Designed to stimulate the warm, moist sensory surfaces inside your mouth and nose, the chemical creations of the $18 billion-per-year flavors and fragrances industry couldn't get more intimate with its ultimate customers—you and me. Composed of myriad natural and synthetic chemicals, these concoctions infiltrate the olfactory and gustatory landscapes. From expensive perfumes to soaps to mass-manufactured food, flavors and fragrances are everywhere.
International Flavors & Fragrances is the industry's second largest company, behind Switzerland-based Givaudan. During C&EN's recent visit to IFF's main R&D center in Union Beach, N.J., Clint D. Brooks, senior vice president of R&D, placed his $2 billion-per-year company in context:
"If you think about chemistry, it's everything from the chemicals we burn, as in fuel, to things that treat disease and save our lives, as in pharmaceuticals. And then, somewhere in the middle, we have molecules that are involved in everyday activities of smelling and tasting, and that is where IFF fits in. We create and supply flavors and fragrances to consumer product companies."
Brooks, a Ph.D. organic chemist, joined IFF in 2000 from Abbott Laboratories, where he worked for 16 years, much of the time on drugs for treating inflammation and asthma and on drug delivery.
Secrecy agreements in his new field prevent Brooks from revealing the many consumer products whose signature tastes and smells emerged from one of IFF's 32 design centers around the world. The exception is the fine fragrance business, which is up-front about its creative collaborations with firms such as IFF. On a table in Brooks's office are some of his firm's winning fragrance creations, among them Calvin Klein's Eternity and Ralph Lauren's Polo Blue.
Brooks breaks the fragrance side of his business into two categories: fine and functional. "If you are creating a fine fragrance, you are creating an image, a dream, an effect," he says. "Your fragrance mixture is just diluted with ethanol and water, so it's primarily a creative formulation" that has relatively few product engineering constraints.
Functional fragrances, even ones that merely neutralize the otherwise malodorous background of many personal care and household products, require a more scientific approach. "If you are creating a fragrance to go into a customer's laundry detergent, the fragrance has to survive in that environment," Brooks says. "You have a very complex chemistry in that bottle."
As head of R&D, Brooks worries about building competitive advantage through chemical innovations. After all, he says, with modern analytical equipment, skilled chemists can decode many compositions. "If you have secret ingredients, things that are trade secrets, or if you have ingredients you have patented, then you create barriers to those who want to duplicate what you have."
A key to IFF's competitive advantage resides in a laboratory brimming with several thousand brown vials. Each one contains either a single volatile fragrance chemical "note" or a collection of notes, known as an "accord." They are labeled with evocative descriptors such as "leather," "marine," and "ozone."
Many of these proprietary chemicals have their roots in an on-campus botanical research garden. Appended to the back of the company's aesthetically challenged facilities along ramshackle Route 36, it's a veritable glass palace. Inside are hundreds of plants identified by company associates around the world and shipped to the lab for cultivation and analysis.
One room is devoted to stunning orchids whose aromas conjure sensations ranging from chocolate raspberry to licorice. By analyzing the compounds these plants emit at different times in their days and botanic lives, IFF researchers have identified many "notes" to which only the company's own flavor and fragrance designers have access.
Besides maintaining a pipeline of new and unique chemical notes for his company's perfumists and flavorists, Brooks aims to open whole new markets for IFF.
That's why he established a polymer laboratory devoted to developing fragrance encapsulation and delivery systems. "Now we have tiny capsules that contain fragrance, and these capsules deposit on whatever the substrate is—cloth, skin, hair," he says.
Too small to see or feel, the encapsulated fragrances are incorporated into customers' lotions, detergents, and even textiles. Think of stockings with a soothing aloe scent and texture built in. "This could be a game-changing technology," Brooks says.
On the flavor side of IFF's business, Brooks says his researchers are expanding from the volatile components of flavor to nonvolatile ones that influence what the industry calls "mouthfeel." Novel sensations of texture, cooling, and warming are on the table.
IFF researchers also are developing flavor-modifying compounds that interact with specific taste receptors, such as those for salt or sweet. Such compounds could allow customers to reduce levels of salt, sugar, or monosodium glutamate in foods.
Likely coming to the industry, Brooks acknowledges, is a more rigorous testing and approval protocol. "A lot of stuff has been developed historically and never went through rigorous toxicological review," he says. "Now there is a growing call for more and more testing so that you understand every ingredient with respect to dose levels and potential outcomes."
To Brooks, it's just part of the equation, part of the challenge of bringing new flavors and fragrances to market. Amid it all, there's one particular industry trait that gives him strength: "No matter what the economy does, we are well-balanced because we sell stuff that people need to buy during good times and bad."