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WNIJ regularly partners with NIU STEM Outreach to present STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning opportunities throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.Explore the Sound of Science seriesListen to the STEM Reads PodcastListen to the Mind-U PodcastFind stories about STEM education below:

Flavor Lab Encourages Students To Smell The Science

Jenna Dooley

At FONA International in Geneva, Illinois, scientists develop the next generation of flavors used by companies around the globe. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Jenna Dooley visits the lab during a recent tour with students from Batavia High School.

It might be the closest thing to working at the Willy Wonka candy factory.

"In the morning it smells like coffee, and in the afternoon it always smells like sweet vanilla or some sort of fruit," according to Katie Sudler, the community education director at FONA.

Does she ever tire of working in the cloud of smells?

"Every once in a while it can be a little bit overwhelming, but usually it just smells delicious," Sudler said.

The training to be a flavor chemist is intense. It usually starts with a degree in chemistry followed by a seven year apprenticeship program.

The students visiting from Batavia High School are taking the first steps on that path: They are enrolled in their school's Advanced Placement science course. The tour may spark their interest to see where a degree in chemistry can take them.

Unlike the Charlie Bucket character, these students didn't have to snatch a golden ticket to see how the process works.

Sudler tells the students that flavor science involves mixing chemicals to find just the right match for a flavor which can be added to popular foods and drinks.

Credit Jenna Dooley
Batavia High School senior Jacob Mefford smells a flavor test strip during a tour of FONA International in Geneva, Ill.

Sudler explains that the flavoring itself is a small percentage of the overall product.

"Typically flavors are used at less than two percent," Sudler said. "Even in beverages, it's less than .5 percent. So flavors are used at a very small use level but still have a huge impact."

FONA's customers come to the company to learn more about emerging flavor trends.

Sudler says the outreach side of her job is to break down what she calls misconceptions about adding flavor chemicals to food.

"There's a lot of science behind every food product that people consume, and really all that science is taken for granted," Sudler said. "So the food industry does get kind of nailed a lot for trying to hide things or being, maybe, people are suspicious of the science behind what we're doing. I'm a mother and I'm a scientist and I'm an educator, so for me I want to teach people more about it so they're not afraid of the chemicals in their food."

Neha Rajan is a senior at Batavia High School and is interested in food science. She says she was surprised to see how much work goes into making foods.

"When you eat food, you don't really think about all the different chemicals and how many people work towards this part," she said. "And this isn't even the final stage of it."

Her classmate Jacob Mefford visited the flavor lab several times. He's planning to study food science when he goes to college next year.

"This isn't the only place like this," Mefford noted. "So wherever you work that is a company like FONA, just food science, it's going to be interesting because you have different people who like to make the flavor and then someone else who's in charge of actually getting it into the product and so it just seems like it's very specialized and it's just, like, interesting."

And who knows, maybe he or his classmates will develop the next "pumpkin spice."

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.