TORRE PRODUCTS COMPANY, INC Torre Products Company, Inc. ...

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"No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives." What has become just another buzz-phrase in packaging once signified a rare, good thing. Torre Products Company, Inc., a flavor house just north of Canal St. on the Tribeca/Soho border, reminds us to appreciate this tag anew. The business has been specializing in artificial flavors, colors and preservatives since 1917. Although they do offer some essential oils and natural extracts, the bulk of the tastes here are man-made.

There are no discernable signs of food or food preparation in this drab warehouse, but the smell of butterscotch registers upon entry. Peter Raho, whose family bought into a business that was originally run by the Torrogrossos, opens the door to a modest shipping and receiving room and begins to sniff around boxes labeled artificial vanilla, orange blossom water, anisette, lemon extract and almond extract, to pinpoint the culprit.

The complete list of flavors manufactured at Torre includes more exotic selections such as coffee cake, maraschino, root beer, cotton candy, butter cream, Jamaican rum and scores of others. In such an environment, one can't help but remember Violet Beauregarde, the ill-fated character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whose downfall was a stick of gum that was endowed with the flavor sensations of a multicourse meal.

Raho determines that the scent is one of his vanillas. When it comes to this flavor, the choices exceed natural or artificial?in ascending order of strength, there are several intensities of artificial vanilla extract, then vanillin, a synthetic compound that Raho calls "vanilla with a punch," and finally, the industrial-strength ethyl vanillin.

Not surprisingly, most of Torre's clients, such as Stella D'Oro in the Bronx, are in the bakery trade. Here, they can snatch up additional products that are vital to mass-production. Colors, such as one called "egg shade," which makes pretty golden biscuits look so yellow, and a preservative called "soft mack," a food-grade chemical that keeps cookies soft, makes this a one-stop-shop of sorts. Torre also has a line of artificial flavorings tailored to Italian-ice vendors, and lemon, his best seller, is also the most loved at perhaps his most infamous of New York clients, Benfaremo Lemon Ice King of Corona.

So we know what's in a natural extract?usually alcohol, vanilla, almond, what have you and water?but what goes into an artificial one? Raho reads off a label: "Water, food grade propylene glycol?" ("The same kind of stuff that you can find in a radiator," he later tells me)?"sugar, vanilla extract, alcohol, aldehydes, plant extracts, esters."

Unless you're a chemist, you may not know what to make of such ingredients. And since my host was half-convinced that I was in fact a spy for Virginia Dare, a leading flavor house in nearby Brooklyn, I didn't get much by way of answers.

Is the difference between a natural and chemical flavor easy to taste? "Whether everyone can taste it, I doubt it," figures Raho. "Once you mix that one ingredient with other ingredients, the ability to distinguish them becomes more difficult." The crucial difference for many of his customers, it seems, isn't flavor but price. Since a typhoon devastated vanilla crops in Madagascar three years ago, the price of pure vanilla extract has risen dramatically. At $110 per gallon you can order the natural, or pick up the fake stuff for $12 a pop.

"We try to be sensitive to differences in flavor," says Raho, "But we're not bakers; we're flavor manufacturers?the baker is the connoisseur."

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