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A whiff of what's inside

July 24, 2006


The snack and beverage aisles of your grocery store may soon be giving your nose a workout.

A Philadelphia company has come up with a way to flavor plastic packaging -- a technology being tested in everything from breakfast cereal to military rations and that, some say, could put a lid on such shopping habits as unscrewing a shampoo bottle to get a whiff.

Hitting some markets is Aroma Water, a line of bottled waters with scented caps that the company says will make the water taste citrus-flavored -- even though it isn't.

"Much as how chardonnay that sits in oak barrels takes on the flavor of oak, the water becomes aromatic," said Steven Landau, chief technology officer for ScentSational Technologies, which has been working on the concept for five years.

Adding fragrance to packaging to entice consumers is nothing new. But Landau says his company is the first to embed food-grade flavors, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, into plastic. The effect, "encapsulated aroma release," lasts longer and enhances the flavor of the product, he said.

"Aroma is so important in the enjoyment of food. When you're really able to enhance the aroma of a product, you can make it taste better," Landau said.

Upgrade for military meals?

The technology is even making its way into the battlefield.

Scientists in the combat feeding program of the Natick Soldier Center have been working with ScentSational and Schaumburg-based Pliant Corp. to incorporate aromatic films into Meals Ready to Eat pouches, which have a shelf life of three years and, military officials say, are the source of many a soldier's gripes.

"It's not that the food doesn't taste good, but it lacks an identity," said Lauren Oleksyk, a physical scientist at Natick. "Sometimes, soldiers will say it all tastes the same."

Oleksyk said testing will begin this year on MREs containing grilled chicken breast, chicken with noodles and a cheese and vegetable omelet. The hope is that better-smelling MREs will increase soldiers' consumption, in turn energizing them and boosting morale.

"When they're eating something that smells fresh and tasty, it boosts their morale," Oleksyk said.

Yummy-smelling packaging is one of several newfangled marketing tools companies are using to distinguish their products in an increasingly crowded marketplace, said Chris Lyons, publisher of Package Design magazine.

Since taste perception is strongly linked to smell, scented packaging could bode particularly well for food companies, he said.

"A plastic sleeve inside a chocolate chip cookie bag where it smells like it just came out of the oven might have a real nice long-term impact," Lyons said. But, he added, a glut of such products could end up being a sensory overload, "like having too many radio stations on."

Landau said there are already food products using his aromatic release technology, though for competitive reasons he declined to name brands or companies.

"They don't always want customers to know," he said.


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