Philly Latina chemist is all about taste
Nadia Aymone Berenstein remembers where she first fell in love with flavor chemistry. It was at a farmers’ market, and she popped a concord grape into her mouth. The flavor was sweet, almost overbearingly so. That sweetness got the wheels turning in her head.
“The kind that I tried tasted exactly like a grape Jolly Rancher,” she said. "It was exactly the flavor I'd come to know as artificial grape. At that point I had this brainstorm, and I thought 'What if concord grapes were the grapes that everybody ate when artificial grapes were developed?'”
So Berenstein, a doctoral candidate in the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Haas Fellow at the Chemical Research Foundation, began researching the history of flavor chemistry, including profiles of the chemists who synthesized those flavors, “professionals aware and attuned to variations of flavor and aroma.”
She’s learned a number of things since that first concord grape: that before the widely available California grapes we know today, the concord was the standard table grape. That consumers time and time again have prefered the artificial banana taste to attempts to synthesize the Cavendish banana we’re most familiar with. That the science of flavor chemistry shifts and evolves with consumer desires, and that consumers are often inarticulate with those desires in focus groups, leading to maligned products.
Her thirst for knowledge came from her Argentinian parents. Her mother, a village girl from the Pampas region, met her father, a city boy, at the University of Buenos Aires before emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s. In the late 1970s, her grandmother joined them. In Berenstein’s childhood, her grandmother would take Borden’s canned, sweetened condensed milk to create dulce de leche and boil it for hours to the marvel of guests who’d never had such a treat, one now commonly available at Ben & Jerry’s. Looking back, she laughs at guests who marvelled that something more from flavor chemistry than cows could so please guests and grandchildren alike. But from her family, she learned another important lesson: Civic responsibility and awareness.
“You have to be a citizen. Being a citizen isn't only a privilege, it’s a responsibility,” Berenstein said. “My parents were always attuned to the issues like police brutality. “
Berenstein herself returned to Buenos Aires at some point in her 20s, a place she’d come to love. She still finds herself yearning for exploration of the Highlands and Patagonia. But for now, she busily works on her research, finding new areas of the historiography every day. One of her latest discoveries was a 1937 article about yerba mate in which the Federal Trade Commission forbade its importers from making any number of health claims, whether it be the drink as a cure for rheumatism, an invigorator of skin or an aid in digestion.
“Those claims seem very novel, they've been around for a long, long time,” Berenstein said.
Berenstein will continue to dig into the rich history of flavor chemistry during her time at the Chemical Heritage Foundation as she hones her dissertation. As she explores, she’ll turn up new health claims, new information on the flavors we all know and create a vivid picture of the evolution of our food system.