When primary ingredients such as the fat in ice cream or the carbohydrates in bread are removed, what remains—more often than not—are foods that lack the full flavor and texture that consumers have come to enjoy and expect. Without replacement ingredients that do a good job at replicating the desired flavours and textures that have been removed, most reformulated foods are destined to fail with consumers over the long run.
In the late 1980s, the food industry was caught in a frenzied quest to satisfy consumer demand for low- and no-fat foods. Sales skyrocketed, and one quarter of all new product introductions were positioned as "low-fat" or "no-fat." By the early '90s, sales value for no-fat foods began faltering and have been declining ever since. Today, low- and no-fat product introductions are not even on the radar screens of most marketers.
Why did low- and no-fat foods fail? According to a survey by The Supermarket Guru, the primary reason consumers gave for rejecting these foods was their lack of expected texture or consistency (24 per cent). Other reasons: poor taste (18 per cent); undesirable aftertaste (13 per cent); and flavour (11 per cent).
Clearly, everyone recognises the leading role flavor plays in eating satisfaction; however, the correct combination of flavor along with texture—also known as mouthfeel—is required to meet consumer expectations for eating quality. These are the essential characteristics that drive satisfaction and repeat purchases.
The low-carb movement
Eerily reminiscent of the no-fat food craze, low-carb foods have taken the food industry by storm. Once again, sales are on the rise and the number of new product introductions positioned as "low-carb" is skyrocketing. However, any objective review of the myriad foods inundating the market under the "reduced carbohydrate" banner will clearly reveal how eating quality often suffers when the nutritional profile is altered.
Consumers will buy a "low-carb" product once, but continued purchases and sustainable value will be created only when these foods meet basic expectations for taste and texture. Because of their multifunctionality, ease of use and economical performance, speciality starches play a leading role as the backbone of texture in many foods. In addition, some speciality starches, such as resistant starches, have been developed specifically for their nutritional profile. Others have been developed specifically to act as carriers or transporters of particular ingredients, such as vitamins, into foods without affecting flavor or texture.
Fortifying baked goods and snacks with fiber has typically created problems with texture, taste and appearance. These problems occur because whole grains and many conventional fibers have a larger particle size, higher water-holding capacity and darker colour than fully milled grains.
Resistant starches, in contrast, offer food companies new opportunities for fiber fortification. Resistant starches provide fiber by resisting digestion in the small intestine. In addition, the small particle size, white appearance, bland flavour and low water-holding capacity of resistant starches allow them to be incorporated seamlessly into foods without affecting texture, taste or appearance. Fiber can now be formulated into recipes as a flour replacement in most applications without having an effect on eating quality.
Fiber has also emerged as a key ingredient for formulating foods with lower "net" or glycemic carbohydrates because of the minimal impact it has on blood-glucose levels. Texture and taste are critical issues when formulating lower net-carb foods, due to the addition of protein and/or traditional fibers, which often have a negative effect on flavour.
Resistant starches offer formulators a better alternative because they can be used to replace a large percentage of the flour—upwards of 50 per cent, depending on the starch and the application—without compromising quality. Resistant starches also help offset some of the processing problems caused by ingredients with high water-holding capacities.
It may be counterintuitive, but it is important to understand that most granular-resistant starches do not gelatinise under normal baking conditions. The fact the granules stay intact is important because it helps the starch resist digestion. This also means that resistant starches can be used at much higher levels than traditional viscosifying starches. For example, replacing 33 per cent of the flour in a white bread (enough to get a "high source of fiber" claim) will not adversely affect dough mouthfeel or texture. However, those intact granules can affect mouthfeel when used at extremely high levels (eg, 75 per cent flour replacement in a white bread), which might be used in some low-carb formulas.
A fourth dimension: mouthfeel
The way a food looks or smells is instantly noticeable. Taste or flavor, however, is something that consumers can assess only after placing the food or beverage in their mouths. At that point, people make a very important and often overlooked assessment: They consider how the food or drink feels on their tongues. If the food does not feel the way we expect it to—even if the flavor is good—we won't enjoy it to the fullest.
This textural quality, known as mouthfeel, is a combination of sensations associated with the overall attributes of a product that produce acceptable or unacceptable organoleptic properties. Descriptors such as creamy, smooth, heavy, oily, chalky, pulpy or sandy are often used to describe the mouthfeel of a food or beverage.
It is important to understand that mouthfeel can be significantly diminished when the nutritional profiles of foods are altered. For example, fats and proteins play an important role in developing the indulgently creamy, rich and satisfying qualities of foods such as ice cream and cakes. In addition, fats and oils can have an important influence on flavor. Fats often mask the acidity in products such as salad dressings and sauces while carrying and dispersing flavors across the palate.
Functional hydrocolloids, including carrageenan, xanthan gum, guar gum and carboxymethylcelulose, or CMC, have traditionally been used to adjust mouthfeel characteristics in many food systems. While all of these offer positive mouthfeel attributes, they do have limitations, including high cost, difficulty in use or undesirable textural attributes, such has sliminess or cohesiveness.
A range of speciality starches have been developed specifically to improve mouthfeel and create pleasing textures. These starches formulate easily and have good dispersion properties, excellent flavor profiles and economic advantages relative to other hydrocolloids.
The selection of the correct starch depends on a number of variables, including processing conditions, product applications requirements and desired textural properties. A modified tapioca starch on the market, for example, enhances the mouthfeel and texture of liquid foods, including solutions typically too low in viscosity for starch granules or other particulates to remain suspended. The starch can be used to simulate the oiliness and mouth-coating characteristics of fat in dressings.
Particularly in high-moisture foods, such as soups and beverages, speciality starches offer a wide range of textural possibilities that can make mouthfeel a differentiating component. Speciality starches can be used to create films and coatings; light, smooth or pulpy liquids; heavy, creamy and other textures; as well as solid, fat-like gels and pastes.
Some speciality starches have been designed to replace undesirable or expensive ingredients such as gelatin or egg whites without sacrificing the satisfying food structures these ingredients typically provide. In addition to adding texture, some speciality starches can be incorporated to round out or mask undesirable flavors, which may come from soy or intense or artificial sweeteners.
Whatever your food product is, satisfying consumers is probably your primary goal. Developing a product that meets the desired nutritional profile, consumption form and taste profile gets you to third base. To hit a consumer preference home run, products must also provide a satisfying texture and mouthfeel.
David Manion is public relations manager for National Starch Food Products, a leading supplier of specialty starches and nature-based food ingredients for food and nutrition.