Did you taste it?

If you’ve eaten something today, unless it’s fresh produce, chances are you’ve eaten something that’s flavored by McCormick & Company, Inc. Their products are everywhere — in restaurants and the grocery aisle. In fact, popular brands like Lawry’s, French’s, Frank’s RedHot, Old Bay and Zatarain’s are owned by the food giant.

As vice president R&D Europe and Consumer R&D Americas, Suzanne Howton Johnson ’89 is responsible for all of the consumer products that fall under the company’s brands. She went from analyzing foods to understanding flavor and then formulating flavors for food and beverage companies to now helping consumers flavor their own food.

“I love the idea of consumers being able to customize the flavor of their individual meals since taste preferences are so personal,” she said.

Johnson partially attributes her long career in the flavor industry to having mentors who encouraged her younger, introverted self to think bigger. While studying chemistry at Bradley, her professors Kurt Field and Max Taylor encouraged Johnson to pursue a graduate degree at Northwestern University in applied chemistry.

“I remember Dr. Taylor trying to get me to do these demos in chemistry class, and I was so shy and didn’t want to. Fast forward five years, and I’m teaching a chemistry class in a community college. I think he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. The best mentors are the ones that push you outside of your comfort zone.”

After getting her doctorate, she took a temp job as an analytical chemist at a flavor house near Chicago. She had no idea this would be the impetus of her career trajectory.

“When you’re trying to figure out what it is you want to do with your life, I think it’s important to look at what you’re interested in and what excites you. And I really, truly believe in not getting too hung up on career paths. I didn’t know the flavor industry even existed when I was in college. I found it later. And that’s why I like to talk about it — it’s such an incredibly fun industry to work in.”

Her job was to analyze a flavor, then hand the information over to a flavor chemist who would build the flavor profile. But passing off her report to someone else didn’t sit well, so she asked her boss if she could make the first iteration of the flavor
based on her research.

“It took me weeks to build up the courage to ask, and she said, ‘Go for it.’ It made such a difference in my career.”

Earlier this year, Johnson became the 86th president of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA). As a flavor ambassador, she has taken it upon herself to make sure other women on the FEMA board have a voice.

“The night before my first board meeting as president, I had a dinner for just the women on the board to say, ‘Okay, I always felt intimidated coming into this environment,” Johnson said. “How can I help you feel more secure?’ Knowing someone’s got your back is so empowering in terms of being able to speak up.”

Johnson knows from experience the challenges women can sometimes face. Early in her career, she was afraid to teach a class called Flavor 101 to consumers.

“I was a massive introvert, and I was terrified, but my boss strongly encouraged me to do it. I was literally shaking in my boots the first couple of times I presented, but I eventually managed to overcome my fear, and I ended up really enjoying it. I never would have known that if I wasn’t pushed to do it.”

In fact, after she joined McCormick, she offered to give a seminar at Stevenson University in Stevenson, Md.

“I visited the head of the chemistry department and said, ‘Hey, do you ever have speakers come in? I’d love to come and give a presentation about flavors.’ And by the time I left her office, she had me signed up to teach a class.”

Johnson is grateful for the encouragement and support she received as a student and throughout her career. She’s happy to pay it forward.

“I’m paid to have an opinion, and it’s my responsibility to voice it, even if I’m afraid and I don’t know how it will be received,” she said. “I’m in a position now where I can help other people find their voice and find their path to success. I’ve overcome a lot of insecurities and I want to help other people do that, too.”

When asked how she responds to criticism the food industry is processing foods to increase sales, she said the food industry doesn’t do anything that customers don’t want.

“For many years, convenience and shelf life have been driving forces in food production. While the trend has moved toward natural and minimally processed, the desire for convenience never goes away.”

But, she added, natural isn’t always better. “Nature creates some the most potent toxins. And, you also have to consider availability and sustainability. For instance, if you wanted to make every strawberry flavor in the world only from strawberries, you just can’t grow enough strawberries to support that.

“As consumers, we are very spoiled. We want to have exactly what we want when we want it.”