Diacetyl (2,3-Butadione), the characterizing component of butter, is a naturally present flavor component in many of my favorite foods: butter, wine, coffee, strawberries, cheese, tea, beer and mangos. Just like butter is essential to any good recipe, diacetyl was an essential ingredient for flavors. I say was, because diacetyl has been implicated in causing bronchiolitis obliterans, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease, in workers in the food and flavor industry (http://defendingscience.org/case-studies/case-regulatory-failure-popcorn-workers-lung). Since then, it’s use is in flavors is “complicated”.
Diacetyl, a yellow liquid, is naturally present in food and safe to consume and the level used in food, but it is hazardous to the people who work with it. Sadly, this wasn’t discovered until some workers died and contracted irreversible lung damage.
Until mid-2005, I used Diacetyl in most of my flavors. Cream soda, orange cream, caramel, toffee, lemon cheesecake, french vanilla, apple pie and even a chicken flavor. The reason my strawberry flavors are amazing is because I knew the perfect amount of diacetyl to add to make strawberry full and smooth.
Alternatives to diacetyl in flavor creation would most likely stem from the flavor components of butter. These include: acetoin, 2,3-pentadione, delta decalactone, delta dodecalactone, 4-cis-heptenal, butyric acid, caproic acid, capric acid, ethyl butyrate, ethyl lactate, ethyl laurate, ethyl palmitate, ethyl oleate, lauric acid and DMS. Formulas for butter flavor can be found in Dairy Chemistry and Physics by Pieter Walstra and Robert Jenness, a text book from a dairy science class I took in college.
Commercially, there are companies that offer building blocks for butter flavors. These “blocks” can be derived from the processing of butter and milk are known as butter acids, butter esters and starter distillates. When dairy prices are high, though, and companies are looking for flavor alternatives to give lower cost, these ingredients are not a good choice. Butter flavor is used by food companies, to reduce cost and provide flavor stability.