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A billion tastes, smells keep this chemist busy

Tuesday, October 07, 2008  
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By Thomas V. Bona
BusinessRockford.com
Posted Oct 07, 2008 @ 11:52 AM
Last update Oct 07, 2008 @ 12:26 PM
 
ROCKFORD —
 
Next time you drink a glass of orange juice, thank Ray Marsili.
 
He developed a way for Tropicana to monitor the naturally occurring chemical diacetyl, then keeping it from forming in the juice.
 
“It’s a butter flavor, which would be good for savory products but it doesn’t go good in orange juice,” said Marsili, a flavor and odor consultant at Rockford College.
 
In the past three years, he’s used his chemistry skills to fix products and save money for a roster of internationally known corporations.
 
He helped General Mills get rid of a “musty, basement taste” in its nutritional shakes and bars, Miller Brewing prevent “off” flavors in its beers, and Starbucks decide that it could use recycled plastics in its syrup containers.
 
Marsili has also worked for Coca-Cola and jokes that he could probably figure out the secret formula using the scientific equipment in his lab.
 
“It’s very practical applications of chemistry to solve real problems. To know something like that and have a company pay you for that knowledge, it’s a double reward.”
 
Marsili is a Rockford native and Northern Illinois University chemistry graduate who worked for 30 years at Dean Foods’ Rockford laboratory. When that closed in 2002, he went to work as an analyst for Kerry Foods in Beloit, Wis.
 
But he wanted the freedom of doing his own research, not just working for one company. And two organizations — scientific-equipment maker Gerstel and Rockford College — helped him realize that dream.
 
Gerstel, which provides analytical equipment and services, approached Marsili a few years ago about being a taste and odor consultant. The company said it would provide a half-million dollars in equipment if he could find a lab for it. Rockford College gave him the space and a steady supply of eager students to assist.
 
About half the time, Marsili works for Gerstel and its clients. Other times, he finds his own clients or publishes his research, leading companies to seek him out.
 
“I do a lot of playing and learning and think, ‘I know who can use this,’” he said.
Marsili lets machines do the tasting.
 
He uses a gas chromatograph, which turns samples of food, drink, air or other items into gas and separates each chemical, and a mass spectrometer, which identifies each chemical and sends the results to a computer screen. From there, Marsili can tell what chemical is present that shouldn’t be there.
 
The work doesn’t just help food- and drink-makers. It also can help companies that make paper, fabric softener, copy machines and other items.
 
The Rockford College students get to use equipment rarely found in educational settings. It’s the most advanced equipment of its kind in any Illinois college or university, Marsili said.
 
“Had I not been here, I would not have been exposed to this stuff,” student Jon Szleszinski said. “It’s nice to see how a real-world lab operates.”
 
It’s even given students a chance to have their work published.
 
The lab also gives Marsili a chance to do pure research, without always having to work for a client.
 
For example, after a bout with prostate cancer last year, Marsili wanted to know whether his body had a different chemical makeup while he had the disease.
 
So he tested his urine before and after his prostate was removed. He thinks he might have found chemicals that indicate the presence of cancer and is looking for a research grant to further that project.
 
“I’ve always liked this part because I feel like it almost reveals to me the mind of God, how all the things that are happening are happening for a reason,” he said. “They’re not big-revelation things, they’re little things that are really cool to me.”
 
Contact staff writer Thomas V. Bona at 815-987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.
 

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