artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives." What has become just another
buzz-phrase in packaging once signified a rare, good thing. Torre Products Company,
Inc., a flavor house just north of Canal St. on the Tribeca/Soho border, reminds
us to appreciate this tag anew. The business has been specializing in artificial
flavors, colors and preservatives since 1917. Although they do offer some essential
oils and natural extracts, the bulk of the tastes here are man-made.
no discernable signs of food or food preparation in this drab warehouse, but
the smell of butterscotch registers upon entry. Peter Raho, whose family bought
into a business that was originally run by the Torrogrossos, opens the door
to a modest shipping and receiving room and begins to sniff around boxes labeled
artificial vanilla, orange blossom water, anisette, lemon extract and almond
extract, to pinpoint the culprit.
list of flavors manufactured at Torre includes more exotic selections such as
coffee cake, maraschino, root beer, cotton candy, butter cream, Jamaican rum
and scores of others. In such an environment, one can’t help but remember
Violet Beauregarde, the ill-fated character in Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory, whose downfall was a stick of gum that was endowed with the flavor
sensations of a multicourse meal.
that the scent is one of his vanillas. When it comes to this flavor, the choices
exceed natural or artificial–in ascending order of strength, there are
several intensities of artificial vanilla extract, then vanillin, a synthetic
compound that Raho calls "vanilla with a punch," and finally, the
industrial-strength ethyl vanillin.
most of Torre’s clients, such as Stella D’Oro in the Bronx, are in
the bakery trade. Here, they can snatch up additional products that are vital
to mass-production. Colors, such as one called "egg shade," which
makes pretty golden biscuits look so yellow, and a preservative called "soft
mack," a food-grade chemical that keeps cookies soft, makes this a one-stop-shop
of sorts. Torre also has a line of artificial flavorings tailored to Italian-ice
vendors, and lemon, his best seller, is also the most loved at perhaps his most
infamous of New York clients, Benfaremo Lemon Ice King of Corona.
So we know
what’s in a natural extract–usually alcohol, vanilla, almond, what
have you and water–but what goes into an artificial one? Raho reads off
a label: "Water, food grade propylene glycol–" ("The same
kind of stuff that you can find in a radiator," he later tells me)–"sugar,
vanilla extract, alcohol, aldehydes, plant extracts, esters."
a chemist, you may not know what to make of such ingredients. And since my host
was half-convinced that I was in fact a spy for Virginia Dare, a leading flavor
house in nearby Brooklyn, I didn’t get much by way of answers.
Is the difference
between a natural and chemical flavor easy to taste? "Whether everyone
can taste it, I doubt it," figures Raho. "Once you mix that one ingredient
with other ingredients, the ability to distinguish them becomes more difficult."
The crucial difference for many of his customers, it seems, isn’t flavor
but price. Since a typhoon devastated vanilla crops in Madagascar three years
ago, the price of pure vanilla extract has risen dramatically. At $110 per gallon
you can order the natural, or pick up the fake stuff for $12 a pop.
try to be sensitive to differences in flavor," says Raho, "But we’re
not bakers; we’re flavor manufacturers–the baker is the connoisseur."