Currently, cookie butter is one of a select number of flavors that are trending. I had the privilege to address questions to Rabbi Gavriel Price who manages flavor companies for the OU and is an expert in the flavor industry. He elaborated on the role of a flavorist, how confidential flavors can be certified, the precise meaning of a natural and artificial flavor and which flavors are more sensitive than others in the kashrut arena. In addition, he shares his secret to success and backstory to his favorite flavor.
Steven Genack: About how many flavor companies do you manage for the OU? Could you estimate about how many flavors a typical flavor company would produce?
Rabbi Gavriel Price: A couple of dozen accounts have been assigned to me. The range of flavors varies tremendously, because some of the accounts are global flavor houses, which produce thousands of flavors, and others are relatively small companies that have a niche business of a few hundred products.
SG: There’s a certain confidentiality that surrounds flavor companies, as each is working on creating its own unique formula. Can you discuss that phenomenon?
RGP: There is a lot of creativity and originality in flavor creation. A good quality flavor will have a certain dimension or depth not evident in a more humdrum version of that flavor and may be very specifically tailored to the food or beverage in which the flavor is being added. A flavorist – the title of a person involved in flavor formulation – may be very protective of how he or she does that. Also, there is some confidentiality about where the company obtains its ingredients from.
SG: Is there a different kind of relationship that the OU has to have with flavor companies than with others?
RGP: The main difference is that with flavor companies there’s simply quantitatively a lot more to work on – there are more ingredients and more products, and therefore both we and the companies often need a lot of focus on ensuring that the day-to-day administrative tasks function properly. For our field representatives, they need to be familiar with ingredients such as flavor chemicals that they wouldn’t encounter at food manufacturing sites. The raw material “warehouse” of a flavor company simply looks like a big laboratory, with shelf after shelf lined with metal canisters bearing labels with long chemical names. They are inscrutable for the uninitiated.
SG: What are the different positions at flavor companies?
RGP: Like any food company, there are folks from regulatory, quality, and operations we interact with. The flavorists themselves we generally don’t meet, although they need to be knowledgeable about what constraints they need to operate with when constructing a formula, and therefore it is important they have an understanding of our requirements.
SG: Can you explain the difference between a natural and artificial flavor?
RGP: Defining “natural” is really dependent on the governing regulatory requirements of a country. In the United States, as I understand it, as long as the raw materials are “natural” then the flavor can be labeled natural. A company can produce natural strawberry from strawberry juice concentrate, or it can produce natural strawberry flavor using an involved process called biochemical fermentation in which strawberries play absolutely no role, and yet all the raw materials are technically natural. Artificial flavors generally are made using a set of chemicals that we call petrochemical, or synthetic. From a kosher perspective these are typically uncomplicated and easily certifiable.
SG: Sometimes a flavor is named “WONF” to stand for “With Other Natural Flavors.” Can you explain that designation?
RGP: WONF, as you point out, means “With Other Natural Flavors”. To stay with the example of strawberry, there may be a specific component that represents a strawberry “note” and yet the flavor would benefit from a certain earthiness, or botanical note as well. Or maybe a hint, even if barely discernible, of cream would complement, or support, the strawberry note. So, bundled together with the strawberry flavor are these “Other Natural Flavors” that can differentiate this strawberry flavor (let’s say in an ice cream, or yogurt) from others.
SG: Because flavors involve confidential formulas, how is the OU able to ensure all kashrut concerns are addressed?
RGP: We are obligated, and we take very seriously, the confidentiality of the information we encounter, whether that’s for flavor companies or any other certified facility. Without exception the companies I personally have interacted with have been comfortable with full disclosure of information; on the other hand, we are always careful only to ask questions that pertain to our work.
SG: Are some flavors more sensitive than others?
RGP: Companies generally differentiate between savory flavors – like cheese, meat-based, or other flavors that go into chips or sauces and the like, and sweet flavors (beverages, ice cream, etc.). Generally savory flavors are more sensitive for certification.
SG: What is the role of the mashgiach in supervising the flavor process?
RGP: The role of people like me, on the administrative side, is to make sure that the systems are functioning, and the company can produce, with a perfectly high degree of predictability, kosher product. The job of the mashgiach is to make sure the products are actually kosher!
SG: You manage the Yoreh Deah chaburah at the OU, which takes place on a weekly basis. Every week a different Rabbinical Coordinator (RC) presents on a different kashrut area, addressing the most up to date practical issues relating to that area. What was behind the idea of starting this chaburah? Do things discussed ever lead to any kind of rethinking or changes in OU Kashrut policies?
RGP: Knowledge of OU policy is critical for effective supervision. It is vital that everyone on our staff, both the headquarters and field representatives, understand what we do. We intersect with so many areas of kosher law at the OU, and staying on top of that requires ongoing education. The other reason we do this is that it provides a beautiful forum for interaction among the staff to discuss ongoing issues. The main point is to reinforce our knowledge of existing policy, but we definitely, although relatively rarely, do have the merit of coming to an insight that helps us improve, or refine, our existing policy.
SG: Do you have a certain work ethic or credo you live by that helps you to grow in your position?
RGP: I was fortunate to be educated in a way that I should not back down when faced with a new, unfamiliar subject. The OU has been accommodating in allowing me to learn on the job.
SG: Finally – do you have a favorite flavor?
RGP: Butter pecan. When I was an energetic teenager, I used to be able to finish (almost) an entire pint of butter pecan ice cream in one sitting. I look wistfully on those days, and butter pecan is therefore still my favorite.