Here Comes the Brand New Flava in Ya…Taste Receptor Cells

Interview with a Flavorist


Hailey Ward, Reporter

Curious about what I am ALLUDING to in the headline? Just Google Craig Mack. Now, let’s jump into this tasty article. 

Have you ever eaten something and wondered to yourself, “hmm….what am I eating?” What is in that Oreo cookie that makes Ms. Felder’s taste buds go crazy?  Or that Krispy Kreme donut? Or whatever your favorite snack is. 

Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to any of these questions; although, I can probably guess dairy is somehow involved with making an Oreo. 

Even though I was unable to track down the ingredients and recipes for your favorite snacks, I was able to speak with Flavorist Kelly Carroll from International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. (IFF) about the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into creating some of our favorite flavors.

A Flavorist is someone who uses chemistry to engineer artificial and natural flavors. 

Hopefully, the information from this interview will help you develop a positive outlook on chemistry since it isn’t bland after all. 

Here is our Q & A: 

  • To begin this interview, tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is Kelly Carroll, I have been working in the flavor industry for just about 11 years, all at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). The last seven or so years as a Flavor chemist/flavorist. I studied at Rutgers University and have a B.S. in food science. I have always had an interest in food, definitely consider myself a foodie, but also really enjoy and value science. Alas, food science was the perfect combo of each. Other than that, I am a big Rutgers fan (GO RU!!), enjoy being outdoors, golfing, camping, and gardening/growing plants. I also love trying new foods as well as experimenting in the kitchen; both are great ways to find inspiration for work!

  • What is a flavorist exactly? Is this a type of chemistry?

So a flavorist is someone who makes flavors for food and beverages. A flavorist is a chemistry-driven profession but also has a huge creative element to it. Think of it as an artist for the tongue. Our palette is thousands of aroma molecules, botanical extracts, and fruit extracts each with its unique smell and taste and the painting would be the flavor. Granted, it is not all creative as we heavily rely on product analysis to give us a chemical breakdown of what makes a food or beverage taste the way it does. (i.e., gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.) That’s why a strong background in chemistry is ideal. 

  • What is the actual process? I am imagining someone that is tossing a bunch of stuff into a blender to create….something. Do you believe that it is as simple as that?

Not quite that simple, but also not that far off! To give you a better picture of what a flavor looks like…think of a strawberry. Remove all the sugar, water, seeds, flesh, stem, skin, vitamins, minerals… and you’re left with a combination of flavoring materials. We’re talking molecular levels. That is what we are trying to create.

As far as the process goes, it all depends on what the customer is asking us to accomplish. Most of the time we are working with the analysis, mentioned above, and are trying to hit very specific targets. But, for a novel creation, we do kind of get to ‘play’ (always follow proper lab safety protocol) with different materials ‘tossed’ (meticulously measured and weighed) into a beaker to see how it smells and tastes. There have been years of schooling and training before you get to this stage, so you have an idea of what might work and what might not…but that’s where we get to have fun and be creative.

  • Is it true that there are only a handful of people in the entire world that do this type of work?

It is a fairly unique and specialized career. There are about 1000 flavorists globally with around 400 in the US. It’s a small industry that has a pretty large impact. Most people have no idea it even exists; myself included before I began this journey.

  • How does it feel to be one of the few people?

It is pretty cool. It can be very rewarding but also very humbling. Customers and consumers are tough to please!

  • How does one undergo pursuing this type of career?

Unlike most science careers, it can start with a variety of backgrounds or degrees. The most direct route would be a chemistry or food science degree. However, I have colleagues that began as chefs, some were organic chemists, some were biologists ranging from HS diplomas to PhDs. Even with a degree, it takes 5-7 years of training to become a flavorist, it is an apprenticeship. Training consists of smelling and tasting through those thousands of materials as I mentioned, learning solubility, regulations, different deliveries, not to mention figuring out how to make flavors that taste good! It takes a lot of passion, patience, and nonstop learning.

  • Are there any certain specialties in this type of work?

There certainly are! When you train, you kind of get a little taste of everything, no pun intended. But as you develop in your career you get into spaces where you might specialize in a certain type of category and/or tonality. The main ones are sweet and savory. Sweet can range from beverages to dairy products to baked goods. Savory encompasses products like soups, gravies, chips, and alternate proteins. Furthermore, some flavorists become experts in tonalities such as mint, vanilla, citrus, or beef! 

  • Is this type of work limited to only food? I can’t stop thinking about toothpaste and mouthwash. Is there a mad-flavor scientist person behind those items?

You thought right! We work on various types of applications across the industry. Including not limited to toothpaste, gum, lozenges, mouthwash, lip gloss, and even pet food.

  • What is your specialty?

I work mostly on beverages with a concentration in citrus.

 Do you have any favorite flavor creations that you are very proud of?

There are a few projects that I was very excited to win, especially ones that offer you significant challenges that you’re able to overcome. It’s very cool to see something you worked on out on the shelves and being enjoyed by consumers.

  • My favorite flavor of all time is vanilla. What’s yours?

That’s a great answer! It happens to be mine as well! Along with lime and black cherry. People always say…that’s so boring. But in reality, vanilla is incredibly complex, and also happens to be the most popular flavor in the world, so I guess we’re not so unique. As for black cherries and lime, I just find them yummy. 

  • What influenced you to enter this field?

As I mentioned, I’ve always loved food…growing up with grandparents and a mom that were incredible cooks really helped with that, you were NOT allowed to be a picky eater, if you were, you didn’t eat! This is before your time, but there used to be these tv shows called “Good Eats” and “Unwrapped”. I was absolutely obsessed with both as a kid. Alton Brown was the host of “Good Eats” and he dove into the science of cooking and the kitchen whereas “Unwrapped” went into the production side of food. I wondered where and how I could do that for a career, luckily I discovered the perfect marriage in food science. As for becoming a flavorist, I kind of fell into it…I wanted a food science job after graduating and took whatever I could get…started as a flavorist assistant and 11 years later, here I am. Certified Flavor Chemist.

  • What were your other career aspirations?

So, initially, I wanted to be a chef but realized that is a very HARD gig. All the respect in the world to those who do it. It is not easy and fun despite what Guy Fieri depicts. Then I went into food science. Going through school, I always wanted to be a food product developer for a big company like Kraft or Unilever, or Nestle. Turns out, it’s really tough to get your dream job right out of college. I did a few internships and some contractor work in regulatory and it was just not for me. I finally landed a full-time job at IFF, at that point, I was just thankful to be able to move out of my parents’ house. I found that I had a knack for flavors and began my career. Sometimes, it just works out that way.

  • So since you invent flavors, does that also mean you can cook?

I dabble around in the kitchen. Mostly cook Italian food, but I like to play around from time to time. The cooking part is still fun, but cleaning up will always suck.

  • So, every season there are always new trends: fashion, hair, makeup. Are there any flavor trends that are really popular right now?

Funny you should ask, IFF actually has a fairly large consumer experience team that does a ton of research on what’s hot and trendy. They can even customize for individual customers! Food and flavors are super trendy! Right now you’re seeing a lot of alternate protein products whether it’s oat milk, almond ice cream, pea protein burgers, and even cricket flour. You’re also seeing a lot more gluten-free, dairy-free, and keto options. These trends have been around for a while, but you are seeing so many more products accommodating them than ever before. It’s almost hard to find the original full everything items! Health and wellness are here to stay, as is sustainability, which is really important for the planet and to keep its population fed. As far as flavors go…you will always see your popular ones…strawberry, apple, mango, vanilla, chocolate, lemon, lime, etc. But adding unique twists to those are always popular with consumers. Things like blueberry lavender or elderflower pear. Could also be a big year for citrus flavors, specifically clementine. 

  • Without getting too specific, what is your day to like at your job?

So a typical day…I come in and check to see what our project load is. As I mentioned before, a lot of my work is matching. Matching as in we are trying to recreate the flavor of an existing product. Whether it’s because the customer wants an alternate supplier or a better price. With that, we go over the analysis and drop a flavor off to our applications partner who puts it into the base and we evaluate. (Applications are another part of our team who are product developers and also work closely with the customers to deliver solutions to any needs).

LOTS of tastings throughout the day. Once we find something we think is acceptable, we can submit it for sensory testing. This is another field of food science where we have panelists (aka professional tasters) taste and validate our work, statistically. If we pass, we ship to the customer to evaluate. This makes up the majority of the work I do. If we’re doing more of a product development type project, my applications partner will ask for ‘xyz’ flavors and I get to create. This is where we get to have a lot more fun…of course price and regulations come into play. Other than that, we evaluate one another. Collaboration is always welcomed. Presentations for customers. Working sessions with customers (more so pre-Covid). Research on trends and new molecules. Training…there is always something to keep you hustling. 

  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

Let me throw in a shameless plug of IFF. 

“Who is IFF? 

We are a health, bioscience, and sensorial experience company that is changing the world for the better. Combining the beauty of art and the precision of science, we are an international collective of thinkers who partner with customers to bring scents, tastes, experiences, ingredients, and solutions for products the world craves. As a global leader in food, beverage, health, biosciences, and sensorial experiences, we do a lot and continually innovate to do it better.

What do we do?

Today, we’re building on our heritage of creating sense experiences with the addition of world-changing scientific expertise and R&D. This potent combination of science and creativity, along with the passion to serve customers of all shapes and sizes means there’s no limit to the impact we can have. 

We supply the food and beverage, fragrance, home and personal care, and health and wellness end markets with innovative solutions that allow them to create the products consumers know and love. We offer end-to-end service that few can deliver on. Our unparalleled product portfolio is the most robust in the industry and we have leadership positions across key taste, texture, scent, nutrition, enzymes, cultures, soy proteins, and probiotics categories.”

Other than that, I think I pretty much-covered everything. Thank you so much for the opportunity to spread the news about Flavor Chemistry and Food Science. You are the future! Cheers.


Special shoutout to Ms. Felder for making this interview possible and thank you Kelly, as well as IFF, for the goodie bag which included my FAVORITE: Vanilla Extract 🙂