The Sensory Language of Flavor: How it Helps Food and Beverage Development

by | Apr 25, 2024

Every subject has a lexicon, the vocabulary meaningful to people interested in the topic. If you’re a baseball expert, you’ll knowingly nod if someone mentions “dart thrower,” “above the hands,” “Baltimore chop,” or “making the majors.”  The unique terminology provides a common set of terms that facilitates clear communication between coaches, umpires, players, broadcasters, and fans. Flavorists have a lexicon filled with descriptive and sensory language about food and beverage flavors. Here’s an overview of the framework that plays a crucial role in communicating your taste experience and expectations to your flavor supplier.

The Benefits of Descriptive and Sensory Language About Flavor

Sensory language provides words flavorists use to communicate with each other, clients, applications scientists, and internal teams. Standardized language helps flavorists convey ideas and recommendations to others in the food and beverage industry. Beyond common words and phrases, a flavor lexicon offers several benefits.


Words in the flavor lexicon have clear and precise definitions that help ensure consistency in interpretation and usage. For example, the general flavor term “lemon” becomes more specific with descriptors such as “fresh squeezed” to describe a brighter taste or “peely” to explain a more robust or lemon-oil-type flavor. A newly developed lemon beverage may only partially align with all the available descriptors. Pulling from a comprehensive list of profile attributes makes you more likely to get a flavor that fulfills your lemon concept.


Flavor descriptors help flavorists identify taste characteristics to incorporate into formulations. Sensory language can provide a springboard for flavorists’ exploration. If you want a traditional cherry-vanilla profile to have a more unexpected taste, terms like “darker” cherry or more “roasted” vanilla notes will guide the flavorist’s next steps. 


Quality controls are essential in the food and beverage industry to maintain product integrity and meet shopper expectations. The sensory lexicon describing aromas and flavors gives flavorists a standard for evaluating product quality at the bench and during production. Descriptors often reference an in-market product to help establish a standard for assessing overall flavor and taste intensity. A flavorist creating a “tropical punch” beverage may base their formula on Kool-Aid if you want a cherry-orange profile with mid-range intensity. They may use Hawaiian Punch if you desire a pineapple-papaya note and a stronger taste.


A shared vocabulary also gives clients more specific words to use when delivering feedback about a flavor. When evaluating a benchtop dark chocolate raspberry snack bar, a client can use the lexicon to share more details with the flavorist and application scientist. A response of “the flavor doesn’t work” can shift to a more inclusive statement like, “The chocolate has a bitter note that overwhelms the brightness of the raspberry.” 

How Flavorists Use Descriptive and Sensory Language During Flavor Creation

Flavors include ingredients that improve the taste and smell of foods and beverages. They are complex systems that consist of flavoring materials and solvents or carriers. Flavoring materials include organic chemicals and natural raw components like essential oils, oleoresins, absolutes, fruit concentrates, and fruit extracts or distillates. When combined in a specific formula, flavor materials produce a recognizable taste.


Organic chemistry is the foundation of flavor creation. Flavorists study the structure of flavor compounds to identify the specific elements responsible for flavors and aromas. Flavor chemists use their knowledge of flavor constituents to assemble ingredients with desired flavor characteristics, altering the intensity, sweetness, bitterness, or other aspects to create a solution that meets your expectations.

The descriptors you use to identify the taste you want for your food or beverage are essential to flavor development. Flavorists combine your descriptors with their understanding of how components smell and taste to develop a formula to meet your objectives.


Flavors consist of characterizing and contributory notes.


Characterizing notes are usually a single flavor material that gives a flavor solution its organoleptic identity. For example, suppose you want to create a lemon-lime flavored beverage. A flavorist may use a citral ingredient to deliver characterizing notes such as citrus, lemony, fresh, tangy, and aromatic.


Contributory notes are complementary flavor materials the flavor chemist uses to enhance the flavor’s identity. Contributory or “background” notes round out a flavor profile. If you want your lemon-lime drink to have a pronounced and vibrant citrus taste, citric acid as a contributory component would help.

Identifying the building blocks of a flavor is a complex process. Did you know that strawberry, one of the most popular fruit flavors in the world, has one of the more intricate taste profiles in food and beverage? The aroma alone carries 360 compounds—esters, ketones, terpenes, furanones, aldehydes, alcohols, and sulfur-containing elements!

From a sensory language perspective, strawberry flavor can be fresh, fruity, or green. You may want a strawberry taste that’s “jammy” or cooked, candy-like, or floral. When partnering with a flavorist, sharing your reference profile or an in-market example will establish your flavor guardrails.

Building A Sensory Language Lexicon

Unfortunately, you won’t find “Webster’s Dictionary of Sensory Language for Flavors” on Amazon, but food and beverage regulatory and professional organizations contribute to flavor lexicons.


The Society of Flavor Chemists (SFC) is a non-profit, professional organization committed to advancing the field of flavor creation and flavor technology. Members are flavorists who completed a 7-year apprentice period training in flavor creation and passed a review by the SFC membership committee. Senior flavor chemists personally train apprentices and encourage continued learning and growth. Training builds the development of creativity, knowledge of the chemistry of flavor ingredients, and instrumental analysis techniques that support flavor creation.

Since the founding of the SFC in 1954, about 700 flavor chemists joined the organization, and 400 are actively developing flavors daily. Membership represents a standard of excellence in the flavor industry. 


The Flavor Extracts Manufacturers Association (FEMA) includes flavor manufacturers, flavor users, flavor ingredient suppliers, and others interested in the United States flavor industry.

The organization’s mission is to protect public health through the effective safety evaluation of flavor ingredients using the best available scientific procedures and information.

In 1959, FEMA established a novel program to assess flavor ingredients’ safety and “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) status. The program followed the 1958 Food Additives Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Federal law governing the regulation of flavors and other food ingredients. Now, FEMA manages the longest-running and most widely recognized industry GRAS assessment program.

The organization facilitates communication and collaboration among members, helping them understand flavor lexicons and best practices.


The Flavour Manufacturers Association of Canada (FMAC) gives flavor manufacturers a voice to tackle concerns about Canadian flavor manufacturing and drive policy and direction for the industry.

Like FEMA, the FMAC influences flavor lexicons by facilitating collaboration, providing education and training, supporting research and innovation, and advocating for the industry. FMAC offers Canadian flavorists and industry stakeholders the tools and resources to communicate and innovate effectively in flavor science.

Your Flavor Supplier Can Help With Sensory Language

Partnering with a flavor supplier with SFC-certified flavorists can help your team become more adept with sensory language. They’ll have a deeper understanding of sensory guidelines and flavor descriptors to share with your product developers at the bench or through training sessions. When you and your flavor supplier speak the same language, you’ll speed up development time and get the flavor profile you desire for your food and beverage innovations.

Connect with the FlavorSum team to talk with our certified flavorists about how we can optimize your flavor profile through collaboration and a common language!


Lisa Jackson

Lisa Jackson, Director of Marketing at FlavorSum, brings more than 30 years of market and consumer research experience to support innovation activities for food and beverage organizations.

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