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Meet the Chemist Putting Flavor into Processed Foods

Ivona Sasimovich takes us behind the scenes of the flavor industry

By: Nina Notman, special to C&EN

Ivona Sasimovich
Ivona Sasimovich
Credit: Christopher Descano

Flavor chemists produce the synthetic and natural molecules that give processed foods and beverages much of their taste and scent. “When I started at IFF [International Flavors & Fragrances], I was synthesizing molecules from scratch in the lab, but right now I work more with enzymes to make ‘natural’ ingredients,” says Ivona Sasimovich. 

The flavors Sasimovich helps produce are used in a diverse range of products, including chocolate, beverages, and vegan cheese. But, she says, “I often don't know which products I’m producing a flavor for.”

“Recently, I've been working a lot with flavor modulators,” Sasimovich adds. These molecules help dial up or down other flavors in a recipe. “They can make something taste sweeter, make a bitterness go away, or enhance the perception of spicy flavor.”

Sasimovich first joined IFF in March 2012 as a student. It was the final of three internships she had taken during a five-year cooperative education (co-op) chemistry degree program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “My first six month co-op was for a company called Cognis Corporation where I synthesized polyurethanes. My second was for Amicus Therapeutics making novel organic molecules for pharmaceuticals and then the third one was IFF,” she says.

That third internship, at the IFF production facility in Hazlet, New Jersey, “was so much fun that I decided to stay,” says Sasimovich. “I stayed on part-time for my last year at school and then I started working here full time right after graduation.”

Sasimovich has recently returned to part-time study. “In September, I started a master's program at the University of Pennsylvania in biological chemistry,” she says. “I'm learning more about using biology as a means to synthesize molecules so I can apply that knowledge to my day job.”

What's the best part of your job?

The variety. The food market constantly changes, meaning that every year we have new projects. Last year, for example, everyone was trying to use avocado flavor in something. Right now, we are on the wave of plant-based meat. I'm constantly learning something new.

What's the worst part of your job?

The variety! We never know what the next trend is going to be, meaning you can never prepare for what is coming; you just have to adjust to the job as it changes.

What makes you proud at work?

I think it is super cool when I see a product I worked on in the store. However, I’m not allowed to tell people when I do.

What is in your lab coat pocket?

A hairnet, a pen, an Allen wrench, and a clamp.

What instrument in the lab can't you live without?

Two parallel 1-liter reactors that have a turbidity probe in them.

Who is your scientific hero?

Recently I've been obsessed with Benjamin Franklin. He founded the University of Pennsylvania. He wasn't technically a scientist, but he carried out lots of different experiments while doing all the other important things he is better known for.

What’s a piece of professional advice you've received and like to share with others?

Don't be afraid of a challenge. Every time that I have a project that I'm a little terrified of starting because it seems impossible, once I actually start working on it I realize it isn’t actually that difficult.

What do you like to do outside of the lab?

I'm working on my private pilot license. I spend all the free time I have at the airport trying to learn how to land a Cessna 172.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?

I hope I'm still working with flavors because I find them fascinating, and I hope by then to have more than one dog.

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