LYNDEN, Wash. — Fourth-generation farmer Jon Maberry and his family grow raspberries in Lynden, Wash., near Canada’s border, where Dutch-style windmills grace the skyline and farmland fans wide.
At summer harvest, raspberries will dangle from green canes like rubies. But they won’t all be beautiful, Maberry says. Some will collapse, get squished or crumble. The supermarkets won’t want them.
They will go to a place where ugly fruits and vegetables go, alongside curvy cucumbers, knobby carrots and cat-faced strawberries.
It’s not the trash heap or compost pile. Maberry said his family has discovered a “secondary market,” a company that buys their fresh-picked produce.
The company, Salem, Ore.-based Kerr Concentrates, turns fruits and vegetables into juices, purees, concentrates, essences, distillates and custom blends for food and beverage brands.
“We buy the ugly fruit,” said Mark Becker, vice president and general manager of Kerr Concentrates. “Not moldy. Not spoiled. Just not pretty.”
Maberry said he hasn’t dumped good fruit since his family’s business, Maberry and Maberry Berry Associates, started working with Kerr 25 years ago.
“From a flavor standpoint,” said Maberry, “they’re probably taking some of the best fruit I’ve got that just doesn’t meet visual standards.”
Kerr makes most of its products in its own processing facilities, and it sends some material on to flavor houses, where it is transformed into a myriad of flavorings.
Maberry and Kerr are just two stars in the great constellation called the flavoring industry, worth $25 billion globally in 2019, according to the Museum of Food and Drink. Big flavor houses, like those that invented Cool Ranch Doritos and Honey Nut Cheerios, dominate the industry. But as consumer preferences change, farms constitute a growing niche in the flavor sector.
And the quest for flavor, experts say, has changed the world.
A taste of history
Paul Freedman, professor of medieval cuisine at Yale University, said people’s infatuation with flavor has driven war, trade, conquest, discovery and globalization.
According to the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association and archaeological records, as early as 1550 B.C., Egyptians used spices, herbs and honey to flavor food.
Arabs traded spices for goods such as glassware with Rome, keeping their sources secret. In A.D. 77, the Roman scholar Pliny wrote that mythical stories surrounding spices’ origins kept prices high. This continued when Islamic realms later traded with the Holy Roman Empire.
Medieval Europeans discovered how to make essential oils and resins, and monks captured essences to flavor food.
The “great men” of the Renaissance, said Freedman, scoffed at how medieval spices hid food’s natural flavors. The Renaissance was about drawing out natural flavors, like using herbs to enhance meat’s umami, or savory, taste.
Scroll ahead to the birth of synthetic-organic chemistry in the 1830s. As people learned to isolate and mass-produce molecules, the modern flavor industry arose.
This coincided with the Industrial Revolution. According to Nadia Berenstein, historian and flavor expert at the University of Pennsylvania, early chemists made artificial flavors from the Industrial Revolution’s newly abundant raw materials, like byproducts from processed coal.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851, a world trade show in London’s Crystal Palace, consumers bought the first artificially flavored pear- and pineapple-flavored lozenges.
Molecular analysis was crude, so experiments were mostly trial-and-error without toxicological protocol, said Berenstein. This was part of what fueled the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. But most people were just concerned about acute toxins, said Berenstein.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when processed foods leapt in popularity, that consumers started considering health effects such as dietary fat and heart disease.
“I think the modern flavor industry came as a distraction from less-than-quality processed foods,” said Freedman, the Yale professor. “There’s this American tendency to have variety as a compensation for blandness.”
Berenstein said she thinks it’s more complex. Industry figures show the average 1940s supermarket carried 3,000 items. Today, it’s more than 33,000. Berenstein said competing food companies, “in order to seduce and cater to consumers,” invented new flavors and strove for uniformity.
“You want every Oreo to taste the same as every other Oreo,” she said.
The industry, Freedman said, globalizes tastes. A Cheeto is a Cheeto in Poland or Morocco.
There is now a growing trend toward “simple,” “clean label” and “locally sourced” flavors driven by agriculture, but the flavoring industry is still primarily run by big flavor houses.
Inside the flavor house
In their laboratories, flavorists concoct the taste sensations, natural and artificial, for which the world clamors.
Industry leaders estimate 90% of grocery store foods contain at least one laboratory-made flavor.
Both artificial and natural flavors contain chemicals. The distinction, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is the chemicals’ source.
According to the FDA, “natural flavor” comes from an edible source such as animals and vegetables. “Artificial flavor” has an inedible source such as paper pulp or petroleum.
Natural and artificial flavors can be made from identical chemicals — just different sources. Berenstein said lemon flavor is a good example. You can have a “natural” lemon flavor from citral, a chemical found in lemon peel. Or you can have an artificial lemon flavor made from citral processed from petrochemicals. “Natural” lemon flavor, Berenstein added, need not come from lemons: it can also come from citral-containing lemongrass and lemon myrtle.
Such processes can range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
In 2006, Harvard University awarded a Japanese researcher its annual satirical “Ig Nobel Prize” for extracting vanillin from cow poop. Vanilla flavor sourced from cow dung, as you might imagine, was not marketable.
The FDA doesn’t require flavor companies to disclose ingredients because the chemicals used are all GRAS, or Generally Regarded As Safe.
In some cases, Berenstein said, “natural” flavor presents problems. Traces of cyanide can be found in some natural almond flavor, for example, and Madagascar’s natural vanilla industry has been criticized for child labor and rainforest destruction.
Life of a tastemaker
Flavorists are an elite group. Experts estimate there are 500 professional flavorists worldwide.
Hedy Kulka, a principal flavorist for McCormick & Company in Baltimore, Md., said the profession is a lifelong commitment. After graduating with her chemistry degree, Kulka did a seven-year apprenticeship in a flavor house followed by years of mentorship.
Every day, she tests panels: smelling, tasting, clearing her palate, doing it again.
“I’m able to use my chemistry degree as well as my creativity,” she said. “You could harken it to music or painting: you have your choice of notes or colors. You’re putting something together. It sort of becomes your own as you make a song.”
Kulka said her work blends reality and fantasy. A candy strawberry, she said, may contain 15 to 30 chemicals. A flavor imitating a real strawberry may have 50 to 80 chemicals. In contrast, a real strawberry has more than 350 naturally occurring chemicals.
“Artificial flavor is waning,” said Kulka.
Flavor houses, she explained, are gradually shifting to natural flavors.
And so-called “clean label” products, which strive to use as few simple, nameable ingredients as possible, are gaining popularity: an opportunity for farmers.
Back to the farm
According to Mintel, a market research firm, taste is still the No. 1 factor driving consumers’ purchases. But trends toward functional and simple are growing, especially among young consumers.
“It’s still pretty fringy, but it’s growing,” said Berenstein, the flavor historian. “There’s this vanguard of companies trying to define a space in the market, rejecting flavor additives and just going for listed ingredients.”
Kerr Concentrates, owned by global food company Ingredion, works in that space.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in companies wanting to flavor something with simple ingredients: fruit, sugar and water to make a popsicle,” said Irwin Megargee, commercial director for Kerr.
According to Jose Guerrero, senior manager of business development, most of Kerr’s products ultimately end up in the retail space, the remainder going to restaurants and flavor houses.
Although Kerr runs taste panels and custom-makes food formulations for brands, Megargee said, Kerr is not a flavor house, and its workers are food scientists instead of flavorists.
Flavor houses, Megargee said, must design a flavor that delivers the same experience every time. Working with raw fruits and vegetables, Kerr has to be more flexible to get the desired color, flavor, thickness and texture.
“Mother Nature gives us a flavor and we mash it up and work with it,” he said. “An Oregon strawberry will taste different from a California strawberry. The variability is small and may only be noticed by discerning professionals, but it’s there.”
More than half of Kerr Concentrates’ growers are in the Pacific Northwest, and the majority of its produce is West-grown: watermelons from Hermiston, Ore., Washington raspberries, California strawberries.
Because Kerr buys “imperfect” produce that doesn’t meet fresh or IQF (Individual Quick Freeze) market standards, the annual volume varies.
Farmers who work with Kerr say they have a range of commitment, and they appreciate that Kerr understands weather, market demand and other factors mean produce looks different year to year.
“It’s nice to work with a company that understands farming,” said George Bussmann, a cranberry grower in Sixes, Ore., who ships to Kerr. “If you ask a farmer where they ship today versus five years ago, it’s usually a different answer. But Kerr’s got long-lasting relationships with growers. I’ve been doing steady business with them since about 2007.”
Bussmann doesn’t fit the typical mold for Kerr’s growers. While most send their imperfect produce as a secondary market, Bussmann sends Kerr about two-thirds of his best cranberries.
“I get the profit taking sunshine and water to make the cranberry. And they get the profit taking the cranberry and making a juice or puree out of it,” he said.
Mike Alley, vice president of strategic sourcing and supply chain, said Kerr works with more than 75 fruit and vegetable suppliers and seeks to partner with more farmers. Alley encourages any grower interested in working with Kerr to contact him, including organic and specialty producers.
The future of flavor
Although consumers, especially millennials, are buying more “clean” and “simple” label products, big flavor houses continue to dominate the industry. And during the COVID-19 outbreak, experts say, more consumers are swinging back to processed, shelf-stable foods.
“During this crisis, people have been flocking to center aisles (of grocery stores) for things like soup,” said Megargee, who is tracking whether new flavor trends unfold during the pandemic. “How long will that last? Will the snap-back to mass-produced flavors carry through past the crisis, or will the trend for simple ingredients continue? I guess we’ll see.”
The future of flavor may be uncertain, but for now, farmers continue sending not-so-pretty produce to Kerr to be turned into breakfast bar filling, baby food and flavored craft beers.
It’s springtime, and the Maberry family is gearing up for a summer of raspberries.
“I’m glad we get to share our berries with Kerr’s customers,” said Jon Maberry. “There’s really nothing that smells better than raspberries when you get thousands of pounds together in one place. And they sure taste good.”