It’s not everyday you get invited to the place where Oreos, Milka and Creme Eggs are dreamed up, as part of a trip to witness the unveiling of a huge olfactory robot. In fact, normally you’d have to buy thousands upon thousands of chocolate bars in search of a golden ticket to even get close to that kind of Wonka tech.
But luckily for me, Mondelēz handed me my metaphorical golden ticket and invited me along to its top UK science and research centre to meet its newest family member: The Artificial Nose.
With sight, touch, hear, taste and smell departments that put every aspect of your favourite sugary snacks through a series of tests (the secrets of which answer age-old tea break conundrums like, "How do they make chocolate bars break apart in perfect bite-sized chunks?", and, "How the hell do you fill a chocolate treat with 'mouth-watering bubbles'?"), you’d be excused for taking the Willy Wonka comparison to dizzying heights. But when I arrived at one of Mondelēz’s research centres it was much more like a regular old office with a science lab bolted on than a quirky chocolate factory.
This is great news if you want to actually learn about the science behind how Mondelēz makes its super popular treats, but isn’t so great if you were planning to orchestrate a Verucca Salt-style “I WANT ALL THE THINGS” tirade through a sea of Oreos.
The RSSL Centre is one of Mondelēz’s three state-of-the-art Research and Development facilities in the UK, and it’s based at the University of Reading. It’s here where new and old products in Mondelēz’s chocolate portfolio are researched and tested, improved upon and tweaked, where production processes are streamlined and new ones developed each and everyday.
The Centre’s high standards are built around constant innovation when it comes to how its products look, feel, taste and smell. And its due to a new development in the latter that Mondelēz opened its doors to me. But why the huge focus on smell? We don’t sniff chocolate, we eat it, right?
Well, although our taste and smell systems are separate when it comes to both anatomy and neural processing of inputs, they actually work together when it comes to the flavour of food and our experience of eating. It's something you’ll notice if you've ever have a cold and suddenly can’t taste things properly. This is why really getting to grips with these sensory systems and how they work is so important to Mondelēz.
Before we were introduced to The Artificial Nose, we got to try a machine that applied GCO (Gas Chromotograph Olfactometry) to food flavour analysis. This technique allows scientists to analyse food flavours and identify compounds so they can characterise the odours of a food sample.
Doctor Andreas Czepa, the Technical Flavour Specialist at The RSSL Centre, described the process as unveiling “a flavour orchestra”, as the machine breaks down separate aroma compounds so you can properly smell each one. To give you an example, there are around 30 aroma compounds in chocolate. On their own they’d smell weird. Combined they create that amazing chocolate-y flavour.
I was given the opportunity to step into Andreas’ shoes and smell each compound the machine identified in turn. As it happened, I was absolutely rubbish at guessing them, with “farmyards” and “sickly, but in a nice sense” being my only two...insights.
And in a way, my total inability to identify different scents proved a great point; when the GCO machine is breaking down compounds and the flavour specialists are then smelling and identifying them, the process is open to a lot of subjective, human interpretation. Which is why The Artificial Nose is so important, because it doesn’t just tell you what flavour compounds are present, but also gives you an indication of their intensity and duration when food is actually being consumed. More than just analysed in a petri dish, so to speak.
The "Robot Nose"
Meet the PTR-ToF-MS (the Proton Transfer Reaction Time of Flight Mass Spectometry) system, also known as The Artificial Nose or (my favourite), the "robot nose":
If you expected it to look like a giant human nose, then don’t worry, I made the same mistake and was pretty disappointed.
The PTR-ToF-MS uses an analytical chemistry technique that measures the ions that come from organic compounds in normal air in real-time, taking a reading more than once every single second.
And it’s not just one set of readings, there are a variety of different tests; static, which measures what food would smell like when it’s just sat there; head space, which measures the ions as someone is breathing in; and nose space, the most important part, which can tell you what the flavour is like while it’s being consumed.
These readings provide flavour scientists with data about how intense concocted tastes are, how long they last, how they change when they meet saliva, how they change when they meet other flavours, what they do if you put something in the microwave and heat it up, what they taste and smell like if you’ve put your chocolate in the freezer. The list really could go on and on. But it basically serves up everything you could ever want to know about how a flavour could behave in the real world when it’s actually eaten or broken apart or heated or anything else by a consumer. In this way, it’s replicating the experience of the human nose.
To you and me this may sound like overkill, but to one of the world’s biggest snack suppliers it’s necessary in such a competitive market in order to speed up product development, maintain its high standards and get a foolproof indication of how customers perceive its products.
I arrived at Mondelēz ready to question why a robot had to do this job and why people couldn’t, but the accuracy of The Artificial Nose and my lame attempts at picking up flavours earlier in the day really answered it for me. Andreas said innovative tech like this is necessary in order to “overcome the variability of people.” He said because taste is a limited sense, to rely on people for this kind of thing is like “trying to get monkeys to type Shakespeare.”
I understood the importance of The Artificial Nose in terms of getting a better gauge on the experiences customers have when they’re eating. But why such a huge focus on the tech behind the PTR-ToF-Ms? Surely if Mondelēz has been creating Oreos and all its other treats for so long, it must know how to make them and how they should smell by now?
Well, a huge part is new product development. It’s all good and well using the GCO to get the aroma compounds spot-on. But what if they don’t deliver? Andreas used an example of chewing gum. You could cram in all the right aroma compounds, but if the flavour disappears after one chew, no one’s going to buy it again. So the chemistry needs to be “tested” by the nose to get the entire flavour experience just right.
Another key reason the nose is so important is because it can play a huge role in sustaining the company’s current quality for all of its products. A member of the team used the example of finding more ethically-sourced cocoa beans. Sure, they might be from a more sustainable source on the planet that’s paying suppliers better wages, but will they taste the same? That’s where the nose steps in. The nose will help Mondelēz to keep up its current standards, ensuring an Oreo tastes like an Oreo no matter where in the world its ingredients were sourced.
The same goes for reducing fat and attempting to make products healthier. Cut down on fat and sugar and you may be able to stamp “healthy option” or something on your packaging and attract a health conscious crowd to your doors, but you can’t sacrifice the taste millions of people have come to know and love either. The nose helps Mondelēz figure out how to make these compromises.
The system used for the robot nose isn’t unique. Mondelēz tells me other research centres may have one, and other manufacturers likely have access to one at the very least. However, they believe the robot nose gives them an advantage in an increasingly crowded marketplace where quality, flavour, packaging and ingredients are all just as important in retaining customers. And with a roster of some of the most loved brands and a development team that’s extremely passionate about constantly improving its products, it’s hard to disagree.