Sweet Memories: How Jelly Belly Invents Flavors


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In an echoing, high-ceilinged chamber in Northern California, there spin row upon row of what look like small cement mixers. The gleaming metal drums churn for hours on end while white-uniformed technicians pour in sugar, corn starch, color, and certain other, more miraculous concoctions. Out of one drum comes a whiff of red apple, conjuring a fall afternoon spent picking fruit; from another comes the buttered-popcorn scent of an evening at the movies. Out of drum after drum, all down the room, come smells evoking everything from apple pie to piña coladas to freshly mown grass.

Here, at the Jelly Belly candy factory, memories are reincarnated as jelly beans.

Flavor and scent are beloved for their ability to bring back memories long buried in the sensory deluge, a point made by Proust with his madeleine decades before modern science let us peer into the physiology of flavor. The flavor designers at the Jelly Belly Candy Company make it their business to speak this sensory language, and, through a process alternately technical and zany, to suss out exactly what it is that makes those tastes—and by extension, those memories—jump.

"In the flavor industry, we sometimes say one plus one equals three," reflects Lee: mix pear with orange, for example, and what you get is peach.

All Jelly Belly flavors, from toasted marshmallow to cappuccino—there are around 100 on the market at any given point—grow from ideas submitted by company employees, members of the public, retailers, and others, but the execution depends on a four-person team of food scientists, led by head of research and development Ambrose Lee and aided by the company's marketing and executive teams.

The development process begins with a very specific idea. The taste must be instantly recognizable, says Lisa Brasher, a fifth-generation member of the founding family and executive vice chairman of the board. "When you say 'pickle,' do you mean sweet or dill? When you say 'potato chip,' do you mean regular or barbecue? Those are very important questions for us."

Thus, the food scientists and marketers taste-test extensively to find what sort of pickle is most pickle-y, whether Bartlett or D'Anjou screams "pear" loudest, and which specific combination of spices, dairy notes, and pumpkin puree sends you straight back to your grandma's pie. When they began development of the chili mango bean, Elise Bernstein, a food scientist, says, they descended on a local Trader Joe's and spirited bag after bag of the chili-covered fruit to their labs for tasting.

Sourcing inspirational ingredients is a matter of utmost importance in the design of a flavor. In its quest to know the taste of a pomegranate inside and out, the group taste-tested juices and fruit from different regions, climates, and providers. "Pomegranates from different areas taste different. Even the bottles they use [for juice] affect the flavor," Lee says.

Once the team decides exactly which version to mimic, the scientists retreat to their labs. They work to determine what mixture of juices, purees, and any of a huge variety of compounds can best call to mind their target. Sometimes they work backward from a sample of, say, pomegranate juice, which they run through a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, a pair of instruments that heat up the fluid and vaporize the juice's molecules one by one. The temperatures at which the molecules break down help the scientists determine what kinds of compounds are in the juice and guide them in constructing a faithful flavor.

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With the precision of chemists, they mix batches with slightly different amounts of each component, adding compounds like aldehydes for a fresh green flavor, or esters for a fruity note. Sometimes the effects are not what they expect. "In the flavor industry, we sometimes say one plus one equals three," reflects Lee: mix pear with orange, for example, and what you get is peach. In addition, special compounds must be deployed to make flavors meld with the properties of their "vehicle," as the vessel for the flavor is known. Jelly Belly even has a secret ingredient that suppresses the sweetness of the bean so that savory flavors, like buttered popcorn, can show through.

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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