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A brave new world: capturing the flavor bug.

Why flavors created from microorganisms could be the future of the flavor industry.

You won't find the latest frontier in the flavor industry at the edge of a tropical rain forest or high in the Andes - try the bottom of a petri dish instead. Granted, it's no place for Indiana Jones, but biogenesis or biosynthesis of flavors using microbial physiology and genetic manipulation techniques is almost as exciting for the flavor industry as discovering a lost civilization or two.

Will bioengineered flavors ever replace flavors from plant extraction? The answer is a resounding no, but that doesn't mean bioengineered flavors won't have a significant impact on flavor production. Eventually, bio-generated flavors may become the bulk of all food flavors produced.

Let's take a look at where the biotech flavor market is today, its potential - including some of the research techniques used - the benefits and limitations of these technologies, as well as some of the legal issues that inevitably surface around biotech products.

The macrocosm

The market for compounded flavors in the United States alone is estimated at $600 million. Throw in other types of flavors, and the market totals approximately $1.1 to $1.2 billion, with 5% to 6% growth expected annually, according to Michael Broekhof, vice president of business development, International Flavors and Fragrance. The Dayton, N.J., company is a leader in the research and development of bioengineered flavors.

Narrowing the focus to bioengineered products, "the expected impact of biotech on food and flavors is substantial," says Alan Gabelman, manager of engineering sciences at Tastemaker, Cincinnati. Consulting Resources Corporation, a Boston-area consulting firm, estimates the sales of specialty products - which include enzymes and flavors - will grow at a rather astounding rate of 30% per year for the next several years, reaching $400 million in 1997 and $1.3 billion in 2002.

Another indication of the market potential comes from the Technology Management Group, New Haven, Conn. The company reports that in 1988, more than 75 firms already were using advanced technologies such as genetic engineering in pursuit of better flavors and fragrances.

Much of the continued overall growth in the flavor market, as well as the growth in the biotech flavor market, is fueled by a consumer yen for natural flavors. This desire for natural foods, including natural flavorings, began to pick up steam in the '80s, says Gabelman. Consumers' growing desire for natural foods was paralleled by the health and fitness trend. All of this sparked a renewed interest in the development of flavors through fermentation and enzyme technology because those processes are considered natural by the FDA.

"The flavor industry is reactive to changing consumer tastes," says Broekhof. But Broekhof attributes the beginnings of this trend even farther back to the '50s and '60s, when consumers discovered the taste of fresh foods. It was then, Broekhof relates, that fresh foods first began to be available to consumers year-round, and consumer tastes shifted dramatically. "We needed to come up with fresh-tasting ingredients," says Broekhof, which kindled the development of biotech ingredients.

Unlocking the key to flavor-carrying microorganisms began with the correlation between microorganisms and particular fruity aromas that was made in the 1920s by a microbiologist, who reported microorganisms that were responsible for fruity odors resembling strawberries, pineapples and apples.

This discovery moved the development of microbial flavors from serendipitous to systematic and scientific, says David Armstrong, Ph.D., Institute for Biological Sciences at the National Research Council, Ottawa, Canada.

Researchers have since isolated and identified a number of microorganisms that impart specific flavors and fragrances. (See accompanying chart on page 69.) And many of the techniques being applied to the microbial development of flavors have grown out of the pharmaceutical industry and the development of antibiotics.

Further development occurred when researchers examined the physiology of plants used for flavorings. Here they determined that the flavor or flavor chemicals responsible for a particular taste are developed in the secondary metabolism of plants. These flavor chemicals or secondary metabolites - terpenes, lactones, esters, aldehydes, etc. - are major components of natural flavorings.

It is these secondary metabolites that are now being mimicked through biotechnology. Scientists know that certain microorganisms - yeast, fungi and bacteria - possess the ability to produce secondary metabolites in the same manner as plants. Fundamentally, biotechnology tries to increase the natural abundance of a substance/chemical by altering or coaxing a microorganism to produce a particular chemical.

Researchers have found a number of ways to try to get a microorganism to produce the desired substance, and the process is becoming more sophisticated all the time. Genetic engineering, plant cell culture, protein engineering, and pathway engineering are all very sophisticated and directed methods of developing flavors. One of the advantages of genetic engineering is that it avoids the trial and error associated with traditional microbiology approaches.

The microcosm

Creating a flavor or flavor ingredient through biosynthesis isn't an easy endeavor even if you put aside the financial considerations. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack - it can be done, but it's not easy.

Tastemaker's Alan Gabelman gave FOOD PROCESSING a rudimentary look at what it takes to develop a flavor through biotechnology. The first step, he says, is to identify your target chemical and the target cost to determine at what point it's cost-effective. The target might be a chemical that's not available in natural form or one that's very expensive.

The next step is to do a literature search to see if a microbial source has already been identified. After a microbial source for the chemical is identified - it could be an organism that already produces the chemical, an organism that is close to the desired target, or a chemical produced by interrupting the pathway of an organism - the organism needs to be modified to increase the level of expression. If the organism produces the chemical you're after in only 5ppm and has to produce it in 1,000ppm to be economical, you'll need to figure out a way to [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] boost the output.

That can be done by subjecting the microorganism to chemicals or radiation to cause mutations of the organism. The mutations then have to be sifted through to look for one with higher concentrations of the target substance. Even after you've found a mutation that produces the substance in greater amounts, it might not produce it at the target level. You may even have to start the whole process over again with the mutated organism until you're able to create a microorganism that will produce the substance at the desired level.

The more modern approach to producing a microbial flavor is to insert the DNA that codes for the desired enzymes into the organism and come up with the genetic material of the chemical that allows it to produce the target chemical.

This whole process is done at the petri dish/shake-flask level, so the process then needs to be adapted from there to lab fermenter to pilot plant scale to production scale, determining along the way how the substance will be purified and to what level. Scale-up can be just as difficult as the initial phase of the research, not only because of the delicate nature of the work involved, but also because currently there is a shortage of people skilled in enzyme and fermentation technology. The average cost of development for a biotech flavor is upwards of $1 million with a two-year research process, says Gabelman.

Nature's beneficence

Obviously, the cost of creating a flavor through biotechnology can be quite high. After a method of creating a substance through biotech has been established, though, there's a lot more control over the quality and the process compared with plant source materials, says Armstrong. "Many of the plant species used for extracts are becoming endangered." Biotech enables manufacturers to haye a much more consistent and controlled supply of an ingredient than is possible through plant extraction.

Yet even though bioengineered compounds are chemically and organoleptically identical to those found in nature, there is a drawback. Flavors are complex and are not limited to a single compound. As research in this area continues, researchers are finding that chemicals in a flavor found even in parts per billion have an impact on the delivery of that flavor.

The natural law

As bioengineered flavor technology advances, it's important to remember that the investment in development is protectable through patents. One reward for all the trial and error, sweat and inspiration in developing a biotech flavor is that it's patentable, as long as it's new, non-obvious and useful, explains Robert Schaffer, a patent attorney with Darby & Darby, New York.

It also means a discovery can be patented. Something extracted from nature th. at nobody ever noticed before may be patentable, too, says Schaffer. In fact, companies like IFF have an aggressive policy of seeking patent protection for raw materials, processes and applications in this area, says Broekhof.

The other legal issue of significance is how these flavors are labeled. The Code of Federal Regulations defines a natural flavor as "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrosylate, distillate of any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bud, bark, root leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof whose significant function in food is imparting flavoring rather than nutrition."

What it all boils down to is that a bio-generated flavor is considered natural as long as the material it's derived from is natural.

But can a naturally derived cherry flavor that never came from a cherry really be labeled as "natural cherry?" No, says James Lewis, director of flavor applications at Bush Boake Allen, Inc., Montvale, N.J. A flavor of this type would be labeled "natural flavor cherry type." To label it as natural cherry flavor would be misleading, he says.

For now, the issue of natural seems very cut and dried, but as technologies become more sophisticated and novel flavors are created from things that would not or could not occur in nature, the distinction will become more muddled.

"The real issues are not legal, but public perception," says Schaffer. "If the public finds them [bioengineered flavors] useful, the issue of 'natural' will fade."
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Title Annotation:flavors from microorganisms
Author:Kevin, Kitty
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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