The History of Culinary Chemistry and Chromatography

Mar 06 2015 Comments 0

It’s a fairly well-established fact that the majority of our taste sensations are derived from our sense of smell. This is because a large part of taste comes from volatile compounds, which are molecules light enough to able to convert into gas and absorbed by our nostrils and the retronasal receptor reached through the back of our throats.

As far back as 1950, we have been able to quantify and identify the separate volatile compounds in any given substance using chromatography. Over the years, this process (which separates out a compound by converting it into a gas and analysing the time it takes the various individual components to vaporise) has morphed into the scientific approach of gas chromatography combined with mass spectometry (GC-MS).

However, although this technique is able to measure out and identify each of the compounds present in a substance, the unique way in which these compounds react with our olfactory receptors makes it difficult for science alone to determine which compounds will be more intense or stronger-smelling than others.

Combining the Sniff Test with Science

To circumvent the problem, the best solution is a good old-fashioned sniff test… combined with the science, of course. Gas chromatography-olfactory (GC-O) combines the scientific separation of the compounds with the human nostrils, by having a team of “sniffers” or “perfumers” collate their findings with those in the lab.

This allows the perfumers to sample individual components of the substance, identifying which are more integral to its overall aroma than others. Over the last half-century, the technique has been so popular that it has solved many mysteries of the food industry, such as unveiling the exact compositional makeup of the coffee we drink.

Furthermore, it also offers scientists and food developers the potential to create “designer” aromas and flavours. The more we learn about how compounds contribute to a food’s smell (and by extension, its taste), the more we will able to manipulate these compounds into creating new flavour combinations or enhanced taste experiences.

Not Quite the Finished Product

Although GC-O has done wonders to shed light on how we perceive taste and smell in our food, it is still not quite able to detect all of the subtle notes that our nostrils can. This is partly because each substance will smell slightly differently to every person who samples it, because also because the aroma of a compound can change over time.

One instance of this is the candy cap mushroom – for years scientists were stumped as to why this fungal pest has fragrant odours not dissimilar to maple syrup. The employment of gas chromatography was once again instrumental in unravelling the mystery, although this time it was used in conjunction with solid-phase microextraction. This additional phase allowed for smaller samples to be analysed, enabling scientists to track a process leading to the creation of soloton, the chemical responsible for the smell. To learn more about the specifics of this process, read this article: Why Do Candy Cap Mushrooms Taste Like Maple Syrup?

Clearly, our culinary chemistry has not quite reached its evolutionary end… but its rapid progress holds high hopes for the potential power we may wield in the laboratory, and in the kitchen, in the not too distant future. 

Image Source: Knife & Fork
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