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Making bitter beverages better

From bitter to better Flavour science helps bring functionality to beverages

Meeting the growing demand for healthful drinks will depend largely on the success of flavourists to make them appealing to the tongue. Walter Postelwait offers a look at the challenges and solutions

With the recent meteoric rise of the energy-drink market, today's active-lifestyle consumers are demanding foods and beverages that can provide both great taste and functionality. However, as consumers become more educated and forensic in the efficacy of their product choices, the taste of these products will become paramount in meeting their expectations.

The remarkable growth and popularity of functional foods are a welcome sight for marketers around the world, as consumers are paying healthy premiums for products that provide real or implied health benefits. However, this new enthusiasm for wellness foods has brought significant formulation issues in achieving consumer acceptability. This has made the product developer's role challenging in delivering both taste and efficacy.

Consider the expanding functional-beverage category, estimated to be $1.5 billion in North America. You will find hundreds of ready-to-drink and carbonated soft drinks based on various energy and wellness platforms. These include any combination of ingredients such as caffeine, taurine, B vitamins, soy isoflavones, niacin, aloe extract, gluclosamine, chondroitin, pomegranate polyphenols and whey protein, to name a few.

Anyone who has experienced swallowing vitamins, omega-3 fish-oil capsules, and many other dietary supplements should be familiar with bitter compounds or off-taste associated with them.

The ability to make drinks or foods that taste great and still provide efficacious levels of Functional Ingredients requires significant engineering of the flavour systems used, as well as a deep understanding of the stability and reactive nature of the Functional Ingredients being used, post thermal processing. Taste and rheology are both critical in achieving consumer preference for functional-food products. Therefore, understanding the functional ingredient beyond its specific health benefit is part of the critical knowledge needed by the formulator of the food or beverage — how it interacts with other flavour or ingredient components, as well as how we perceive it based on our sense of taste and smell.

Tricks of the trade
So what can product developers do to help create a great-tasting product, while meeting their marketing teams' need for highly efficacious and functional claims? They must design and engineer food or beverage applications that incorporate either flavour-masking techniques or bitterness-blocking technologies.

The first thing a developer must realize is that flavour masking will not completely eliminate the off notes from detection, it will only disguise them.
Flavour masking utilises traditional aroma chemical interaction to modify perceived bitterness and/or sweetness. This technology is based on compounds that are FEMA/GRAS approved and act to cover up rather than target specific tastes or modify taste-receptor sites on our tongue. This technique has been around for many years and uses high-impact flavours and ingredients to mask or flatten out the off notes associated with the Functional Ingredients in a product formula.

To do this effectively, the first thing a developer must realize is that flavour masking will not completely eliminate the off notes from detection, it will only disguise them. It is most effective at masking if the prominent flavour note coming from the functional ingredient can be found as a small part of the total profile of a commercially desirable flavour.

For example, let's say you want to develop a whey protein-based beverage. One of whey protein's prominent flavour descriptors can generally be characterized as an earthy 'brown note.' It is important to work with this profile rather than try to move away from its indigenous characteristic. In engineering the right flavour for this specific ingredient system, we typically ask what other desirable flavour profiles have an earthy brown note as part of their overall profile? The most common answer to this question is chocolate, especially dark chocolate.

Once developers have selected the target flavour profiles they believe might work well to mask their Functional Ingredients, they then need to enlist a good flavour company to custom design a flavour around their functional-beverage base. This is necessary because if you were to simply drop cocoa and chocolate flavours into the whey-protein beverage system, for example, you would find that the overall flavour profile of the finished product would be too brown, and have a jagged and unbalanced finish. A talented and creative flavourist can engineer a flavour that minimizes the brown notes already present due to the whey protein, add the other desirable chocolate notes, and mask flavours needed to create a well-balanced profile from the beginning to the end of the tasting experience.

However, flavour masking has its limitations. It is only truly effective when the off notes are relatively low and are somewhat characteristic of the desired final-product flavour profile. The challenge to developers today is when a product with high levels of active Functional Ingredients has a target flavour profile opposite in characteristic to off notes in the functional ingredient(s).

The scientific path to good taste
The efficacy focus and demand for great taste requires innovation and a paradigm shift in how the flavour industry is addressing the growing need to create highly functional products where flavour masking techniques no longer work.

To address this new frontier, the industry has turned to biological science for answers. In the mid-1980s and early '90s, new discoveries were made by university-based researchers as to the biological processes involved in how and what we taste. Prior to these discoveries, it was only understood that our taste buds can detect five types of tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and unami. Additionally, we knew the physical location on the tongue where the majority of the taste buds reside, relative to which taste type they detected. However, we did not know how the taste buds worked or how they translated physical and chemical properties of what we eat to the detailed sensory information our brain interpreted.

Due to the work of many researchers, we now know much more. We know that within our taste buds there are cells labelled 'taste receptor cells,' which are responsible for the transduction of chemical reaction information into cellular information. These receptor cells react in specific ways depending on the chemicals they come in contact with, which are present in our foods. This reaction is translated by the cell into chemical and electrical information that is passed through different pathways to nerve fibres and ultimately carried to our brain. The taste-receptor cells and the pathways they utilise to translate and pass along the information are the focus of most universities' and flavour companies' current research to discover how we can control or alter our taste perception of certain food ingredients.

For more information on formulating for functionality, see 'Science Review.'
Some of the first discoveries in this area focused on how to alter taste perception of bitterness. Several flavour companies, universities and pharmaceutical companies have discovered food-grade molecules and compounds that inhibit taste receptors from reacting or passing along some or all of the bitter taste signals to our brain. A few flavour companies have commercialised both natural and synthetic flavour systems utilising these bitter-blocking compounds. These new systems now allow flavourists who have access to these new technologies, the ability to formulate flavour systems that will inhibit bitterness while enhancing overall flavour perception. These bitterness-blocking systems have the ability to dramatically alter the taste perception of ingredients such as caffeine, vitamins, minerals, soy, artificial sweeteners and other Functional Ingredients. With the successful commercialisation of these systems, companies are expanding their taste research to find new ways to modulate the other types of taste: salty, sweet, sour and unami.

Better and better
As the demand from consumers for functional food and beverage products increases, the flavour industry and academia will continue to expand research to discover new ways of controlling our taste perceptions. From this, new food ingredients will emerge, which will allow us "?to have our vitamin and chew it, too." Whether employing flavour masking or bitterness blocking, beverage formulators can now create great-tasting products containing higher levels of active ingredients than ever before.

And as even further discoveries in taste modulation are uncovered, product developers will have an increasing number of innovative tools to improve taste and efficacy balance in the functional foods and beverages of the future.

Walter Postelwait is vice president and general manager of Blue Pacific Flavors, a global flavour house based in California.

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