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[6-min read] Q&A with Alex Ott, Flavor Chemist
Welcome to Tricycle Day. Our newsletter gives you a taste of sweet, sweet psychedelic news and views. Yummy. 😋
Alex Ott is a double PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry. But instead of hunkering over the bench, he’s been out mixing drinks and formulating products as the world’s leading flavor scientist.
We picked Alex’s brain on how flavors interact with psychoactive substances, why kanna has become one of his favorite plants, and his dream to make a psychedelic edible like no other.
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How did you become a world-renowned flavor chemist? Can you share any moments that inspired your passion for plants and their healing properties?
Growing up, my dad was this incredibly versatile guy—botanist, jazz musician, architect. He introduced me to gardening, a passion my grandmother shared. She’d hand me a knife, tell me to fetch chives, raspberries, or carrots, and I'd figure it out. We moved a lot, from Greece to Italy to Africa, exposing me to diverse foods, friends, and plants. I soaked up a ton of Earth's molecules along the way. Every decade, a new place, new bacteria, new flavors, until I eventually found myself working in bars and developing a name for myself as a mixologist.
Most bartenders focus on flavor, but not the brain's reaction to those flavors. I treated cocktails as social and olfactory experiments to understand and deliver what people wanted out of nightlife. I designed drinks for wakefulness, PMS, intellectual humility, and cognitive lubrication. I crafted elixirs that were empathogenic, long before my work with kanna. Hangover prevention became a science, too.
Working with Scott Harrison of Charity Water, we used scents and tastes at events to increase charity auction bids. Events became my laboratory, where I’d shift people's moods through flavors deeply ingrained in our primal instincts. I was literally controlling the masses with chemistry.
Eventually, I realized being surrounded by alcohol 24/7 wasn't healthy. So I ventured into fine fragrances, flavor house collaborations, and personalized medicine. Creating formulations that triggered memories became my forte. Imagine encoding a child’s memory, so that when they have Alzheimer's seventy years later, you can recover those lost memories with a microdose of psilocybin and waft of a particular scent. We’re already seeing this approach work. It’s mind blowing.
In my work, I’ve discovered that botanicals induce different neurotransmitters and effects: rosemary for adrenaline, chamomile or lavender for serotonin, jasmine for euphoria. At the same time, I also understand health is never one-size-fits-all; it's individual, tied to our gut biome and genetics. Dosing effects vary, and sensitivity to plants ranges widely.
So my journey has led me to help companies create better products that emphasize the individuality of health. Today, I continue to innovate and formulate—especially with KA! Empathogenics where I serve as chief scientist—and offer guidance on disease prevention and treatment in a healthcare system that's unaffordable for many.
How does your background in flavor chemistry inform your understanding of the subjective experiences people have with psychoactive plants?
The real power of botanicals is in their ability to evoke memories deeply ingrained in our brains through scent and flavor. For instance, if I wanted to trigger memories in an American, I might use peanut butter and jelly, a nostalgic scent linked to countless childhood meals. However, the same scent wouldn’t resonate with someone from Japan, where red bean and green tea evoke similar memories.
When it comes to plant medicine and psychedelics, taste and scent assume even more pivotal and complex roles than usual. Take blue lotus. Most scents can't wake you during sleep, but this psychoactive herb can activate sensory responses that often lead to lucid dreaming or even prophetic sleep.
We can also combine flavors with psychedelics to imbue them with lasting meaning. Flavoring psilocybin extract with strawberries, for example, could link the two in your mind. That’s not a recommendation necessarily, but you’d create a sort of time machine for accessing specific memories later.
On the other hand, scent can also tie traumatic events to certain smells. For me, the scent of coffee and kerosene triggers memories of a plane crash I survived. There are scientific techniques available to selectively erase memories, but for me, that experience shaped who I am today. So I choose to manage it. Whenever that scent returns, it brings a rush of memories that only meditation seems to temper.
Smell is our oldest sense. It’s linked to our most profound memories and experiences, and it forever shapes how we feel and reflect.
Could you tell us more about kanna and its benefits, especially in the context of mental health and well-being?
I first tried kanna twelve years ago, but it became a focus recently when Stephanie Wang from KA! reintroduced me. The plant is called Sceletium tortuosum, and it’s a succulent flower from South Africa. It's rich in alkaloids like mesembrine and mesembrenone and affects the neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, and GABA—in the brain. These alkaloids also boost energy and inhibit enzymes linked to pain.
Kanna's versatility really stands out among plant medicines. It balances emotions as an alternative to SSRIs, acts as an ACE inhibitor to lower blood pressure, and even curbs unwanted cannabis side effects like the munchies and paranoia. Its anti-inflammatory effects are so potent that in Africa, it’s used for chronic pain, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. It also works on addiction and helps reduce cravings for substances that hijack our pleasure circuits like alcohol, nicotine, salt, fat, and sugar.
Scientifically, kanna's elegant chemistry and utility have been researched extensively. It's been used in African hospitals for years, especially for PTSD and depression. Its safety, lack of toxicity, and fermentation process make it unique among plants.
For me personally, kanna has been transformative. Taking it consistently has opened my heart, improved my connection with others, and helped me become a better person. Creating kanna-based products is a challenge, especially in masking its bitter taste, but the goal has always been to preserve its natural essence. I’ve really enjoyed perfecting KA!'s kanna formulations and dialing in the user experience.
You've worked with several celebrities to create personalized wellness programs. Have you ever incorporated psychedelics or plant medicine?
I have. I won’t name names, but I worked with one celebrity client who has two autistic children. We explored microdosing psilocybin with the kids, and it significantly improved their social interactions and reduced their anxiety.
I've extended these practices to politicians in DC and artists in Hollywood, too. However, just talking about magic mushrooms freaks some people out. Most people don’t understand that a few milligrams of psilocybin daily won't cause psychedelic effects; it just boosts neurogenesis like a vitamin.
But my main focus and specialty is gut health. I assess individuals' gut microbiomes, which obviously play a key role in nutrient absorption, but also, interestingly, are linked to conditions like autism. After analyzing these profiles, I tailor natural medicines for clients, taking into account dietary adjustments and individual sensitivities.
In the US, there's a stigma around psychedelics. I believe in educating people, not just on psychedelics, but also on plant-based remedies and how they can be adapted for specific lifestyles. I've supported high-altitude climbers with unique plant-based protocols that enabled them to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen. I've worked extensively with divers, too, enhancing intracellular oxygenation. There’s a plant for every purpose.
Kanna, on the other hand, is about as close to universal in its benefits as you can get. That’s why I consider it a no-brainer for nearly everyone.
When you envision a potential future where psychedelics are more mainstream, what role do you see flavor science playing?
Flavor science is an area that deserves a lot more attention. I've collaborated with big soda companies, like Pepsi, to incorporate natural elements back into their formulas. Unfortunately, the evolution of sodas seems to be about increasing sugar content and fine-tuning colors, rather than improving flavor or nutrition.
I've also worked extensively in cannabis, addressing the bitter taste of cannabinoids. The ways flavors are abused in the cannabis industry frustrates me almost as much.
What I really want companies and consumers to understand is that flavor chemistry is personal. Masking flavors shouldn't be the only approach; sometimes, embracing a taste and enhancing it works better.
Functional flavors matter, too. If you’re designing a psilocybin product to help people focus, you should use scents that boost neurotransmitter output for concentration. It sounds like common sense, but these considerations are often overlooked. Companies should really understand the purpose of a product before even thinking about flavoring.
I believe people are seeking better flavors and formulators who deeply understand the essence of taste. Many products on supermarket shelves are outdated in terms of flavor chemistry, designed decades ago with limited understanding. Even kids' snacks raise alarms. That's why I've been personally developing lollipops and gummy bears with healthier ingredients that my kids love. Nutritious options can taste like candy.
But if we’re really dreaming now, I’ll tell you my fantasy project. I've been envisioning a spherical supplement, shaped like a gumball, with layers of flavors each encoded to a different memory. As you suck it down to its core, you’re taken on a journey through your past experiences. It’d effectively be a personalized time machine, transporting you through your entire life in a single experience. Now that’s psychedelic flavor science.
Want more from Alex?
Join him for KA! Empathogenics' 30-day Journey Into the Heart with Kanna, and save an extra 10% on their holiday sale with code TRICYCLE10.
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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.