Kiwi scientists determine a new way to synthesize flavors from fruits like grapefruit, apple and, well, kiwi.

In September 2005, Japanese food company Nissui introduced a new product, meant to appeal especially to children: strawberry milk-flavored fish sausage.

Gustatory inventions of this sort may start popping up everywhere thanks to the development of a new genetic approach to creating the flavor compounds present in food and drinks. Scientists at HortResearch, a biotechnology company in New Zealand, are isolating the genes that produce flavor in fruit. Their ultimate goal is the development of a technique that will allow large-scale production of compounds identical to the fruit’s natural enzymes.

“The idea is that the flavor will be more realistic,” said Richard Newcomb, a scientist at HortResearch.

To capture the flavor of fruits like apple or kiwi, researchers focus on the genes that are activated in the fruit’s skin at the end of the ripening process. They take genetic samples from the fruit, insert them into bacteria to express just those genes, and then analyze the flavor compounds produced.

Once researchers determine which genes are responsible for producing the fruit’s flavor compounds, the genes are inserted into food-grade microorganisms, like yeast, allowing a larger volume of the compounds to be produced.

The HortResearch method provides several advantages over previous industry standards, like chemical compound synthesis and extraction from raw fruit pulp, said Newcomb. One of which is that this more natural approach is less reliant on fossil fuels. Chemical synthesis involves manufacturing the flavor compounds in the laboratory without using the fruit’s natural enzymes. The end result of synthesis is a reconstituted blend of compounds, which approximate the fruit’s flavor.

“A lot of the cost put into [chemical synthesis] is petrochemicals, for heating and pressurizing the systems,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb believes that since the flavor compounds produced using HortResearch’s method are identical to the ones found in nature, they can be used in the health food market to create natural products that are “not only healthy, but taste good.”

“People are just not going to tolerate a food product that may be very healthy for them but just is not palatable,” he said.

Newcomb predicts the flavor compounds could appear in consumer products within five years.

Gary Howell, vice president of the Industrial Biotechnology Corporation in Sarasota, Florida, said these gene-based methods could give scientists better access to tricky fruit flavors like those in grapefruit and raspberries.

“This technology,” he said, “has strong potential to allow us to come up with new sources of very intriguing flavor and fragrance materials for the future.”

Originally published August 14, 2006

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