Taste Maker

As a senior research fellow at Pepsi-Cola’s research center in Valhalla, Winsome Johnson mixes up a few of her f(l)avorite things.



Photo by John Rizzo

Describe your training.
As a flavorist, you spend about seven years in a flavor house shadowing a senior flavorist, and you have to learn more than two thousand raw materials that are used in the flavor industry. You have to learn them singularly—the flavor that they impart—and then understand how they react and interact when blended with other flavors. It’s understanding both the chemistry of the raw materials and the art of putting them together to deliver that perfect taste profile.

How do you test your creations?
We might screen things among ourselves here, but ultimately we will take them to the consumer for external testing. When we have the opportunity, we try to attend those tests. Sometimes we do a home-use test, in which we’ll send several different variants of a product home so the consumer can report on an extended experience with it. They’ll give us feedback so we can make tweaks.

Have you ever been surprised by a focus group’s reactions to your creations?
Absolutely. It’s particularly hard when you sit there behind the one-way mirrors and hear them say, “Ewwwww, it tastes like puke!”

The failed “New Coke” from your competitor comes to mind…
Well, sometimes the consumer misleads you, and takes you down the wrong track.

What’s the fastest growing segment of Pepsi’s beverage lines?
The non-carbonated beverages.

Is there a reason different diet products use different artificial sweeteners?
The sweetener is chosen primarily by how it affects the beverage’s flavor release. If you were able to taste the same beverage with different sweeteners side by side, you’d notice that the flavor gets released differently with each one. Think of flavor like an orchestra, where you have different notes coming together. Your sweetness is carrying your background notes.

What’s the most exotic or unusual flavor you’ve tried?
I’ve tried a lot of things—I won’t talk about some. One fruit that comes to mind is the durian, which comes from Asia, and is a cross between onion and garlic. At one point, we actually looked at it. We decided it would probably be hard to drink an onion/garlic beverage—but I’m still working on it.

What’s your personal favorite Pepsi flavors/brands?
I drink Diet Pepsi every morning after I’ve had my hot tea and in the evening I have Sierra Mist.

Did you ever take the Pepsi Challenge?
Can you believe I actually did it when I came to work here? They had us do it during our orientation. I was like, “Oh my God, I better get this right—I’m coming to work for Pepsi, and I better not say I like Coke.” Coming from the Caribbean, where we drank a lot more Pepsi than Coke, I got it right.

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You mention the durian comes from Asia—I suppose adjusting flavors to suit regional tastes around the world must be an added layer of complexity.
Sometimes we may enjoy the same thing around the world, like a strawberry. But you have to understand that each group of people are looking for different notes in their strawberry—what’s considered a “good” strawberry here is different from what’s considered a “good” strawberry in Europe or Asia. So there are certain key notes within the “strawberry” flavor that you have to increase or decrease, depending on the market that you are in.

Do you spend more time trying to improve existing brands/flavors, or coming up with new ones?
I work primarily in innovation, so my time is spent on new flavors and concepts

Did you work for another beverage company prior to being at Pepsi?
I worked for Joseph E. Seagram and Sons. I started my career in the flavor industry, in a flavor house. After my general training I started specializing in beverage flavors, because it was a growing part of the industry. I didn’t select it, I was placed there. But lucky for me because it was between beverages and tobacco. I think I’m the lucky one.

Does packaging affect a product’s flavor? (i.e. bottles versus cans, plastic versus glass, etc)?
Packaging does affect your finished product, and can affect flavors at times. So we have an entire packaging group that studies this. Because plastic breathes you tend to get more oxidation, more so than glass. This is also why we now have [sell by] dates on the packaging.

How much does the local water source affect a product’s flavor?
It can, which is why the beverage industry as a whole usually treats the water. Your water source and even the time of year can affect a water’s taste.

What are the latest trends in the beverage industry? What’s hot right now?
Lower-calorie and low-sugar products.

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