Hedgehog Chips: The History of Artificial Flavoring

Artificial flavoring has become such a common part of modern life that most of us never even take the time to think about how this modern day alchemical process takes place. The introduction of artificial flavoring into food began in Wales with the strangely Welsh concept of selling potato chips that featured the artificial flavoring of hedgehogs. The problem, of course, was nobody involved in the endeavor was any too keen on actually finding out what kind of flavor the hedgehog offered. Thanks to a bunch of Gypsies-who may quite possibly have been my distant relatives-the makers of these chips found out what the flavor was. You see, those Gypsies found hedgehogs to be a fine delicacy and for that I am proud to distance myself even further from my possible relatives. The flavor: like smoked beef. The result of careful experimentation with chemicals led to the marketing of those hedgehog-flavored potato chips and, surprisingly, they were a hit.

The chemical experimentation that led to the creation of a salty snack that reminded one’s taste buds of hedgehog-if one had already eaten a hedgehog-is still the method by which artificial flavoring is created and added to food. Scientific research over the years has result in the identification of more than 4,000 combinations of chemicals that produce a specific flavor. The really amazing thing is that within one kind of food product there may be hundreds of these combinations all working together.

The tongue plays a huge part in the industry of creating artificial flavoring. The tongue was thought to be capable of distinguishing only four unique tastes: sour, bitter, salty and sweet until recently when a fifth singular taste differential was identified and named: umami. The taste buds work in combination with the nose to discriminate between the vast varieties of flavors that can be experienced.

The chemical breakdown of the flavors inherent in any food can be determined by vaporizing a sample for analysis of elements such as molecular assembly. Once the information has been extracted from the analysis, it is then theoretically possible to create a synthetic that reproduces that flavor. The synthetic flavor is virtually identical to the original flavor in theory, but the actual practice of reproducing that flavor is a bit more complicated. This is where your taste buds and sense of smell come into play. Give five people a synthetically created artificial flavor to taste and each one will experience the flavor to a different degree. Some may not be able to detect any difference between the artificial flavoring and the natural flavoring while others may be able to detect a difference that can range from very subtle to not even being convinced the two flavors are similar at all. That latter situation rarely occurs, which is why most people accept artificial flavoring as almost identical or at least close enough.

The method for creating an artificial flavoring is based around extracting concentrate or by isolating the naturally occurring chemicals. This type of artificial flavoring can be called natural in the sense of replicating the original flavoring organically. Then there is artificial flavoring that is the result of a completely synthetic process in which the chemical structures of the molecules that occur naturally are imitated. When the process of isolating chemicals in food is utilized, the result can also be a completely new flavor that does not mimic the natural flavor. With access to hundreds and hundreds of synthetic flavors, scientists can create just about any kind of flavor that a food manufacturer desires. The result of all this science can be experienced by your in the form of potato chips that taste like dill pickles and bacon-flavored chocolate bars.