Jobberish: Flavor of the week

Opinion by Amanda Ach
Nov. 16, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

Jobberish: Flavor of the weekAs you’ve no doubt gathered from the fact that I mention food in almost every column I write, I love food. It’s one of my favorite things. I love to bake and cook, but more than anything, I really love to eat.  I think having a career in food would be just about the most fun thing a person could do with their life — whether as a chef, baker, restaurant manager — the list goes on. But all of these are so obvious, and they don’t make use of your hard-earned Stanford degree, which (as much as we all hate to admit it) matters. While it’s only natural to get hung up on that detail, I’m going to be holier-than-thou for a minute and advise you against it. Your life’s passion might be something that requires a college education, but it might not. You should pursue it regardless; as long as it makes you happy and pays the bills, it’s worth your time. If my hypocritical lecture didn’t work and you still want to do something with food that also validates all your hard work here at Stanford, I’ve got an idea: become a flavor chemist, also known as a flavorist. It’s the perfect job for those of you who are both foodies and chemists, and it’s this week’s topic.

A flavorist creates the artificial flavoring found in basically any packaged food you can buy. It’s not just a bunch of lotions and potions — flavorists use highly technical chemical processes to create these artificial flavors, with the same standards of precision as any research lab in the country. As a flavorist, you will get to apply your many hours of work on those chem p-sets to creating delicious new flavors that people like me will eat and enjoy.

While the flavor industry is actually quite large, there are only about 1,000 flavorists worldwide. These flavorists are therefore highly valued — and by highly valued, I mean a six-figure annual income. Most of the world’s flavor companies are American, so as a flavorist, several of your clients will likely be international. Of course, this means that in order to understand the local flavor profiles, you will have to do a lot of traveling and sampling of different exotic cuisines. Poor you.

There is, however, one part of becoming a flavorist that I don’t envy — beyond getting a degree in chemistry, hopeful flavorists must also complete a seven-year training program to become fully certified. You can start the training program right after getting your Bachelor’s degree, and it’s basically just working in a laboratory to gain experience — kind of like a very long internship.

But being a flavorist isn’t all boring lab work in a white coat; there is a certain amount of creativity involved in the job as well. While you will sometimes be creating standard flavors, you will also get to be inventive with your flavor creation. For example, one flavorist was tasked with creating the flavor “erotic” for a Japanese candy company. Another flavor: “virgin.” I’m serious. As a flavorist, you will be turning abstract (if somewhat perverted) ideas into accessible tastes, and even though it’s hard work, it can also be a lot of fun.

Although flavorists primarily create flavors for food products, they aren’t limited to just the food industry. Cosmetic companies will hire flavorists to make their products smell (or, in some cases, taste) good. Flavorists are also often hired by pharmaceutical companies to make medications taste better, although from personal experience, I can say those flavorists aren’t doing such a great job. That is, except for Children’s Tylenol — purple never tasted so good.

Becoming a flavorist is a fun way to combine your interests in food and chemistry into a successful career. Also, given the highly technical nature of the job, a career as a flavorist will no doubt put that Stanford diploma to good use. Lastly, as a frequent consumer of food, I will greatly appreciate the work that you do. And really, that’s the most important thing.

Want to be Amanda’s flavor of the week? Send her an email at aach “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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