How Does Jelly Belly Create Its Weird Flavors?

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iStock

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ve no doubt received a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in your Easter basket at least once. As its name suggests, there are beans of many flavors in the boxes—and not just nice ones. In addition to beans that taste like banana, lemon, and blueberry, there are also black pepper, earwax, booger, earthworm, and vomit jelly beans. Ditto for the company’s BeanBoozled line, which features lookalike jelly beans in flavors like buttered popcorn and rotten egg, licorice and skunk spray, peach and barf, and chocolate pudding and canned dog food. (Part of the fun of taking the BeanBoozled Challenge is finding out which one you’ve gotten!)

Having tasted the vomit jelly bean myself, I can tell you it does, in fact, taste like puke. (I had to spit it out.) “We’re nothing if not committed to making flavors as true to life as possible,” Jelly Belly spokesperson Jana Sanders Perry tells mental_floss, “and that includes the wacky flavors, too.” Still, no one at Jelly Belly is eating canned dog food or vomit to make these beans, or putting that stuff in the beans themselves—and yet, they taste just like what they’re named after. So how is it done?

Smells play a huge part in how we taste, so Jelly Belly’s first step in creating a jelly bean involves analyzing the real thing in a gas chromatograph. The machine converts the target object into vapors in an oven (either after dissolving it in a solvent and then boiling it or simply by heating it), and then analyzes the chemical makeup of those vapors and converts them to flavor markers, which is what Jelly Belly’s team uses as a starting point for its beans. “This is how many of our flavors are analyzed and created, particularly those found in the BeanBoozled and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans lines,” Perry says.

For example, when the company decided to add a new bean called Stinky Socks to its BeanBoozled line, “our flavor scientist aged his own socks in a sealed plastic bag for a couple of weeks,” Perry says. The scientist then took the socks and put them in the gas chromatograph, which generated a report of the socks’ flavor makeup; the bean’s flavor was created using that data. “In the early tests of what became Stinky Socks flavor, the scent permeated everything the scientist wore, even though she was making a very small batch,” Perry says. “Usually you can do some laundry and take a shower and all is well, but [her] leather boots took on the scent and would not let it go. It’s the only time I’ve heard of one of the flavors causing such extreme ruin.” The company’s flavor scientists refined the flavor so it’s less potent.

Once a new jelly bean flavor is created, it goes through taste testing trials to get the flavor just right, and adjustments are made based on that feedback. Occasionally, that input comes from the company’s owners. “A few of them grew up on farms with chickens and have had run-ins with rotten eggs,” Perry says. “When we created the Rotten Egg flavor, it passed through the usual channels for taste testing, and when it got to our Chairman of the Board, Herm Rowland, and his daughter, now-President & CEO Lisa Rowland Brasher, they both had the same feedback: Needs even more rotten egg flavor. Both have strong memories of the smell of a rotten egg [after it] exploded in their hands.”

But sometimes flavors are created in a more roundabout way; it’s not always about putting something like puke in the gas chromatograph. “The Vomit in the Bertie Bott’s and Barf in BeanBoozled lines were born from the humble attempt to make a pizza-flavored jelly bean,” Perry says. “Attempt after attempt was rejected by our taste testers because the cheese flavor of the pizza was not palatable.”

The company shelved the flavor, but when it was time to make a vomit jelly bean, one team member brought up the failed pizza flavor. “We made a few adjustments,” Perry says, “and the rest is history.”

This article originally appeared in 2015.

What Is Figgy Pudding Anyway?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is an ode to figgy pudding disguised as a straightforward Christmas song. Three out of four verses in some versions are dedicated to the dish. So after listening to enough holiday music this December, you may start to wonder: What is figgy pudding anyway? And is it really so good that you'd actually beg for it on a stranger's doorstep through song?

According to NPR, figgy pudding, also called plum pudding, isn't pudding—at least not the kind of pudding many Americans think of when they hear the word—and it contains neither figs nor plums. In the UK, pudding is used as catch-all to describe any sweet dish served after a meal. Figgy pudding isn't creamy or custardy, but it is a sugary cake, which qualifies it as pudding overseas.

In its most basic form, figgy pudding is a steamed, often domed-shaped cake made with alcohol and dried fruit. The first version of figgy pudding surfaced in 14th-century Britain. Back then, it was a stew-like, savory dish containing beef and mutton as well as fruit and wine. In the 15th century, this mixture was stuffed into animal casings to make sausages that would last through the winter.

By the end of the 16th century, figgy pudding had transitioned to a fully sweet dish—right around the same time when carolers started singing "Now bring us some figgy pudding" to their wealthy neighbors around Christmas. Today, the dessert is commonly filled with currants, raisins, and soaked in rum or brandy.

So where did the first half of its name come from? In pre-Victorian England, the word plum was applied to any type of dried fruit, including raisins, so plum pudding caught on. Figs occasionally appeared in recipes throughout the dish's history, though they're not considered a traditional ingredient.

If you're thinking about cooking a throwback feast this Christmas, don't stop at figgy pudding. From oyster stew to mincemeat pie, here are some more classic British dishes that have ties to the holiday.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

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iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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