iStock
iStock

How Does Jelly Belly Create Its Weird Flavors?

iStock
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
How Does Catnip Work?
iStock
iStock

If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Why Are Mugshots Made Public Before a Suspect is Convicted by the Court?
iStock
iStock

Jennifer Ellis:

Several reasons.

1. Mugshots can help find people when they have absconded, or warn people when someone is out and dangerous. So there is a good reason to share some mugshots.

2. Our legal system requires openness as per the federal constitution, and I imagine most if not all state constitutions. As such, this sort of information is not considered private and can be shared. Any effort to keep mugshots private would result in lawsuits by the press and lay people. This would be under the First and Sixth Amendments as well as the various Freedom of Information Acts. However, in 2016 a federal court ruled [PDF] that federal mugshots are no longer routinely available under the federal FOIA.

This is partially in recognition of the damage that mugshots can do online. In its opinion, the court noted that “[a] disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.” The court specifically mentions websites that put mugshots online, in its analysis. “In fact, mugshot websites collect and display booking photos from decades-old arrests: BustedMugshots and JustMugshots, to name a couple.” Some states have passed or are looking to pass laws to prevent release of mugshots prior to conviction. New Jersey is one example.

a) As the federal court recognizes, and as we all know, the reality is that if your picture in a mugshot is out there, regardless of whether you were convicted, it can have an unfortunate impact on your life. In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem because it really wasn’t easy to find mugshots. Now, with companies allegedly seeking to extort people into paying to get their images off the web, it has become a serious problem. Those companies may get in trouble if it can be proved that they are working in concert, getting paid to take the picture off one site and then putting it on another. But that is rare. In most cases, the picture is just public data to which there is no right of privacy under the law.

b) The underlying purpose of publicity is to avoid the government charging people and abusing the authority to do so. It was believed that the publicity would help protect people. And it does when you have a country that likes to hide what it is up to. But, it also can cause harm in a modern society like ours, where such things end up on the web and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a catch-22. We have the right to know issues and free speech rights smack up against privacy rights and serious damage of reputation for people who have not been convicted of a crime. The law will no doubt continue to shake out over the next few years as it struggles to catch up with the technology.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios