The Founding Fathers
Why the Fries Taste Good
excerpted from the book
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Perennial Press 2002, paper
Adjusted for inflation, the hourly wage of the average U.S. worker
peaked in 1973 and then steadily declined for the next twenty-five
Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's
"We have found out . . . that we
cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make
conformists out of them in a hurry . . . The organization cannot
trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."
The roughly 3.5 million fast food workers are by far the largest
group of minimum wage earners in the United States. The only Americans
who consistently earn a lower hourly wage are migrant farm workers.
The fast food chains now stand atop a huge food-industrial complex
that has gained control of American agriculture.
The United States now has more prison inmates than full-time farmers.
The Founding Fathers
In the late 1920s, General Motors secretly began to purchase trolley
systems throughout the United States, using a number of front
corporations. Trolley systems in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Montgomery,
Alabama, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and El Paso, Texas, in Baltimore,
Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles-more than one hundred
trolley systems in all-were purchased by GM and then completely
dismantled, their tracks ripped up, their overhead wires torn
down. The trolley companies were turned into bus lines, and the
new buses were manufactured by GM.
General Motors eventually persuaded other
companies that benefited from road building to help pay for the
costly takeover of America's trolleys. In 1947, GM and a number
of its allies in the scheme were indicted on federal antitrust
charges. Two years later, the workings of the conspiracy, and
its underlying intentions, were exposed during a trial in Chicago.
GM, Mack Truck, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California were
all found guilty on one of the two counts by the federal jury.
The investigative journalist Jonathan Kwitny later argued that
the case was "a fine example of what can happen when important
matters of public policy are abandoned by government to the self-interest
of corporations." Judge William J. Campbell was not so outraged.
As punishment, he ordered GM and the other companies to pay a
fine of $5,000 each. The executives who had secretly plotted and
carried out the destruction of America's light rail network were
fined $1 each. And the postwar reign of the automobile proceeded
without much further challenge.
Why the Fries Taste Good
The taste of McDonald s french fries has long been praised by
customers, competitors, and even food critics. James Beard loved
McDonald's fries. Their distinctive taste does not stem from the
type of potatoes that McDonald's buys, the technology that processes
them, or the restaurant equipment that fries them. Other chains
buy their french fries from the same large processing companies,
use Russet Burbanks, and have similar fryers in their restaurant
kitchens. The taste of a fast food fry is largely determined by
the cooking oil. For decades, McDonald's cooked its french fries
in a mixture of about 7 percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent
beef tallow. The mix gave the fries their unique flavor-and more
saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald's hamburger.
Amid a barrage of criticism over the amount
of cholesterol in their fries, McDonald's switched to pure vegetable
oil in 1990. The switch presented the company with an enormous
challenge: how to make fries that subtly taste like beef without
cooking them in tallow. A look at the ingredients now used in
the preparation of McDonald's french fries suggests how the problem
was solved. Toward the end of the list is a seemingly innocuous,
yet oddly mysterious phrase: "natural flavor." That
ingredient helps to explain not only why the fries taste so good,
but also why most fast food-indeed, most of the food Americans
eat today-tastes the way it does.
Open your refrigerator, your freezer,
your kitchen cupboards, and look at the labels on your food. You'll
find "natural flavor" or "artificial flavor"
in just about every list of ingredients. The similarities between
these two broad categories of flavor are far more significant
than their differences. Both are man-made additives that give
most processed food most of its taste. The initial purchase of
a food item may be driven by its packaging or appearance, but
subsequent purchases are determined mainly by its taste. About
90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to
buy processed food. But the canning, freezing, and dehydrating
techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor. Since
the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United
States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavor industry,
today's fast food industry could not exist. The names of the leading
American fast food chains and their best-selling menu items have
become famous worldwide, embedded in our popular culture. Few
people, however, can name the companies that manufacture fast
The flavor industry is highly secretive.
Its leading companies will not divulge the precise formulas of
flavor compounds or the identities of clients. The secrecy is
deemed essential for protecting the reputation of beloved brands.
The fast food chains, understandably, would like the public to
believe that the flavors of their food somehow originate in their
restaurant kitchens, not in distant factories run by other firms.
The New Jersey Turnpike runs through the
heart of the flavor industry, an industrial corridor dotted with
refineries and chemical plants. International Flavors & Fragrances
(IFF), the world's largest flavor company, has a manufacturing
facility off Exit 8A in Dayton, New Jersey; Givaudan, the world's
second-largest flavor company, has a plant in East Hanover. Haarmann
& Reimer, the largest German flavor company, has a plant in
Teterboro, as does Takasago, the largest Japanese flavor company.
Flavor Dynamics has a plant in South Plainfield; Frutarom is in
North Bergen; Elan Chemical is in Newark. Dozens of companies
manufacture flavors in the corridor between Teaneck and South
Brunswick. Indeed, the area produces about two-thirds of the flavor
additives sold in the United States.
The IFF plant in Dayton is a huge pale
blue building with a modern office complex attached to the front.
It sits in an industrial park, not far from a BASF plastics factory,
a Jolly French Toast factory, and a plant that manufactures Liz
Claiborne cosmetics. Dozens of tractor-trailers were parked at
the IFF loading dock the afternoon I visited, and a thin cloud
of steam floated from the chimney. Before entering the plant,
I signed a nondisclosure form, promising not to reveal the brand
names of products that contain IFF flavors. The place reminded
me of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Wonderful smells drifted
through the hallways, men and women in neat white lab coats cheerfully
went about their work, and hundreds of little glass bottles sat
on laboratory tables and shelves. The bottles contained powerful
but fragile flavor chemicals, shielded from light by the brown
glass and the round plastic caps shut tight. The long chemical
names on the little white labels were as mystifying to me as medieval
Latin. They were the odd-sounding names of things that would be
mixed and poured and turned into new substances, like magic potions.
I was not invited to see the manufacturing
areas of the IFF plant, where it was thought I might discover
trade secrets. Instead, I toured various laboratories and pilot
kitchens, where the flavors of well-established brands are tested
or adjusted, and where whole new flavors are created. IFF's snack
and savory lab is responsible for the flavor of potato chips,
corn chips, breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, and pet food.
The confectionery lab devises the flavor for ice cream, cookies,
candies, toothpastes, mouthwashes, and antacids. Everywhere I
looked, I saw famous, widely advertised products sitting on laboratory
desks and tables. The beverage lab is full of brightly colored
liquids in clear bottles. It comes up with the flavor for popular
soft drinks, sport drinks, bottled teas, and wine coolers, for
all-natural juice drinks, organic soy drinks, beers, and malt
liquors. In one pilot kitchen I saw a dapper food technologist,
a middle-aged man with an elegant tie beneath his lab coat, carefully
preparing a batch of cookies with white frosting and pink-and-white
sprinkles. In another pilot kitchen I saw a pizza oven, a grill,
a milk-shake machine, and a french fryer identical to those I'd
seen behind the counter at countless fast food restaurants.
In addition to being the world's largest
flavor company, IFF manufactures the smell of six of the ten best-selling
fine perfumes in the United States, including Estee Lauder's Beautiful,
Clinique's Happy, Lancome's Tresor, and Calvin Klein's Eternity.
It also makes the smell of household products such as deodorant,
dishwashing detergent, bath soap, shampoo, furniture polish, and
floor wax. All of these aromas are made through the same basic
process: the manipulation of volatile chemicals to create a particular
smell. The basic science behind the scent of your shaving cream
is the same as that governing the flavor of your TV dinner.
The aroma of a food can be responsible
for as much as 90 percent of its flavor. Scientists now believe
that human beings acquired the sense of taste as a way to avoid
being poisoned. Edible plants generally taste sweet; deadly ones,
bitter. Taste is supposed to help us differentiate food that's
good for us from food that's not. The taste buds on our tongues
can detect the presence of half a dozen or so basic tastes, including:
sweet, sour, bitter, salty, astringent, and umami (a taste discovered
by Japanese researchers, a rich and full sense of deliciousness
triggered by amino acids in foods such as shellfish, mushrooms,
potatoes, and seaweed). Taste buds offer a relatively limited
means of detection, however, compared to the human olfactory system,
which can perceive thousands of different chemical aromas. Indeed
"flavor" is primarily the smell of gases being released
by the chemicals you've just put in your mouth.
The act of drinking, sucking, or chewing
a substance releases its volatile gases. They flow out of the
mouth and up the nostrils, or up the passageway in the back of
the mouth, to a thin layer of nerve cells called the olfactory
epithelium, located at the base of the nose, right between the
eyes. The brain combines the complex smell signals from the epithelium
with the simple taste signals from the tongue, assigns a flavor
to what's in your mouth, and decides if it's something you want
Babies like sweet tastes and reject bitter
ones; we know this because scientists have rubbed various flavors
inside the mouths of infants and then recorded their facial reactions.
A person's food preferences, like his or her personality, are
formed during the first few years of life, through a process of
socialization. Toddlers can learn to enjoy hot and spicy food,
bland health food, or fast food, depending upon what the people
around them eat. The human sense of smell is still not fully understood
and can be greatly affected by psychological factors and expectations.
The color of a food can determine the perception of its taste.
The mind filters out the overwhelming majority of chemical aromas
that surround us, focusing intently on some, ignoring others.
People can grow accustomed to bad smells or good smells; they
stop noticing what once seemed overpowering. Aroma and memory
are somehow inextricably linked. A smell can suddenly evoke a
long-forgotten moment. The flavors of childhood foods seem to
leave an indelible mark, and adults often return to them, without
always knowing why. These "comfort foods" become a source
of pleasure and reassurance, a fact that fast food chains work
hard to promote. Childhood memories of Happy Meals can translate
into frequent adult visits to McDonald's, like those of the chain's
"heavy users," the customers who eat there four or five
times a week.
The human craving for flavor has been
a largely unacknowledged and unexamined force in history. Royal
empires have been built, unexplored lands have been traversed,
great religions and philosophies have been forever changed by
the spice trade. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail to find
seasoning. Today the influence of flavor in the world marketplace
is no less decisive. The rise and fall of corporate empires-of
soft drink companies, snack food companies, and fast food chains-is
frequently determined by how their products taste.
The flavor industry emerged in the mid-nineteenth
century, as processed foods began to be manufactured on a large
scale. Recognizing the need for flavor additives, the early food
processors turned to perfume companies that had years of experience
working with essential oils and volatile aromas. The great perfume
houses of England, France, and the Netherlands produced many of
the first flavor compounds. In the early part of the twentieth
century, Germany's powerful chemical industry assumed the technological
lead in flavor production. Legend has it that a German scientist
discovered methyl anthranilate, one of the first artificial flavors,
by accident while mixing chemicals in his laboratory. Suddenly
the lab was filled with the sweet smell of grapes. Methyl anthranilate
later became the chief flavoring compound of grape Kool-Aid. After
World War II, much of the perfume industry shifted from Europe
to the United States, settling in New York City near the garment
district and the fashion houses. The flavor industry came with
it, subsequently moving to New Jersey to gain more plant capacity.
Man-made flavor additives were used mainly in baked goods, candies,
and sodas until the 1950s, when sales of processed food began
to soar. The invention of gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers-machines
capable of detecting volatile gases at low levels-vastly increased
the number of flavors that could be synthesized. By the mid-1960s
the American flavor industry was churning out compounds to supply
the taste of Pop Tarts, Bac-Os, Tab, Tang, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches,
and literally thousands of other new foods.
The American flavor industry now has annual
revenues of about $1.4 billion. Approximately ten thousand new
processed food products are introduced every year in the United
States. Almost all of them require flavor additives. And about
nine out of every ten of these new food products fail. The latest
flavor innovations and corporate realignments are heralded in
publications such as Food Chemical News, Food Engineering, Chemical
Market Reporter, and Food Product Design.
The growth of IFF has mirrored that of
the flavor industry as a whole. IFF was formed in 1958, through
the merger of two small companies. Its annual revenues have grown
almost fifteen-fold since the early 1970s, and it now has manufacturing
facilities in twenty countries.
The quality that people seek most of all
in a food, its flavor, is usually present in a quantity too infinitesimal
to be measured by any traditional culinary terms such as ounces
or teaspoons. Today's sophisticated spectrometers, gas chromatographs,
and headspace vapor analyzers provide a detailed map of a food's
flavor components, detecting chemical aromas in amounts as low
as one part per billion. The human nose, however, is still more
sensitive than any machine yet invented. A nose can detect aromas
present in quantities of a few parts per trillion-an amount equivalent
to 0.000000000003 percent. Complex aromas, like those of coffee
or roasted meat, may be composed of volatile gases from nearly
a thousand different chemicals. The smell of a strawberry arises
from the interaction of at least 350 different chemicals that
are present in minute amounts. The chemical that provides the
dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low
as .02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor
to five average size swimming pools. The flavor additive usually
comes last, or second to last, in a processed food's list of ingredients
(chemicals that add color are frequently used in even smaller
amounts). As a result, the flavor of a processed food often costs
less than its packaging. Soft drinks contain a larger proportion
of flavor additives than most products. The flavor in a twelve-ounce
can of Coke costs about half a cent.
The Food and Drug Administration does
not require flavor companies to disclose the ingredients of their
additives, so long as all the chemicals are considered by the
agency to be GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe). This lack of public
disclosure enables the companies to maintain the secrecy of their
formulas. It also hides the fact that flavor compounds sometimes
contain more ingredients than the foods being given their taste.
The ubiquitous phrase "artificial strawberry flavor"
gives little hint of the chemical wizardry and manufacturing skill
that can make a highly processed food taste like a strawberry.
A typical artificial strawberry flavor,
like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains
the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate,
anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric
acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential
oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone,
ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate,
ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl
propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone
(10 percent solution in alcohol), aionone, isobutyl anthranilate,
isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone,
methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl
heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate,
mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate,
orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, undecalactone,
vanillin, and solvent.
Although flavors usually arise from a
mixture of many different volatile chemicals, a single compound
often supplies the dominant aroma. Smelled alone, that chemical
provides an unmistakable sense of the food. Ethyl-2-methyl butyrate,
for example, smells just like an apple. Today's highly processed
foods offer a blank palette: whatever chemicals you add to them
will give them specific tastes. Adding methyl-2-peridylketone
makes something taste like popcorn. Adding ethyl-3-hydroxybutanoate
makes it taste like marshmallow. The possibilities are now almost
limitless. Without affecting the appearance or nutritional value,
processed foods could even be made with aroma chemicals such as
hexanal (the smell of freshly cut grass) or 3-methyl butanoic
acid (the smell of body odor).
The 1960s were the heyday of artificial
flavors. The synthetic versions of flavor compounds were not subtle,
but they did not need to be, given the nature of most processed
food. For the past twenty years food processors have tried hard
to use only "natural flavors" in their products. According
to the FDA, these must be derived entirely from natural sources-from
herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, yeast, bark,
roots, etc. Consumers prefer to see natural flavors on a label,
out of a belief that they are healthier. The distinction between
artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd,
based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually
contains. "A natural flavor," says Terry Acree, a professor
of food science at Cornell University, "is a flavor that's
been derived with an out-of-date technology." Natural flavors
and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals,
produced through different methods. Amyl acetate, for example,
provides the dominant note of banana flavor. When you distill
it from bananas with a solvent, amyl acetate is a natural flavor.
When you produce it by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol, adding
sulfuric acid as a catalyst, amyl acetate is an artificial flavor.
Either way it smells and tastes the same. The phrase "natural
flavor" is now listed among the ingredients of everything
from Stonyfield Farm Organic Strawberry Yogurt to Taco Bell Hot
A natural flavor is not necessarily healthier
or purer than an artificial one. When almond flavor (benzaldehyde)
is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits,
it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde
derived through a different process-by mixing oil of dove and
the banana flavor, amyl acetate-does not contain any cyanide.
Nevertheless, it is legally considered an artificial flavor and
sells at a much lower price. Natural and artificial flavors are
now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few
people would associate with Mother Nature. Calling any of these
flavors "natural" requires a flexible attitude toward
the English language and a fair amount of irony.
The small and elite group of scientists
who create most of the flavor in most of the food now consumed
in the United States are called "flavorists." They draw
upon a number of disciplines in their work: biology, psychology,
physiology, and organic chemistry. A flavorist is a chemist with
a trained nose and a poetic sensibility. Flavors are created by
blending scores of different chemicals in tiny amounts, a process
governed by scientific principles but demanding a fair amount
of art. In an age when delicate aromas, subtle flavors, and microwave
ovens do not easily coexist, the job of the flavorist is to conjure
illusions about processed food and, in the words of one flavor
company's literature, to ensure "consumer likeability."
The flavorists with whom I spoke were charming, cosmopolitan,
and ironic. They were also discreet, in keeping with the dictates
of their trade. They were the sort of scientist who not only enjoyed
fine wine, but could also tell you the chemicals that gave each
vintage its unique aroma. One flavorist compared his work to composing
music. A well-made flavor compound will have a "top note,"
followed by a "dry-down," and a "leveling-off,"
with different chemicals responsible for each stage. The taste
of a food can be radically altered by minute changes in the flavoring
mix. "A little odor goes a long way," one flavorist
In order to give a processed food the
proper taste, a flavorist must always consider the food's "mouthfeel"-the
unique combination of textures and chemical interactions that
affects how the flavor is perceived. The mouthfeel can be adjusted
through the use of various fats, gums, starches, emulsifiers,
and stabilizers. The aroma chemicals of a food can be precisely
analyzed, but mouth-feel is much harder to measure. How does one
quantify a french fry's crispness? Food technologists are now
conducting basic research in rheology, a branch of physics that
examines the flow and deformation of materials. A number of companies
sell sophisticated devices that attempt to measure mouthfeel.
The TA.XT2i Texture Analyzer, produced by the Texture Technologies
Corporation, performs calculations based on data derived from
as many as 250 separate probes. It is essentially a mechanical
mouth. It gauges the most important rheological properties of
a food-the bounce, creep, breaking point, density, crunchiness,
chewiness, gumminess, lumpiness, rubberiness, springiness, slipperiness,
smoothness, softness, wetness, juiciness, spreadability, springback,
Some of the most important advances in
flavor manufacturing are now occurring in the field of biotechnology.
Complex flavors are being made through fermentation, enzyme reactions,
fungal cultures, and tissue cultures. All of the flavors being
created through these methods-including the ones being synthesized
by funguses-are considered natural flavors by the FDA. The new
enzyme-based processes are responsible for extremely lifelike
dairy flavors. One company now offers not just butter flavor,
but also fresh creamy butter, cheesy butter, milky butter, savory
melted butter, and super-concentrated butter flavor, in liquid
or powder form. The development of new fermentation techniques,
as well as new techniques for heating mixtures of sugar and amino
acids, have led to the creation of much more realistic meat flavors.
The McDonald's Corporation will not reveal the exact origin of
the natural flavor added to its french fries. In response to inquiries
from Vegetarian Journal, however, McDonald's did acknowledge that
its fries derive some of their characteristic flavor from "animal
Other popular fast foods derive their
flavor from unexpected sources. Wendy's Grilled Chicken Sandwich,
for example, contains beef extracts. Burger King's BK Broiler
Chicken Breast Patty contains "natural smoke flavor."
A firm called Red Arrow Products Company specializes in smoke
flavor, which is added to barbecue sauces and processed meats.
Red Arrow manufactures natural smoke flavor by charring sawdust
and capturing the aroma chemicals released into the air. The smoke
is captured in water and then bottled, so that other companies
can sell food which seems to have been cooked over a fire.
In a meeting room at IFF, Brian Grainger
let me sample some of the company's flavors. It was an unusual
taste test; there wasn't any food to taste. Grainger is a senior
flavorist at IFF, a soft-spoken chemist with graying hair, an
English accent, and a fondness for understatement. He could easily
be mistaken for a British diplomat or the owner of a West End
brasserie with two Michelin stars. Like many in the flavor industry,
he has an Old World, old-fashioned sensibility which seems out
of step with our brand-conscious, egocentric age. When I suggested
that IFF should put its own logo on the products that contain
its flavors-instead of allowing other brands to enjoy the consumer
loyalty and affection inspired by those flavors-Grainger politely
disagreed, assuring me such a thing would never be done. In the
absence of public credit or acclaim, the small and secretive fraternity
of flavor chemists praises one another's work. Grainger can often
tell, by analyzing the flavor formula of a product, which of his
counterparts at a rival firm devised it. And he enjoys walking
down supermarket aisles, looking at the many products that contain
his flavors, even if no one else knows it.
Grainger had brought a dozen small glass
bottles from the lab. After he opened each bottle, I dipped a
fragrance testing filter into it. The filters were long white
strips of paper designed to absorb aroma chemicals without producing
off-notes. Before placing the strips of paper before my nose,
I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another
was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries,
black olives, sautéed onions, and shrimp. Grainger's most
remarkable creation took me by surprise. After dosing my eyes,
I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny,
almost miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping
burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just
a narrow strip of white paper and a smiling flavorist.