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Slice of Life: What it's like to be a flavorist

Flavorist Laura Partida of Aurora tastes a peanut type flavor in her lab at FONA International in Geneva.
Flavorist Laura Partida of Aurora tastes a peanut type flavor in her lab at FONA International in Geneva.

GENEVA – Laura Partida doesn’t make the food you eat.

But if the ingredient list contains the word “flavor,” the odds are pretty good that Partida has made the food you are eating taste better.

Since 2009, Partida, of Aurora, has worked as a certified flavorist at FONA International in Geneva.

Known formally as a flavor chemist, Partida is among a select group of people as FONA estimates there are only about 500 people in the country specializing in making breakfast cereal taste fruity, popcorn taste buttery or cheesy, and granola bars taste nutty or chocolatey.

A chemist by trade, Partida spends most of her day in a gleaming white, well-ventilated lab in FONA’s facility on Averill Drive on Geneva’s east side.

She works with two technicians and another flavorist in a section of the lab known at FONA as the Grain Flavor Creation Lab.

Other flavorists and technicians work in other sections lab, dedicated to flavors for savory foods, beverages and others.

The countertops, tables and shelves of Partida’s lab are lined with dozens of brown labeled bottles containing the basic ingredients that form the chemical combinations that produce the sensation our tongues recognize as “flavor.”

Some of the ingredients, such as cinnamon oil, might be recognizable to people with no training.

Others might require advanced knowledge.

Take, for instance, the compound labeled “benzaldehyde.” While it might sound less than appetizing, one sniff of the compound, usually obtained from almonds, will make people think of one thing:

“Cherries, right?” Partida said. “It smells like cherries, and it’s what we would most likely use when we’re trying to make something taste like cherries, too.”

Using her extensive “toolbox,” as she calls it, Partida will combine precisely measured doses of certain ingredients to produce a range of flavors.

On the day of a visit from the Kane County Chronicle, Partida was attempting to refine a pistachio flavor formula. But this particular flavor presented a challenge, she said, the recipe needed to include all organic ingredients, and could not contain anything from an actual pistachio because of concerns over allergens.

Other flavors must meet food regulations or differing international ingredient laws.

And some flavors can be challenging simply because taste can be subjective. When attempting to produce an apple flavor, for instance, it’s hard to know what kind of apple it should taste like “One person’s idea of a crisp, juicy apple taste, is different from the next person’s,” she said.

“It’s pretty difficult,” Partida said. “But it’s the part of the job I love the most. It’s like a puzzle.

“And in the end, I produce something that tastes good.”

In college, food science was not on Partida’s radar. She majored in sciences and was leaning toward biology. It wasn’t until after she was tipped by her mother that she really got excited about a future career possibility.

“Then I discovered flavor chemistry,” Partida said. “And I said, ‘Really? People do this?’ “

From there, she landed a job 11 years ago working in the quality control department, and then research and development. Finally, she was able to apprentice as a flavorist, and after seven years of training, obtained her certification.

In her time as a flavorist, Partida said she has developed and improved flavors in a number of consumer products that line the shelves of supermarkets in the U.S. and around the world.

Because of confidentiality agreements, Partida cannot disclose the brand names of the products.

“Sometimes, the products are stuff I grew up eating, or that I even eat now,” Partida said. “Sometimes, I’m thinking, ‘Wow. I get to work on this.’ ”

Visiting the supermarket is also fun for her sometimes, as, sheepishly, she admitted to walking the aisles and gazing like an artist at her work, at the products she knows contain the flavor recipes she created.

“Sometimes,” she said, with a grin. “Sometimes.”

While Partida said she enjoys most aspects of her job, there is an aspect she could do without.

The word, she said, is “sulfuraceous” – a fancy way of saying “stinky.”

Some compounds can get on clothing or skin and stay there for a long time. One of the worst culprits is the ingredient often used to produce a cheesy aroma.

Another is maple.

“It got on my fingertips once, and I couldn’t get rid of it for a day,” Partida said. “I dreamed of pancakes that night.”

Partida’s work is more than mixing chemical compounds. From there, the real fun can begin, as the newly created flavor is applied to the kind of product the food manufacturer customer has requested.

“Then, we get to taste it,” she said. “And modify it. Then taste it again.

“And it can just be so good, you know? I gained so much weight when I started here,” she added with a laugh.

While waiting for technicians to finish preparing her pistachio-flavored granola, Partida was also sampling flavors for varieties of a children’s snack that needed to taste like carrots and sweet potatoes.

While the carrot flavor came close, the sweet potato flavor needed more work.

“No, it’s not always good at the beginning,” Partida said. “But if one doesn’t work, we just try again, until we get something that tastes better.”

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