The Future of Flavor (Part I)

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

Chiara Cecchini

One of the more exciting discoveries in science is related to its application within the realm of food and agriculture. Scientists are now able to engineer food for optimal taste! Learn more about how science is contributing to the tastes of the food on your plate in this excerpt from The Spoon

In this two-part series, guest contributor Chiara Cecchini explores how flavor may be understood, perceived, and valued in the future, based on insights gained from speaking with industry experts. Part I is more focused on the food system, while Part II delves into new flavor profiling technologies employing big data and AI.

The produce of today is being engineered for color, shape, yield, and shelf life, but it seems like the produce of the future will be optimized for flavor. Horticultural sciences professor Harry Klee is currently breeding a tomato for taste, based on analysis of flavor compounds in heirloom, wild, and modern tomatoes. This endeavor involved sequencing the genomes of over 400 tomato varieties, but his efforts also encompass part of a larger goal. Klee hopes that by understanding the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in fruits and vegetables we can control the synthesis of flavor compounds and create better-tasting food.

In an age where the average supermarket tomato is watery and lackluster and where the generic pea no longer tastes like spring or the earth, an increased focus on flavor from the production side is most welcome. Peter Klosse, author of The Essence of Gastronomy: Understanding the Flavor of Foods and Beverages, asserts that this change may be driven by consumers’ frustrations with flavorless foods.  “Gradually, we’ve grown to changing our traditional agricultural systems to produce flavorless commodities,” Klosse states; according to Harry Klee in “Improving the flavor of fresh fruits: genomics, biochemistry, and biotechnology“, it is now generally accepted that the flavor quality of many fruits has significantly declined over recent decades. But blandness of products does not seem an issue because the food industry has found a way to solve the problem. This is done by incorporating salt, sugar, fats, and chemical additives to restore flavor that has been bred out of food.

Ultimately, a lack of value for produce’s flavor is where it all starts. Supermarkets, focused on getting food from producers to consumers in the most efficient, least costly means possible, want a consistent supply of consistent quality food. And while several food-tech companies are populating the market trying to provide solutions to meet this needs, Corporate farms, urged to meet industry demands, are forced to sacrifice seasonality and sustainability — and consequently, flavor.

“We have lost biodiversity,” Klosse says. “We have lost a lot of individual quality between farms and regions, we are losing varietal differences.” But consumers are starting to notice, and starting to care. Klosse believes innovation in this field should be focused on moving the food system towards regenerative agriculture.