my beans in my vodka, letting it sit for a few months and then I have natural vanilla extract. Is that a flavouring? Yeah, right, I mean it's a it's a homemade artisanal one I grant you, but I think flavouring isn't as scary as it needs to be, right? I think if you see flavouring you don't need to think, I'm going to grow an ear on my forehead. Like it's a natural process of either extraction and analysis and it's perfectly safe. So I feel better, thank you! So how does research into flavouring help us to understand something about ourselves, like as humans, like why are we attracted to certain flavourings?

Dr. Robert Sobel 26:41

So I think a lot of it has to do with how the flavour is paired with something initially that our body needs. You know, because remember our sense of taste and our sense of smell, it's all about survival. You know, so we talked about the fight or flight piece, but it's also about making sure that we're getting the nutrients that we need. And so there are certain flavour profiles that are associated with food products that give us the nutrition that we need. And maybe to simplify it a little bit, with talking about the tongue for a second. So when we look at the basic tastes on the tongue, like sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, all of those are things that either we need to have in our diets or things that we need to avoid in our diets. So we need to have a way of finding fast forms of energy and so sweetness, sweet carbohydrates, boom. That is something we need that's why we have a strong liking for that. When we look at things like bitterness, most things that are bitter in nature are not good for us. And therefore it's good to have a sensor on our tongue that says, Hey, stay away from that, that's bad for us. When we look at things like protein, protein is associated with umami, which is that savoury taste on the tongue. And so it becomes the building block, and a way of understanding of why we're driven to different profiles. So alongside those different food items that have those tastes with them, there's also the flavour component with them, that gets paired. And so that becomes part of the driver of why we need certain things in our diet and why we have likes or dislikes for different flavour profiles. I hope that made sense.

Marika de Vienne 28:17

No, it absolutely makes a lot of sense, because sometimes I wonder why do I have this flavour craving right now and sometimes I haven't had it in a long time. Maybe it's out of habit, a certain times during the day I'm reflexively going to go to something sweet. That makes sense to me now, because at two o'clock in the afternoon, I usually get that afternoon kind of lull. I've been sitting in front of my computer for about, you know, four hours or six hours depending on the day! And I will look for that caffeine. But why would I choose a tea that has sweetness in it incorporated as a flavouring or add honey to a more traditional tea at that particular time, was probably not just a craving for the flavour itself, because I don't have a particular sweet tooth, but also because my body's telling me you need energy. You need energy and it's translating in my brain as a craving. So it also makes me feel better about my Nutella addiction at midnight, where I just… just eat it. Like maybe I'm not sad. Maybe I just need energy! It's a whole different episode. But no, that made total sense to me. And it's really interesting because I think if we can start to think about why we're attracted to certain flavourings beyond the I like it, I don't like it, I grew up with it, it's new to me–to understand ourselves a little bit better, then we could probably make food choices that are more compatible with the lifestyle that we are leading or that we want to eventually lead. So it's all about mapping out why we do what we do and that just always fascinates me. So when people drink DAVIDsTEAs, one of the things that they ask us is, why do you put flavouring, which I think we've gone into. But also, why do you put so much flavouring? And that's always slightly surprising to us because we use whole ingredients, whole leaves, that's been part of our mission since day one. And when we do put flavouring it's usually somewhere along the lines of less than 1% of the total components of the tea. And so there seems to be a dissociation between the flavour impacts that you're going to feel in your mouth with the actual amount of flavouring that's been added, can you talk a little bit about that percentage or how that works or why it is hard to logically understand what's happening when you taste it?

Dr. Robert Sobel 30:51

Absolutely. So, and that's one of the, I think one of the big misnomers that we have is we think that food is just laden with flavour. The reality is, your nose is one of your most sensitive senses. It's so sensitive in terms of its ability to perceive aromatics. And in many cases flavour ingredients, just talked about that apple for a second, bite into it. Most of those sweet esters that are coming out and you're perceiving that apple flavour are in there at like part per maybe part per million, sometimes part per billion level. Really, and it's hard for us as humans to kind of wrap our mind around a million, let alone a billion. And in some cases all the way to a trillion. We're talking very, very small quantities. It's just that your nose is so sensitive because it's designed for survival, to be able to pick up on these things. So when you look at most food products out there, most beverage products, most flavouring is in there, at least from my experience, at about 0.02%. You know, and that's actually probably not even the core flavour components, which are going to be in there at the part per million, part per billion level. You know, if you if you look at something like, my two daughters they love these little soft chews that are mango flavoured and I always know when they're chomping on those when we're driving in the car, because one of the components of mango is a chemical called buchu mercaptan, it's a natural component that's found in mangoes and it is just a very strong, sulphurous aroma. And in that candy, it probably is in there at a part, subpart per billion level. And it's so like, you can just smell it everywhere, and the reality is the nose is designed to smell certain chemicals at very, very low levels. Mostly sulphur compounds, you have very, very low detection limits for, and there's a reason for that from a survival standpoint. Most sulphur compounds are not good for you, not like this one. And definitely not some of the other sulphur chemistrates that you'd find in different meat products. But things like hydrogen sulphide, things like, if you go to, to like a volcano national park, say in Hawaii, and you smell the rotten egg aroma. It's good that you can detect that because you're detecting it at a safe level. If it got stronger, you'd want to move away from it. So that's the same thing here, the nose is very, very sensitive. And the human nose is nowhere near as sensitive as our pet friends. You know, our like cats and dogs have insane sensing abilities on their noses. So humans have about 600–or no, 6 million odour receptor cells in our nose. Cats and dogs are about 270 million.

Marika de Vienne 33:55

I feel so bad for them. That they have to tolerate us and all of our sense, you know, no wonder they go nuts when we like burn essential oils. They're like, stop! Why are you doing this to me!

Dr. Robert Sobel 34:05

Why are you doing that? But that's the reality. Flavour is really really, regardless of how it enters in, whether it's a flavour from a flavour company, or naturally in there, it's going to be in there at a very, very low level.

Marika de Vienne 34:21

I think we don't give enough credit to how much we can actually perceive. And when it's overwhelming, we assume that it's somehow dangerous or unknown or manipulated in something that we don't understand. Just because we don't really appreciate just how amazing our sensory tools are. So take a minute to thank our nose, our tongue, our ears, our sense of touch, because we got it going on. All right. I have a question for you. And this is a question that has been burning in my brain for three years now. So a few years ago I read this article about banana flavouring and when I'm saying banana flavouring, I'm saying the flavouring that you taste in like a candy, like I'm thinking banana runts very specifically. Or like the banana flavouring, you'll have in more commercial like non-artisanal liquors, like a cream of banana, you know? That banana flavouring, I feel like listeners heard me describe it and they can picture exactly in their minds what I'm talking about. For me, that's always been the symbol, the representation of artificial flavouring because I have never once tasted a banana and have it tastes like banana runt, or like that banana penicillin medicine we give to kids when they have ear infections. This is not a banana that I have at my local grocery store. I read this article that said that this banana flavour, that this banana in fact existed, and was the number one import to North America in the early 20th century. And since then, I don't remember if it was an insect, if it's just deforestation, this banana is just not being imported as much as it used to. Or it is, but it's no longer the only banana that we can get. And so as North Americans we have a larger understanding of what a banana tastes like. And this banana flavouring is now considered artificial even though it comes straight from nature. Is this true?

Dr. Robert Sobel 36:22

Yes. 100% true. Yeah, so pre-1960s, the main cultivated banana was a banana called the Gros Michel, which is French for the Big Mike. And that banana had a very high percentage of an ester called isoamyl acetate. And isoamyl acetate is the primary banana flavouring that you would taste when you, you talked about the runt, the banana runt? And so that banana the Gros Michel, I think it was Panama disease, what it was susceptible, it was a form of wilt and caused that that type of banana to kind of go to the wayside. You can still get Gros Michel bananas today, they're very limited. You have to look for them. It's, I don't know, the last time I saw one was there was a group on the internet where you could go and buy it almost like a marketplace and get them. I have not been able to get them, I tried ordering them. So what do you do because the banana itself is a clone of a clone of clone, and when you know obviously when something comes along like that wilt it just decimates the whole crop. And so there was a shortage of bananas, which kind of leads to like the song–there are no bananas today.

Marika de Vienne 37:58

Yeah, right, exactly.

Dr. Robert Sobel 38:02

So what you do is you find another banana that you can cultivate. And so that was the Cavendish, which is the banana you know, today. And the Cavendish banana does not have as much isoamyl acetate, and so you're missing that. And from what I understand, if you had the Gros Michel, it would taste like eating candy. It's that sweet and just loaded with that isoamyl acetate, which is what we call in the flavour industry, banana oil or pear oil, because if you diluted it, it tastes just like a pear too. Because there's a little bit of that ester also in pears. In fact, if you were to go and grab a pear and bite into it and close your mind and think about a banana, you would actually get a little bit of an essence of that banana runt that you were talking about. Because the same molecules found in both species. So we have the Cavendish banana. And once you know it, it's undergoing its own plight right now. And so there's a lot of biologists out there that are trying to figure out how to bring back the Gros Michel, you know and to have it resistant to wilt and other fungus and stuff like that. So there is hope on the horizon that we're going to get into a different banana. Hopefully, it's a banana that has more flavours.

Marika de Vienne 39:18

There will be bananas today!

Dr. Robert Sobel 39:22

It takes time, it takes time. But yeah, that's kind of the story behind that. But there's a deeper thing going on there where I think it's cool that the flavour industry has this ability to capture a moment in time for us. And it acts like a time machine for us to go back and see how things used to be. The same thing happened in the grape industry. When we started to develop grapes here in the United States, we started flavouring things with grape using a chemical called methyl anthranilate. And that chemical is the signature of what I call like red and white grapes. But in the United States at the time, the primary prevalent grape was like a Concord grape, which does not contain that. But all the candies that we had, all these like iconic candies, like Alexander the Grape, which is a panco to candy, if you've ever–you can find it, but it has that grape flavour to it. And it was interesting, because then when they started to introduce red and white grapes, and discovered that they had that chemical in them, it was very easy for our consumers to adapt to that new flavour profile. Even though the Concord didn't have it in it, these other ones did. And it was kind of a way of transitioning, kind of almost by accident. But to bring and introduce types of grapes for eating, seedless grapes into the US.

Marika de Vienne 40:52

It's just fascinating. And like you said, the fact that we can have almost like a repertoire or a bank of knowledge, where we'll have these flavours of the past. I mean, there are some flavours that we'll never truly know what it tasted like. In the tea world, I think of the first iterations of pu’erh tea, which is, you know, this fermented tea, and we think of it as just leaves, but back then, their fermentation process obviously wasn't as specific or refined as we have it now. And so they added, you know, onions and oranges and salt to it, it was closer to a soup. But even those oranges and what onions? That gene, that particular flavour could be gone forever. So the fact that we can start documenting it and cataloguing it is super exciting from just a historical understanding of who we are as a species. To be able to say, well, this flavour was dominant in this century, in this decade, in this part of the world. That's a really, really exciting frontier. Also, I need to find this banana black market of which you speak so that I can buy this! You said you found a group on the internet, I was like, is there an underground banana market? I want in! If anyone listening is part of the underground banana market, I want in. Just accept the friending on Facebook. So I mean, I could talk to you forever and we're not quite done yet. But I think we're gonna decompress from all that fantastic information. I can see you because we're doing this over Zoom, and you've been taking a few sips from a cup. What have you been drinking this whole time?

Dr. Robert Sobel 42:36

So I've been drinking a rooibos. Super Ginger tea. Yeah.

Marika de Vienne 42:44

Really? And from whom did you purchase this Super Ginger?

Dr. Robert Sobel 42:47

That would be DAVIDsTEA.

Marika de Vienne 42:49

I mean! When I saw that, I mean you were here, the scream that erupted from me, because we don't tell people what to drink. They can drink whatever, so you know very on-brand. Thank you so much for drinking Super Ginger. But yeah, tell me all about it!

Dr. Robert Sobel 43:03

I really enjoy teas that are not caffeinated. I know that might not be the popular thing to say.

Marika de Vienne 43:09

Most teas that are consumed are herbal, so yeah.

Dr. Robert Sobel 43:14

And when I think about tea for me, I like something that's got a little bit of spice to it. And also has a little bit of a of a wake me up, and by that like the ginger piece really, really does that for me.

Marika de Vienne 43:29

Yeah no, I think ginger really helps just energize beyond, sometimes beyond caffeine. It depends on what mood you're in, again, what your body's craving in that moment, as we spoke to. So I'm really happy that you enjoy that tea and the rooibos is super hydrating. It’s a great, it's a great, it's a great tea. I'm drinking S’mores Chai in honour of today's conversation, because I wanted something really flavorful. And also, you know, something that–I kind of call it like molecular gastronomy, for friends, because we've taken a concept of a whole food and put it into its liquid form. So we got the chocolate, we've got the marshmallows, we've got the spices on a pu’erh base, and it's so much fun because I'm not going to make a s’mores every day, I don't have access to this. So sometimes to have access to that flavour in a different format, like in the middle of February in Canada in an office. It's a really nice thing. And I think that's one of the things that flavouring has brought to my life is the ability to have access, like you said, have access to flavours that in that moment I wouldn't necessarily have access to.

Dr. Robert Sobel 44:37

Absolutely, and the emotional stir that that creates for you, is takes you back to moments where you're eating s'mores, which is amazing, you know.

Marika de Vienne 44:44

I've never had a bad moment with a s’more, I'll put it that way. All right, so we're gonna keep drinking and we'll be right back.

AD BREAK 44:54

Today's episode of Steeping Together is brought to you by S’mores Chai. Yes, that's right. We took the most ancient form of tea and we added marshmallows and chocolate to it. However, before you grab your pitchforks, give us a chance to explain. With rich notes of sweet, fresh earth and deep rooted coziness, there was simply no tea base other than pu’erh that could bring the comfort and nostalgia of this childhood of campfire classic from the forest, straight to your cup. So, S’mores Chai, using something old to make you feel young.

Marika de Vienne 45:32

Welcome back, it's time to play “What Are You Drinking?” the quiz where we ask our guests three situational questions, some realistic, some completely out there. And they have to use all of their experience and expertise to tell us what they would drink in any one of these given situations. Dr. Sobel, are you ready to play “What Are You Drinking?”

Dr. Robert Sobel 45:50

Yes, I'm ready. I'm scared. But I'm ready.

Marika de Vienne 45:52

Don’t be scared, this is a safe space! Will I judge your answers secretly in my mind? Possibly. But you have no control over that. So let's go for it. All right. Question one, the deadline for work got pushed back. Thank heavens, because it's been quite overwhelming. You can now take this challenge on at a more comfortable pace. What a relief! But you need a drink and a break before you dive back in. So what are you drinking?

Dr. Robert Sobel 46:19

So I'm going to…it'll likely be a tea, something that's going to be calming. And I would probably use something that has an infusion with some lavender, which I don't know if it's very common for the community. I just know that when I am working in the lab, things like lavender and juniper, when I add them into some beverages can have this really nice like relaxing, takes anxiety away and helps me clear my thoughts.

Marika de Vienne 46:50

Excellent choice because here in the office lavender is something that we talk about a lot, that we use a lot, just the taste of it and the drinking of it, yes, helps to calm anxiety, but the smell just steeping lavender, just smelling it. Those essential oils that come out are just so great for relaxing. I've never heard about it combined with juniper though that's the part that really intrigues me.

Dr. Robert Sobel 47:14

They complement each other because of the floral aroma components.

Marika de Vienne 47:18

Interesting. I think I…

Dr. Robert Sobel 47:19

That’s all I’ll say about that.

Marika de Vienne 47:20

No, but I just think, I know what I'm doing, I'm drinking tonight when I get home. Gonna try a home version of that. All right–10 points. There’s no points. Well done. Our second question actually comes from a listener Katherine Patchett in Windsor, Ontario. Thank you so much, Catherine, for writing in. So you've woken up early to be at the airport for a trip of a lifetime to a destination you've wanted to go your whole life. So excited about your trip, you have a few moments quiet in the early morning hours and you decide to pour yourself a cup of tea before embarking on your journey. What are you drinking?

Dr. Robert Sobel 48:03

We're gonna go with a traditional chai tea. And the way that I make it is the way that I was taught how to make it by a good friend of mine who was a flavour chemist here at FONA. Every afternoon they would have this tea and, am I okay to share the recipe?

Marika de Vienne 48:20

Oh yes you are. I would insist!

Dr. Robert Sobel 48:24

So you would take some milk on the stove, scald it and then put into it a good dosing of black tea and just let that steep while the milk is still very, very hot. They would take a healthy dose of freshly ground pepper and put that into the tea alongside a ton of ginger and then filter and drink and that is an amazing wake you up in the morning cup of chai.

Marika de Vienne 48:58

Whoa that sparked so many things for me because, A–it's a very simple chai blend. I think it's hinging a lot on the freshly ground pepper because when you're grinding it that's when the volatile oils and the essential oils are going to come out and so it's going to be much stronger than just putting ground pepper directly in. And then the heaping quantity of ginger that you described. This really speaks to the name like chai masala, like that warming, comforting and then the ginger, the energizing aspect of it. But in terms of spice components, it's probably the simplest chai I've ever heard. I mean, there are as many chai recipes as there are people on the planet.

Dr. Robert Sobel 49:45

Very simple. Gets rid of the brain fog instantly, and you're ready to move on with your day.

Marika de Vienne 49:51

I love it. Excellent answer. Gold star, great. Perfect, okay. This last one has the virtue of being the longest “What Are You Drinking?” question that we've had so far. So I'll say, buckle up, here we go. Question three. Why did you take that shortcut? It was such a small, dark, secluded alley. I mean, it's perfect for aliens to abduct humans. And you think that's funny? Well, now joke's on you. Here you are sitting across from an alien, and a spaceship, and a recliner. They say their name is Doug and that's not likely, but they seem pretty chill so you instantly feel comfortable. Doug says he has access to the six drinks that change the course of human history: beer, wine, tea, coffee, hard liquor, and soda. He wants you to help him understand what motivates humans to relentlessly pursue flavour discovery, and wants you to choose the drink that best encompasses the human condition. Be as specific as possible. You are, after all, kind of an ambassador for humanity as a whole. No pressure. What are you drinking?

Dr. Robert Sobel 51:06

Wow, that's a…that’s a lot of pressure there.

Marika de Vienne 51:12

But it's Doug. He's chill. He's cool. He's not like the other grey dudes, you know?

Dr. Robert Sobel 51:17

Yeah. I don't know. So that's a tough one to answer. Because there's so much history in every single one of those drinks. That's the problem for me. You know, if you look at things like beer, I mean, that goes back thousands of years. Wine, the same. I think if you're always looking for new flavour frontiers, I think it probably has to be tea. It really does. Because there are so many different things that you can include, include in the fermentation side of the tea also, which opens you up to a lot of different flavour profiles. Yeah, I mean, when you kind of think of it all, I mean, it's got to probably be tea, you know. And the other thing so in my mind, when you ask that, for whatever reason, green tea popped into my mind when you were asking the question, because I was thinking that you were gonna say, Okay, you have to offer Doug something. You know, and in my mind, I'm thinking, Okay, well, Doug is kind of human or has, you know, the ability to perceive like humans, you know, I'm thinking green tea, because green tea has a lot of these very interesting catechins in them and umami compounds. And if you can brew green tea just right, it tastes almost like soup, it doesn't even taste like tea, in my opinion. You over brew it, then you’ve got problems, but brewed at the right amount of time and temperature. And it's, it's almost like a very warming meal.

Marika de Vienne 52:43

I mean, people are gonna think that I paid you to answer that, right, people are gonna think I was like, say tea, make it tea! But that just overjoyed me and the fact that your mind went straight to green tea, it also speaks of like, the preparation and the care that you would give to this extremely overwhelming moment that you want to kind of present the best of what we have, and the complexity of what we have.

Dr. Robert Sobel 53:13

Well…and the reason why I kind of went to the green tea was because I was thinking, Okay, everyone has had an experience with beer or wine, even black coffee, you know and usually those first experiences are not very positive. In fact, that's a learned behaviour over time. Whereas the first time I had green tea made that way. It was like, wow, this is great. You know, and I'm thinking about that, if I'm Doug, you know, and you give me a glass of wine for the first time, that's probably not a very, you know, welcoming thing to do. Without knowing anything.

Marika de Vienne 53:48

Exactly. Without knowing anything about him. Well, I mean, I am absolutely delighted by your answer, and I would most likely do the same thing. Thank you so much for answering that ridiculous yet really important question to me. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for your generosity of information of transparency. I mean, I could keep talking to you, honestly, I could keep talking to you. I have so many more questions. But I think that you've really explained the world of flavouring in a very approachable manner. And I thank you for sharing that with our listeners.

Dr. Robert Sobel 54:27

Yeah, and thank you for the opportunity. And like I said, if you have any more questions, just definitely follow up. We didn’t even get the chance to talk about some of the regulatory groups or even what a flavour chemist is! So there is a lot of information out there about that too.

Marika de Vienne 54:43

Well careful what you wish for, because I like to send emails with questions.

Dr. Robert Sobel 54:27

Please do. Always available.

Marika de Vienne 54:48

And for our listeners, I mentioned it at the top of the episode. I mean, you can obviously Google FONA and see the kind of work that they do, but this is a genuine recommend, this is not something that I've been asked to do. I listen to the FONA podcast, and genuinely enjoyed it. I really learned a lot, especially from the regulatory side. Like you said there was a bunch of stuff that I was aware of, but I didn't understand the mechanics behind it. So you should all really check that out if you have the time. It's a great, great, listen. So thank you and thank you for listening to today's episode. If you would like to reach us with comments questions or suggestions for the “What Are You Drinking?” game you can do so at, or on our website at Have a great week, happy steeping everyone.

dr. robert sobel

dr. robert sobel

about the guest

Dr. Sobel began his career in the flavour industry at FONA (Flavors of North America) in 1999. Over the years, he has taught general chemistry, quantitative chemical analysis and instrumental analysis and published manuscripts in Analytical Chemical Acta, The Journal of Chemical Education and Perfumer & Flavorist. He received a B.S. in Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, his M.A. in Educational Leadership from Aurora University and his Ph.D. in chemistry from Northern Illinois University. As the current Vice President of Research & Innovation at FONA, Dr. Sobel directs technology and innovation efforts for new and novel flavour encapsulation delivery systems. If there’s anyone who can unpack the complexity of flavouring, it’s him!

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about the host

Marika De Vienne studied and worked with tea growers and garden owners in China before becoming a spice and tea blending apprentice. Travelling to places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka turned her into a ravenous seeker and lover of all things tea.

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Marika De Vienne
Project Lead