Can "Secret" Food Recipe Formulas Not Be Reverse Engineered?

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  • #1
kyphysics
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You always hear about how famous big food companies have recipes locked away in vaults. They never want to give away the secret sauce so competitors can copy them.

However, with all we can do with modern technology, why can't we send a Chick-Fil-A sandwich over the a lab and have them chemically identify every thing in there and derive the ingredients that way? What limitation is there such that we cannot figure out what something is made of?
 

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  • #2
Rive
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Sure, with some margin of error it can be done.

But, you know, the prices are usually so down due the competition, that from the same (well known) ingredients you won't be able to make the same thing sufficiently cheaper to actually sell it.

So it's a decision. You want to do the same, for just a bit cheaper: or you can join the competition with making your own brand, based on a difference (so their recipe would be more or less useless).

Though there is a market for this kind of reverse engineering on copying luxury goods. Wine and alcoholic beverages of various kinds, for example. The market is full with copies (well, some even better than the original). But without the brand they are destined to remain cheap, regardless the taste and composition.
 
  • #3
phyzguy
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Just because you can analyze the chemical components doesn't mean you know the sequence of steps that led to the final product. Suppose that I chemically analyze a slice of chocolate cake and determine that it has so much sugar, so much water, so much salt, so much of each amino acid, etc. Do you really think that if you then threw all of those items in a bowl and stirred it up you would have a piece of chocolate cake?
 
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  • #4
kyphysics
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Just because you can analyze the chemical components doesn't mean you know the sequence of steps that led to the final product. Suppose that I chemically analyze a slice of chocolate cake and determine that it has so much sugar, so much water, so much salt, so much of each amino acid, etc. Do you really think that if you then threw all of those items in a bowl and stirred it up you would have a piece of chocolate cake?
Yeah. That's a good point about missing steps like that.

I think it's still probably very valuable to have the ingredients, though. An experienced and creative culinary research team could maybe play around with preparation details and try to get something very close to the actual item.
 
  • #5
collinsmark
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There's really two reasons why a company might want to keep the recipe secret.

(1) Already discussed, where the company doesn't want competitors to copy it. This also includes the marketing potential of just saying that they have a "secret recipe," even if in reality it isn't all that big of a deal.

(2) There might not be just a single recipe. Claiming that it's a "secret recipe" gives the company flexibility of changing it to maximize profitability without creating a fuss from loyal customers; they might not even notice.
 
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  • #6
hutchphd
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On a lighter note it is rather much more fun to do the usual chef thing of trying to recapitulate some delicious food recipe you have run across. Like many my first successful foray was many decades ago targetting the "secret sauce" on MacDonald's Big Mac.
My favorite ersatz food product is homemade Cincinnatti-style chili which is a truly lovely concoction from greek run restaurants in Cincy 75 yrs ago

2) There might not be just a single recipe. Claiming that it's a "secret recipe" gives the company flexibility of changing it to maximize profitability without creating a fuss
Do you think "new coke" could have flown under the radar? Probably not
 
  • #7
collinsmark
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Do you think "new coke" could have flown under the radar? Probably not

Which is probably why they didn't keep the fact that there was a change a secret, in that particular case.
 
  • #8
kyphysics
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There's really two reasons why a company might want to keep the recipe secret.

(1) Already discussed, where the company doesn't want competitors to copy it. This also includes the marketing potential of just saying that they have a "secret recipe," even if in reality it isn't all that big of a deal.

(2) There might not be just a single recipe. Claiming that it's a "secret recipe" gives the company flexibility of changing it to maximize profitability without creating a fuss from loyal customers; they might not even notice.
re: (2) That's interesting.

But, what if the tinkering leads to a better taste? ...Then, again, branding psychology can lead people to believe something is better when it may not be. I learned from Mohnish Pabrai of something called the Pepsi challenge. I think it was back in the 1980's. They had people take blind taste tests of Coke vs. Pepsi. People would choose Coke in an unblind test (the branding was powerful). But, when blindfolded, they tended to choose Pepsi, as it was sweeter.

Pepsi stole market share from Coke after those commercials. Coke got nervous and created New Coke (which was a sweeter version). Ironically, Coke fans rebelled and said they wanted to original. Coke, then created Classic Coke to go alongside New Coke...and, finally, they just got rid of New Coke altogether (the one more like Pepsi) and went back to Coke.

Our minds are so weird. I cannot even begin to explain the psychology behind those moves and consumer preferences. There really might be some mystique around an original brand item based on some psychological phenomena that makes us want it.
 
  • #9
collinsmark
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But, what if the tinkering leads to a better taste?

Right. It's all up to the marketing. I'm betting I could walk around the grocery store right now and find more than one example of some product that has "new and improved flavor!" on the label.

Keeping things secret gives the company the flexibility of whether to announce the change or not. (they might have to update their list of ingredients on the label, but nobody really pays attention to that anyway.)
 
  • #10
hutchphd
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Our minds are so weird. I cannot even begin to explain the psychology behind those moves and consumer preferences.
If I recall correctly, classic coke ended the entire fiasco with improved market share!
 
  • #11
symbolipoint
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The topic deals with complexities of flavors and odors. SMALL quantities to try to detect and measure, not so easy, and more than just one compound. I believe food scientists and perfumers will have much to tell us about the topic.

I have a "secret" spice rub for salmon. I can tell you the three main ingredients and then I can also tell you what I sometimes include and sometimes not include. If I tell you the three main spices, then no longer a secret, but I could change the proportions. If you find a sample of my spice rub consisting of the three main spices, (1) How do you know that the sample is made up of ONLY three spices, and (2) can you exactly identify each spice in the sample ? Would you be able to do it reliably based on chemical tests? Would you be able to do it reliably based additionally on flavor and odor?
 
  • #12
hutchphd
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Our tasty-smelly organs are pretty impressive. Knowing a priori that there are only three ingredients I bet I could reproduce it, and greatly enjoy the process ! Just made some blackened Ahi Tuna for dinner with my "secret" rub!
 
  • #13
russ_watters
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Right. It's all up to the marketing. I'm betting I could walk around the grocery store right now and find more than one example of some product that has "new and improved flavor!" on the label.

Keeping things secret gives the company the flexibility of whether to announce the change or not. (they might have to update their list of ingredients on the label, but nobody really pays attention to that anyway.)
Like Kraft Mac & Cheese, which changed their recipe and nobody noticed:
https://money.cnn.com/2016/03/08/news/companies/kraft-mac-and-cheese-recipe/index.html
 

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