R&D Confidential

In writing this post I am violating my pledge of confidentiality that I signed as a General Foods chemist back in the early 70s. So sue me.

I figure after 50 years, expired patents and several corporate mergers what I have to say would be in the public domain anyway. Here goes.

Around the time I started my career in Food Science, General Foods Canada’s most profitable product was a rising star known as Tang flavor crystals. It differed from US Tang in that it came in a flexible pouch rather than a jar.

By the late 1960s GF had the technology to make a dry mix beverage that could compete with the best orange one out there – frozen concentrated orange juice. There was no single strength chilled orange juice available then, and the other possibility – canned orange juice – was simply awful. A bunch of really great orange flavors arrived around 1967 or so, and with its expertise in gum technology, GF could deliver the proper texture and mouthfeel as well. With great taste, convenient packaging and long shelf life, Canada’s Tang was a huge success.

Righty-o then. Now that we’ve conquered the orange juice problem – what’s next? Turns out the next biggest juice market is – wait for it – tomato. Shall we have a go at making a dry mix tomato project – why not?

As in all beverage development projects, the challenge boiled down to two items. We had to match an action standard in texture and in flavor. In this case, it appeared as if the texture would be the most daunting one.

Tomato juice – unlike frozen orange concentrate – has a thick pulpy texture and a red color all through the glass. You can’t just dye some gums and you’re done. It took a monumental effort at Cobourg Research but they did achieve a matching texture. They made a slurry of a special pulpy starch, tomato solids, and a water-insoluble carotenoid called Canthaxanthin. Then the mixture was drum dried and milled to a fine powder. When mixed with water you got instant tomato juice texture. It sounds easy, but in my view this was one of the greatest feats of 1960s food technology I ever encountered. Without it, no progress could have been made on a tomato beverage whatsoever.

Given that the lab had climbed the mountain of tomato juice texture, it would seem that solving the other problem – tomato flavor – would be a walk in the park. Sadly it did not turn out that way.

The fact was that tomato flavor technology was in its infancy back around 1970. What was known about the flavor chemicals revolved around medium-chain unsaturated aldehydes and alcohols. These gave a rather fresh and green tomato character to any dry mix beverage.

Our target beverage was Libby’s canned tomato juice – the best canned tomato available in Canada at the time. Libby’s – and in fact all high-quality canned juice – had a familiar cooked, mature and tinny tomato flavor familiar to every consumer of the product.

Now the flavor chemists at GF Tarrytown did know a bit about canned flavor, and had identified a couple of sulfury compounds that were part of it. However, they rather naively (and I daresay arrogantly) assumed that was the total picture. It was not. Some 20 years later the US Department of Agriculture identified another 7 compounds that were in canned tomato juice flavor. We didn’t know this in 1970.

I believe that the so-called reaction flavors which started to appear in the 1980s would also have helped us with cooked notes – but again these weren’t available in the early 70s.

Net-net we were trying to compete with a great tasting cooked, mature canned product with a rather green tasting fresh and artificial tasting dry mix. The results were ugly.

We must have run a dozen consumer tests over a three year period. Our action standard for success was a non-significant loss to Libby’s – approximately 55 to 45 %.

Probably the best we ever did was a 65 to 35 % loss. Sometimes the results went as high as 90 to 10 %. Analysis of the entire series of tests showed that the result was more dependent on how good the batch of Libby’s was we tested against than any product development activity that went on. A raunchy branch of Libby’s beat us 65-35; a great tasting batch beat us 90-10.

We thought for a while of making a mixed vegetable dry mix similar to V-8 but the market was too small to be of interest. In fact, I got a reputation for having a negative attitude after I pointed out in meetings that the technology wasn’t there, no matter how good the opportunity was to Marketing.

This was one of the most frustrating projects I ever worked on – no chance of success for the next 20 years at least. Finally, the whole thing was dropped. Nobody in the lab was unhappy when it was.

Today even the great Orange Tang success story is over, and nobody since has had the bright idea of making a powdered Tomato Tang beverage. Probably it’s just as well. But I do know how to get the texture right if anybody ever comes up with a good cooked tomato flavor.

And now you know the rest of the story. But don’t tell anyone I told you.

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