Vice President of the Society of Flavor Chemists Cathianne Leonardi on the Art and Science of Flavor
Imagine yourself as a child, standing in the middle of a blooming garden. Around you are raspberry hedges and strawberry patches as well as pear, apple, and quince trees, along with tomatoes, eggplants, string beans, and more. You marvel at all of the amazing scents coming at you, while eating fresh strawberries and smelling the sweetness of the roses.
A garden like this belonged to the grandparents of Cathianne Leonardi, the vice president of the Society of Flavor Chemists (SFC), a not-for-profit organization devoted to the advancement of the field of flavor creation, flavor technology, and related sciences. Simply put, flavor chemists, who are also referred to as flavorists, are responsible for making scents, flavors, and foods.
"My training as a flavorist really started in that garden because I was noticing the smells and the tastes of the naturalness around me, and I often wonder if I didn't have that experience, would I ever even have been a flavorist?” she muses during an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. Continuing the family tradition, she and her family now grow food in a garden of their own.
Leonardi was always curious about food. Since childhood, she could pinpoint exactly what she liked and disliked, and why. Yet it wasn’t until after she graduated from Stockton University with a degree in biology did she realize her curiosity and love of food could be a fascinating career choice. But it proved to be a perfect fit.
Early on in her career, after smelling a strawberry flavor that she created in her company's lab, Leonardi was transported back to the time she spent in her grandparents’ garden; it made her want to create similarly evocative experiences for other people. “We need to create memorable moments for our customers and, by extension, for people buying flavored products every day.”
"In our culture, we don't talk a lot about taste and smell, and I think that if we take these moments to really engage with the senses,” reasons Leonardi, “we probably will open ourselves up to understanding what we love and what we're curious about a little bit more." For her, it’s about the “key moments,” when she “can see clearly that there's been an emotional connection."
The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines flavor as “an expression of olfactory and gustatory sensations experienced through a multitude of chemical processes triggered by molecules.” Most labs have 500 to 600 molecules for their flavorists to work with; combining these in different ways can bring out a food’s full flavor profile, or subtly change a flavor.
"We have to be so good at what we do,” points out Leonardi, “that we attract [people] to [an] experience enough [for them to] take the next step and put [the food, flavor, or scent] on or inside their bodies." One way to do this is by leveraging the fact that people form hundreds of emotional connections to flavors and scents — with some flavors having more universal appeal.
One of these is vanilla. According to Leonardi, vanilla and breast milk have a similar flavor, and because breastfeeding is the first positive sensory experience many people have, we link it with nourishment and survival. Since smell is strongly associated with memory and is one of our most evocative senses, flavorists can tap into our early memories by adding vanilla flavoring.
Other connections between emotion and flavor can be culturally based. Every year in the U.S., the coach of the winning Super Bowl team is doused with Gatorade. Since many Americans associate the taste and smell of the sports drink with victory, picking up a bottle of Gatorade in the grocery store could have more to do with anticipating a victory than craving Glacier Cherry.
Interestingly, flavor chemists working on sustainability are transferring lactones, a class of aromatics that are found in dairy products, to other foods in order to emulate the taste of milk in non-dairy products. This strategy can be used to attract people used to a plant-based diet to a wider range of products without using animal-derived protein sources.
Flavorists are also experimenting with CRISPR technology, which allows them to edit plant genetics and enhance their aesthetic. By sequestering the enzymes that cause apples to brown, and then re-encoding the fruit's genetics to create the Arctic Apple, flavor chemists were able to prevent the strand from browning after it’s cut open, resulting in less food waste.
Leonardi wants to make sure that people know being a flavor chemist is a great career option. The SFC provides opportunities for flavorists to network and educate themselves; there’s even a dedicated library in Philadelphia where they can conduct research. But part of what she really appreciates about the SFC is that it encourages and empowers each generation of flavorists.
The industry is based on mentorship, therefore, one of the best ways to grow and achieve success in the field is to network with other professionals. Aside from learning from knowledgeable educators Leonardi has also mentored others. As a part of Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce, she works to bring women into the flavor and scent fields.
During the last couple years, the global COVID-19 pandemic affected Leonardi’s job as she was no longer able to go to the lab. Working from home entailed creating a catalog of recipes, which she then uploaded to her company's computer system for testing at a later date, when the lab reopened. The experience tested her instincts and taught her to trust her intuition.
"What I found during the pandemic was that it sharpened my skills to be able to make and enter a flavor recipe once, maybe twice, then I'm done," Leonardi said. Soon she was coming up with the perfect recipes, with a smaller trial-and-error margin than before the start of the pandemic. But that was not the only thing to come out of her new working situation.
Because people were unable to leave their homes or socialize normally, people had more time to bake bread and experiment with cooking, which means they had more opportunity to contemplate flavors and scents. Leonardi strongly believes that slowing down and experiencing our food can be eye opening.
“There's science behind all of this,” reasons Leonardi. “But where the important moment happens is in conjuring up that emotional experience in another human being and being able to transfer that. And that's art." Indeed it is. To Leonardi and her family, art is a manifestation that creates an emotional impact in a human being.
Note* Images are either in the public domain or provided by Leonardi, used with permission.