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What’s the first thing you do upon waking up?

If your answer’s brushing your teeth or taking a shower, chances are you’re already using a product developed by Givaudan.

The Swiss firm is the world’s largest player in the flavour and fragrance industries. It develops scents and flavours across food products as well as household items.

That means it’s probably in the body wash you use, or in that can of soda you’re drinking.

The company estimates that the average person comes into contact with a scent it’s developed about 10 times a day — yet most of us have never heard of it.

That’s because it’s sworn to secrecy about who its clients are, precisely for the reason we feel somewhat disturbed that there are lab-concocted flavours in our food.

Gilles Halotel, Technical Head of ASEAN at Givaudan, said during a factory tour that people often express concern about lab grown flavours being unnatural.

Scents on a shelf in its Singapore facility.

He explained that obvious scent is a necessary, and often expected component in food products. “Take chicken stock for example. People expect their food to have a strong chicken taste, and if we had enough chicken livestock around, maybe we wouldn’t need stock [products]. We’re responding to need.”

Companies like KFC and Starbucks need to taste consistent around the world.

And globalisation is another force pushing demand for scent makers like Givaudan.

Halotel said the growth of conglomerates like KFC and Starbucks is making consumer palates more homogenous.

“It’s not for me to judge whether it’s good or bad, but the overall palate is changing” as big companies expand, he said. 

People expect consistency in big chains, and they’re also demanding things taste or smell a certain way.

At the company’s new $5 million facility in Singapore, flavourists experiment with hundreds of components to get to “the one.”

They’re also working on local flavours like Laksa, so they can distill it into a snack form.

Laksa is a Singaporean noodle dish which has hints of lemongrass, chilli and coconut. When I tried it in a cracker, I was still amazed how much it tasted like the real thing.

Laksa chips.

Halotel thinks each country will retain some demand for unique flavours, despite globalisation’s march.

Tastes are developed from young based on what you’re fed, and that helps perpetuate local tastes, he said.

“I hope food will continue to be diverse. Everyone already uses iPhones and searches on Google — if we all eat the same food as well, life will be very boring.”

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