More than ever, consumers understand the benefits of omega-3s, but getting them to like the taste requires some savvy formulating. Dr Rakesh Kapoor examines the numerous challenges
Heart disease, inflammatory conditions and mental health problems concern more than three quarters of American adults.1 As people strive to live longer, healthier lives, they are in constant search of new ways to prevent and treat these conditions via natural alternatives and diet. Thanks to the efforts of scientists, the industry and the media, more than two thirds of American consumers now associate at least one major health benefit with omega-3s.2 Despite strong growth in consumer awareness of the advantages of omega-3s, however, a similar increase in intake of fish and flax oil has not been recorded.
The reasons are clear: taste, smell and convenience. The industry was initially built on consumers who were willing to compromise on these factors in the pursuit of health. Today, however, more and more mainstream consumers recognize the benefits of omega-3s, and supplements manufacturers are faced with a whole new set of expectations. Manufacturers who eliminate unpleasant flavours, aromas and aftertastes are set to reap the rich rewards of this growing market.
Suppliers have sought to differentiate their products and control flavour through a variety of formulations, including enteric-coated soft gelatin capsules, microencapsulated powders, emulsions and flavoured oils. Of all these techniques, flavoured oils are the most cost-effective and consumer-friendly delivery method.
Choosing the right oil
While, in theory, oil flavouring may appear to be a fairly simple task, it is in fact a complex process, requiring careful ingredient selection and processing expertise. Manufacturers are challenged not only by the characteristics of the oils themselves, but also their tendency to oxidize. The most commonly flavoured EFA oil blends contain fish and flax, both of which carry distinct taste and odor notes that are not well accepted in the North American market. Fish oils, not surprisingly, carry a fishy odor and flavour often accompanied by an unpleasant after-effect. Flax oil, on the other hand, has a naturally bitter and nutty taste. The inherent flavours and aftertastes of these oils limit the type of flavour that can be applied. Simply adding a flavour to the raw oil would be ineffective, as the oil's natural properties can overwhelm or contradict this flavour, leaving the senses confused and unsatisfied.
With this in mind, the foremost important factor in developing a successful flavoured oil is to control the quality of the raw material itself. Refining is an essential step in production, resulting in a bland-tasting oil that is more amenable to flavour manipulation.
Think of it in terms of painting: it is much easier to paint a picture if you start with a blank canvas; far more difficult, however, if you first have to disguise something already depicted.
During refinement, the oils undergo neutralization, bleaching, deodorisation and winterization. These processes remove constituents affecting color, odor and clarity, producing a clear, bland-tasting oil. To further purify the oils, molecular distillation, a process commonly applied to fish oils, can be utilized to remove additional contaminants. When performed correctly, these processing techniques produce oil with superior purity, free from off-odor and flavour notes.
The above-mentioned refining options may not be appropriate in all cases and their selection depends greatly on the target markets. As an example, organic flax oil cannot be processed using all techniques, as some will compromise its organic status. Hence, flavouring organic flax oil offers additional challenges to the formulator.
Science of flavour selection
While the quality of the initial oil is essential to producing a successful flavoured supplement, so is the quality of the flavours to be added. These must be chosen with care to ensure that the tones and flavours in the formulation are compatible with the oil's chemical structure. Flavour selection is governed by its end application. If the oil is to be blended for salads, for example, then spicy flavours may be ideal, but if the oil is to be added to drinks, then nutty or fruity flavours are generally preferred.
Flavour solubility is a key consideration. Oil-soluble flavours do not affect the clarity of the oil and are generally preferred over their water-soluble counterparts, which result in a cloudy appearance and inconsistent flavour. Despite this, water-soluble flavours are occasionally applied, although their effective addition relies on the use of solubilizing agents. Formulators should be aware that solubility agents may negatively affect the taste of the oil and are generally unsuitable for 'natural only' consumers.
For emulsion-type products, a combination of oil and water-soluble flavours can be used. In this formulation type, the presence of oil and water phases makes flavouring much easier. When selecting a flavour combination, manufacturers should look for synergistic flavours as they offer the advantage of improving tone. Formulation will depend on the nature of the oil to be flavoured as well as the flavour to be developed. The use of masking agents may not be ideal in all cases as they can work against both the natural and selected flavours.
Natural vs. synthetic
Natural and artificial flavours are available to be used either alone or in combination. When selecting a flavour type, manufacturers must pay close attention to the market where the product will be sold. Health-food channels will normally demand that products contain only natural flavours, while mass market may allow the use of synthetic or natural and synthetic blends.
Natural flavours contain a large number of constituents, so their overall quality and intensity depends on growing conditions such as soil type, environmental conditions, rainfall and geographical location. The flavour profile of a natural flavour is also affected by manufacturing and concentration processes, as its constituents have a variety of boiling points. It should be noted that natural compounds have a limited range of flavour varieties. The major challenge to a formulator is therefore to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of the flavour and its strength or intensity.
Artificial (synthetic) flavours, on the other hand, offer wide variations in their flavour notes and allow controlled consistency. As a result, they can be used at a much lower concentration compared to a natural flavour. Greater control over the chemical composition of synthetic flavour formulations allows manufacturers to avoid some of the typical obstacles associated with natural flavours.
To ensure consumers experience the same taste with each bottle, a number of rigorous screening processes are required to monitor the quality and performance of the flavours added to the oil. After the flavour direction is set, multiple formulations must undergo taste tests to identify optimal flavour levels for the desired market. Oil flavouring requires a careful balancing act to appease the senses — under- or over-flavouring can be just as detrimental to the oil's organoleptic profile as choosing the wrong flavour.
A taste sensation
Aside from the complex scientific processes involved, a detailed understanding of consumer sensory perception is central to the development of a successful flavoured oil. In particular, formulators must be aware that the aroma of a product will set the consumer's expectation of its overall flavour. Mouthfeel and aftertaste are also influencing factors. Consequently, any screening processes must encompass a number of different stages, from the first waft of aroma upon opening a bottle and initial flavour perception, to the lingering aftertaste that remains at the back of the throat well after the product has been consumed. The most successful flavoured oils will have a desirable taste and odor that remain congruent at each stage of testing and throughout the shelf life of the product. Of course, after all this, it is important to remember that taste is extremely subjective and a custom-based approach is best.
Control is crucial
As natural flavours and EFA oils themselves are chemically predisposed to oxidation, it is important to maintain tight control over production and handling procedures. A closed environment is crucial, as the presence of oxygen can lead to the redevelopment of undesirable flavour notes. Temperature must also be controlled, as exposure to heat can affect the quality of the oil and its taste. Flavours normally have a lower flash point than EFA oils and can therefore evaporate during production processes. Rate and timing of flavour addition is therefore crucial to preserve the desired taste and smell, with flavours typically added toward the end of the process to minimize exposure to heat. Processing equipment must also be properly designed to avoid excessive or insufficient mixing.
The final consideration lies in the packaging material for the finished product. Formulators must consider the interaction of packaging material with the constituents of a flavoured oil to achieve optimal shelf life. Impermeability is key, as the introduction of air to the product throughout its shelf life threatens the flavour's oxidative tendencies.
Developing a product that will stand apart in this increasingly competitive market is challenging and attention to detail is vital. Manufacturers must be meticulous in every area of development, from raw material selection and process control, to final packaging material and testing. Tried and true benchmarking strategies allow manufacturers to monitor each stage of production, identify potential problems and make any according adjustments, ensuring delicious flavoured oils, bottle after bottle.
1. Health & Wellness Trends Database™ (HWTD) and Supplements, OTC, Rx Database™ (SORD). Natural Marketing Institute January 2006.
2. French, S. "Health and Wellness Trends — Creating Hot New Products and Opportunities." Natural Marketing Institute September 2005.
Dr Rakesh Kapoor is director of science and technology at Bioriginal Food and Science Corp, overseeing technology evaluation and new product formulation involving essential fatty acids. He is also responsible for organizing clinical trials and managing contract research
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