Meet the former pre-med student who discovered a dream job helping create Colgate’s beloved flavors.
May 12, 2023
Whether it’s a refreshing rush of mint or an invigorating burst of citrus, every Colgate-Palmolive flavor tells a story. Transforming ingredients into formulas that taste amazing from start to finish is as much art as it is science — and Colgate’s flavorists are the creative minds powering the process.
Michelle Miguelino, a junior flavorist at Colgate, discovered her passion for the field while working in oral care product development at the company in the years following her college graduation. As she started taking products from dreams to market realities and learned the ins and outs of toothpaste and mouthwash formulas, she began to realize how crucial flavor was to the final experience.
“It's always been amazing to me how changing small things about flavor can really impact consumer perception,” she said.
While many do not realize it, the role of a flavorist goes beyond simply tasting and crafting flavors. Understanding the chemical interactions affecting flavor quality is paramount for flavor creation. While Miguelino’s chemistry background provided a strong foundation for her current role — necessary for understanding, say, the effects of oxidation on peppermint oil’s minty taste — she also credits the mentors and opportunities she’s sought out throughout her career at Colgate for her success.
Below, Miguelino reflects on the rigorous screening and training processes that guided her career to where she is today, her “aha” moment, and the culture at Colgate.
Can you walk us through your early days at Colgate?
I started as a temp 11 years ago in Oral Care working in product development, and after a year, I was hired for an entry-level position focusing on the Colgate MaxFresh brand. From that very first project, the majority of my projects have focused on some aspect of flavor. On my first project, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Stephen Sun — a senior flavorist, fellow and my now-manager — investigating how we can use flavors to neutralize garlic odors. Elevating flavor to more of a functional role beyond making a product taste great was really intriguing. Flavors are a merger of aesthetics with science, and I knew I was hooked on the magical world of flavors.
Next, I worked on the launch of Hydris, a mouthwash for dry mouth, and then an opportunity came up for a short-term assignment at Colgate-Palmolive’s European Global Technology Center (GTC) in Therwil, Switzerland. I never imagined uprooting my life and working in a foreign country. However, I’m a firm believer in getting out of your comfort zone, and I accepted the assignment. This experience was unforgettable both personally and professionally. I was able to travel all over Europe and experience different people, food, history and cultures. Working and adapting to a different GTC was also such an eye-opening experience. The work culture, even within Colgate, is totally different. They have a nuanced understanding of the varied consumers in Europe. They also have a different approach to solving technical problems, and it helped expand my perspective. My experience there was wonderful, and the learning and relationships I’ve built have come full circle as I manage flavors in Europe.
How did the flavorist role come about?
Returning to the United States, I transitioned to the Global Mouthwash group where I once again had the opportunity to work on a flavor-focused project, which re-invigorated my passion. Not long after, the position became available for a trainee flavorist. After some soul searching, it began to feel that my career choices had been leading me to this very moment. How could I say “no”? Unlike some other roles in Research and Development, there is a screening process and a rather rigorous one. Applicants have to pass a very thorough aptitude test before they even make it to the interview portion.
I knew this would be my dream job, and I wanted to make sure I was as prepared as possible for the test. The simplest way I can think of to explain it would be to think of the movie Rocky. I prepared my own weeks-long training regiment to make sure I was ready.
For two weeks, I ate the blandest diet consisting of rice, kale and ground turkey — no seasoning, no hot sauce, nothing — because I knew I needed to be able to differentiate between the basic tastes and I wanted to be as sensitive as possible to salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. On my own, I “trained” using individual flavor components to practice describing different odors and tested myself with blinded randomization. The actual test was broken into three sections: odor, taste and creativity. I was more nervous than when I took the MCATs, but also so excited. In this case especially, having passion and drive helped get me through the three-hour-long test. I finished exhausted but also confident that I did my best.
THE BEAUTY OF MINT
You might be surprised to find that Colgate MaxFresh — one of the earliest brands Miguelino worked on — and many of Colgate’s toothpaste brands are used with mint grown and produced right here in North America. “It’s exciting to enter the unique sensory experience in prime ‘harvest time’ that occurs in the late summer in the Midwest and Northwest in the U.S.,” says Bob Vogt, a fellow Flavorist and Global Fellow who’s worked on oral care flavors at Colgate for more than two decades
How did your earlier experiences at Colgate help prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Learning the product development process and how to launch a product and deliver claim support was a critical foundational piece for me. Colgate has a deep commitment to quality and consumer satisfaction. Every claim put on the pack is fully supported by science and rigorously tested to ensure the consumer experiences a product that delivers on the claims. As a formulator, our job was to identify and develop methods that can substantiate the claims.
Since I have worked on different forms from mouthwash to toothpaste, I've had experience with different formulas, which can affect how flavors react. Still, a piece of self-doubt that nagged at me was whether I had the sensory capability to actually be a flavorist. Was I sensitive enough to differentiate between North American peppermint grown in the Pacific Northwest versus Midwest-grown peppermint? That’s the level of differentiation that you have to possess to be a flavorist at Colgate.
Once you realized you had that capability (and landed the trainee position) what was the program like?
The entire flavor team at Colgate has been instrumental in their support of the program. I’ve learned from all of our flavorists and analytical scientists, and each has taught me lessons that I will carry on for the rest of my career. The program has been three years of really understanding different flavor profiles — mint, herbal, fruit, citrus — and how to build flavors from scratch for different oral care formulas.
Stephen Sun has been a wonderful teacher, mentor, and guide. He’s taught me the foundational science behind flavors and the hundreds of ingredients and applications thereof. But he’s also given me the freedom to be creative, try new things and create flavors that I love. Working on projects and gaining practical experience has been one of the best teachers. For example, we have a formula that has a strong oxidizing agent in it for whitening benefits — and that oxidizes flavors very readily. It was the best training experience I could have ever hoped for because it was the most challenging formula. I had to understand the chemistry of our flavor components and how they can interact with the base and design flavors that are stable and pleasant for the consumer. I feel like if you can overcome that, you can do anything.
WORKING WITH MOTHER NATURE
The flavors Miguelino and fellow flavorists at Colgate work with largely depend on the environment where these natural ingredients are grown. For instance, mint: the amount of sunlight, soil quality, water and drought conditions, weeds in the field, and even the time the mint spends in the ground can all affect its taste and odor. “Managing the quality of these ingredients is critical to have the proper expected taste profile over time,” Vogt says, adding that Colgate’s relationships with farmers, suppliers, flavorists, scientists, mint dealers and the Mint Industry Research Council help ensure a superior product.
What resources have you leveraged at Colgate that have helped you along the way?
Colgate has a tremendous process in play throughout the organization that encourages continuous and honest conversations with your manager to understand what your passions and interests are, and, as roles come up, whether or not you would be a good fit.
Working for a large company like Colgate, there's honestly something for everyone. If you're uncertain about what you want to do, which was the case for me — I thought I was going to go to med school — there are so many different roles here that you can try assignments in different regions or different functions to really find your niche.
I've been extremely fortunate to have had amazing managers and peers who inspired me and drove me to think uniquely and critically about my work. They have helped me refine and grow in the practice of science. But whether it be peers or directors or managers, if you focus on building connections and staying in contact, I truly believe Colgate has a community that travels with you. I never knew I was going to be a flavorist for Europe, but the network I made during my short-term assignment was outstanding and continues to be influential and helpful to this day.
How has your approach to creating flavors evolved over the course of your training?
My first from-scratch flavor was a pumpkin spice latte flavor for toothpaste. When I started, I wanted to use all the spices I had at my disposal — but I also needed them to be fresh, so I added all these different mints and cooling agents. It was, in fact, an unbalanced disaster. I learned quickly that you have to distill your idea into clear focused execution. Each ingredient has to have a function, or else it is not going to work. The idea of balance is something that every flavorist takes to heart. I strive to create elegant flavors with premium ingredients and a clear direction. A well-made flavor will tell a story, and a good story always has a beginning, middle and end. Designing flavors to tell that story is the best part of my job.
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