To someone who survived advanced placement chemistry by the skin of her teeth, the idea of becoming a chemist is an extraordinary one. Not so for Dr. Syed Shamil, who not only became a chemist, he managed to parlay that scientific background into a series of jobs that combine his rigorous scientific training with his love of all things artistic. Whether he’s working at Pepsi or developing his own health and lifestyle brand, chemistry and its relationship to human psychology are the foundation for all that he does, including the advice he offers about how to make someone fall in love with you.
You have a very interesting background. Can you talk a little bit about how you went into smell and taste perception?
As a child, I wanted to be a medical doctor, and as I grew older, I became slightly OCD. The idea of touching people’s bodies didn’t appeal to me, but I wanted to do something scientific. I was very intrigued by the human body, and I was always good at chemistry, so I decided to do a degree in biochemistry. I had also developed a passion for cooking, and I was interested in the perception of taste. After getting my degree, I decided I wanted to continue my education by getting a doctoral degree.
But your first degree is in chemistry?
Yes. I am a chartered chemist.
What does that mean?
It means you’re associated with the Royal Society of Chemistry, and you have to have a degree in chemistry or a related subject where a large portion of your degree is in chemistry. The chartered status is given by the Royal Society once you have met certain educational requirements. After getting my first degree, I wanted to continue and get a PhD, and as it happened—and this was truly by default—I found an advertisement for a research fellowship at the University of Redding, which is a world-renowned institute for food and science and technology.
And had you thought about doing food and science, or not yet?
No, no. It just fell in my lap. I got a first-class degree, which meant I didn’t have to do a master’s degree, I could go straight into a doctoral program. The advertisement was for a PhD in the perception of taste, specifically for sweeteners. So I applied, and I met with the professor who was offering the research fellowship. He liked me, and I liked him, and I started working with him. He was an eminent scientist, and he gave me a lot of opportunity, and a lot of exposure at a young age. He brought me to conferences in Switzerland and Germany and the States.
What was the project you were working on?
We were trying to understand how sweeteners interact with receptors, leading to the perception of sweet taste. We were looking at how artificial sweeteners behave in the mouth in comparison to how sugar does. We wanted to understand the mechanism of perception so that we could improve the taste of artificial sweeteners. If you understand the mechanism of perception, there are ways to modify how artificial sweeteners are perceived, leading to a cleaner response.
As someone who now works in the broader health field, what do you think about artificial sweeteners?
I think they’re perfectly fine. Most sweeteners that are on the market are based on things that exist in nature. Aspartame is two amino acids joined together by a methyl group. Amino acids are part of our building blocks. They’re found in meat—they’re found in anything with protein. Yes, sweetener is artificially made in the lab, but at the end of the day, none of the materials are alien. The FDA has really stringent requirements of safety testing. I respect the authorities, and once they have done the testing and worked with independent research organizations that have determined that the additive is safe, then that is safe for me. And since I’m a chemist, I know the standards that they’re working with.
So, after the University of Redding, what happened?
Because my PhD was in an applicable subject for industry, Pepsi-Cola had heard of me. They were interested in improving the taste of Diet Pepsi. I was perfect in that I had a background in sweeteners as well as in consumer science. They offered me a great opportunity, so I came to New York, and I fell in love with the job and with the city.
Did you live in Purchase?
I lived in White Plains, so it was close to Valhalla, which is where the research and development is. I worked there for a few years and got into management. I was head of sweet taste and taste technology in general for all low-calorie beverages.
Given that you were in that position, why would you leave?
I wanted to get into fragrances. When I was younger I used to model, and I’ve always been interested in the aesthetics of clothes. Because my doctorate was in taste and perception, I wanted to hold onto that and find an opportunity where I could combine my knowledge of perception with my interest in fashion. Fragrances are a perception of smell, which is a chemical perception. And fragrances are the symbol of fashion.
What do you mean when you say that?
Fragrances are the symbol of luxury and of beauty. Every fashion designer has a fragrance. It’s the great intersection between my knowledge of science and fashion. But I knew I couldn’t go from straight from my work in the food industry to the fashion industry—I needed a link. So I took a job at Firmenich, a company that had a flavor division and a fragrance division. They hired me to head technology for beverage flavors. But moving from flavor to fragrance was not easy.
If the company does both, why was it so difficult?
They have very different businesses. Flavor is very analytical, very scientific, while fragrance is much more aspirational and dreamy. The clients are very different. But because I worked on flavor at Firmenich, I was able to demonstrate my creative side to the fragrance people by collaborating with them over the years. So when I demonstrated my interest in fragrance, the move was more of an obvious thing. I created a tool called Smell the Taste, which involved adding food flavors to fragrances and tying them to the psychology of how food—which is necessary for survival—can be added to a luxury product to bring about a reptilian response. At Firmenich, I worked with an anthropologist to determine why people respond to fragrances the way they do. And what we found was that survival, food and the smell of the mother were the most important aspects of how we relate to fragrances. I always felt that flavors could increase the raw material palate of the perfumers, because food has so many flavors.
How do you add a flavor to a fragrance?
Well, a flavor can be an apple flavor, a flavor of another fruit, a food…
So it’s not literally a flavor…it’s like a note.
Well, it is actually a flavor, because flavors are made of chemicals. So for example you analyze apple, and you determine the constituents that give you the apple flavor, and a lot of the same chemicals can be applied to perfumes, they just have to be created in a different way. An apple note has been used in fragrances, but that note has typically been created by a perfumer. So it’s a more abstract note, rather than a literal note, whereas I wanted the apple flavor to be created by a flavorist. That way, when the mind perceived the food flavor, it would be so literal that the person wearing it would be able to taste the apple even though they would just be putting it on their skin. The smell of the apple would remind them of the taste of the apple because of associative learning. That would then lead to salivation, and to a textural response.
Does that increase desire for the product?
It does, because it becomes evocative. It becomes compelling, it becomes multi-sensorial. Now it’s not just the nose that’s getting stimulated, it’s the mouth. So it’s operating on many different levels. You’re bringing psychological and emotional components because food is related to love.
After Firmenich, what happened?
I went to a dinner party, and I was speaking to this woman who was very interested in the lifestyle that I lead. She said, “You should brand your own lifestyle. You live a very healthy lifestyle—you eat well, you’re in good shape. When I heard her say it, it immediately made sense to me. She suggested that I start a blog about my passions: teeth, skin, body and hair and cooking. It’s about you the person—your appearance and health. Some of it’s based on my own experience, and some of it is based on my scientific background with flavors and fragrance. On my blog I have over 130 recipes, all original, that I’ve created.
Do you have a food aesthetic?
I love spicy food.
Are there spices that appear in your recipes over and over again?
Yes. Turmeric and cayenne. Cayenne is everywhere. The ironic thing is that everything that’s healthy for us has color. So it stains your teeth.
Why are teeth such an obsession for you?
If the eyes are the windows to your soul, the teeth are the windows to your health. Teeth are your social asset. They’re the first thing I look at. They should be straight and paper-white. A healthy mouth is the gatekeeper for the rest of your body.
One last question. As someone who is beyond qualified in perception and taste and smell, if you were trying to seduce someone, what would be the best meal to make for them?
It’s always good to create something where you know it was effortless, but they think you slaved over a stove. I always cook homemade soup, and for homemade soup I use canned soup. I add a ton of ingredients, and I make it my own. I have no problem using canned foods. They are a great starting base, but what you end up with tastes nothing like what came out of the can. All you have to do is add a few herbs and spices, like scallions or coriander or fresh mint. And soup is a starter, so immediately the mind is set for what’s to come. So even if the courses that follow are not that grand, it has already set the stage.