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An insider’s tricks of the trade

One of the more challenging aspects of integrating bioactive nutraceuticals into foods is maintaining great tastes. John Diehl explains a step-by-step plan for working with off-flavours, including culinary, extraction and masking techniques that are guaranteed to build a loyal, repeat clientele

In the past 30 years, the nutraceutical and functional foods arena has gone from a few small companies trying to survive with products making unsubstantiated nutritional claims to an industry that the food giants are attempting to understand and enter at full speed. During this period, the marketing emphasis for the products available was focused on achieving trial purchases and hoping that the promise of the nutritional content and benefit would induce repeat sales.

This approach worked fine when the target audience was the small group of people who pursued nutrition with an almost religious zeal. But other than creating short-term fad-diet appeal, it did not work once the mainstream consumer became the target audience.

Today, nutraceuticals and functional foods are entering the mainstream, and supermarket chains nationwide are allocating fairly significant space to their display. The promise of enhanced nutritional benefits is still an adequate inducement to inspire product trial by mainstream consumers; however, as this group has shown repeatedly, they will not pursue repeat purchases unless they and their families find its consumption to be satisfying as well as healthy.

A key element in product satisfaction at the point of consumption is flavour. The aim of this short article is to discuss how to approach flavour with the intent being to develop a loyal clientele — to go beyond merely inducing an initial purchase.

Keep function with taste
As you proceed, remember always that the caveat of building a clientele is that your first obligation when you put a product on the market is to deliver to the consumer the nutraceutical benefit promised at the approximate dosage promised. All alterations of the sensory attributes of your product must keep this in mind and comply accordingly.

So now you sit in the R&D lab waiting for the first corporate review of a new prototype with a cutting-edge active nutraceutical ingredient. The assembled group reviews the concept — they like it. They review the justification for the nutraceutical additive — it can be substantiated with scientific evidence generated by both internal and external lab work. They review the need in the market for the benefit — it appears to be real. They discuss packaging and marketing issues — both appear to be in-line on price and capable of making an impact with the consumer.

Finally, they taste the product — they say it has an off-flavour or objectionable flavour and question whether or not mainstream consumers would pursue repeat purchases. They ask you to see if the flavour can be made more acceptable.

You need a game plan. Off-flavours can be a very difficult element to eliminate, but you might be able to deal with it. Here?s my approach to an attack plan for off-flavours. A more detailed schematic is presented in the flow chart below.

Flavourful bioactives
The first thing you need to do is identify the source of the off-flavour. Once you?ve done that, then you need to develop a similar model for dealing with it. A model I?ve developed for doing this is shown here, but keep in mind that each situation is unique and every model will vary from case to case.

Determining the source of the off-flavour is probably best done using taste panel techniques. You can look at the individual ingredients at appropriate levels, or you can look at finished product batches where each suspect ingredient is omitted one by one. If you have a sensory group in-house, this will be easy to set up. If not, you might want to talk with the extension food technology group at a local university to get assistance.

If you are lucky, the off-flavour is not being contributed by the nutraceutical you?ve included in your product, and the potential exists to remove it or react it to make your product taste better. However, the more likely scenario is that the nutraceutical active in your product is involved, so your ability to consider Maillard reactions, caramelization, etc, then is not practical — if you react the nutraceutical active, you probably are also eliminating its biochemical activity for the consumer. You may still be able to use the off-flavour as a simple key to be blended with other flavour notes and you can discuss this with a flavour house of your choice.

More intriguing is looking for a way to make the off-flavour contribute a less offensive taste using culinary approaches. Here in the US, for example, we view chocolate almost exclusively as an ingredient in sweet products; however, go to Mexico and suddenly it is also a key ingredient in a savoury product — molé. The point is, there is a very real possibility that an alternative from a distant ethnic cuisine will at least partially accommodate your off-flavour. Explore Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Central African and other cuisines and see what might work.

This might be especially applicable if your nutraceutical active comes from a region of the world where it has been included in a local cuisine for a long period of time. Access to a research chef for this type of work can be a big help and could also lead to a new and unique taste concept. Bringing new tastes to the market can be a marketing challenge, but once a clientele is established, your effort can buffer a product from competitive pressure for an extended period of time. Bottom line: think culinary, not technology, as a first step.

Masking and concealing
Of course, if the off-flavour is not produced by the nutraceutical active, you can ask the question whether it can somehow be extracted or removed. Even if the nutraceutical active is the culprit, there might be ways to hide its taste at the point of consumption and still retain its metabolic bioactivity.

Things like cyclodextrins and encapsulation technologies can render numerous chemicals tasteless at the point of consumption and then release them lower in the gastrointestinal tract where they become bioavailable. Other possibilities such as enzyme modification, fermentation with a microbial culture and physical removal are not possible cures if the bioactive is the culprit.

The reality, though, is that by the time you get to this point, you probably still have not found a way to deal with the off-flavour and you need to ask the question: can it be masked?

The antidote is don?t just think about masking — do it as a last resort, not the primary option. Again, every case of off-flavour is a challenge in and of itself. Contact your flavour house of choice ? there are a lot of very good ones in business in the US, Europe and Asia. Outline your off-flavour for them and ask that a flavour chemist and application scientist advise you on how to mask the off-flavour. There?s a reasonable chance you?ll find a masking flavour that will perform for you, especially if the off-flavour is a common type such as bitterness or a metallic taste.

Note, too, that masking flavours are an emerging technology. As new problems are identified, flavour manufacturers will find approaches for dealing with it. If a mask cannot be found immediately, you might even want to sit on your concept for a period of time and then revisit the flavour issue at a later date.

But not everything can be masked today, and there might be commercial reasons for getting your product to market short-term. One approach then is to look for an alternative source of the nutritional active. The resident impurities in one naturally extracted system might differ in taste from the resident impurities in another. Try it and see.

Longer-term, plant breeding and genetic engineering may become possible alternatives for growing unique plants that suppress the off-flavour characteristic without affecting the functionality of the nutritional active.

Worst-case scenario: nothing works and you?re stuck. Chances are, if you get all the way to the end of the model without any significant improvement, you?re not going to establish a mainstream consumer clientele and your product?s commercial exposure will be limited to traditional health foods and natural foods stores. And you may just have to live with that.

John Diehl operates Diehl Consulting, which helps manufacturers and sellers of high-technology ingredients become more commercially viable. He has degrees in nutritional science, food science and marketing, and has worked in the areas of enzyme, genetic engineering, flavour and nutrition for manufacturers of high-value ingredients.
Respond: [email protected]
All correspondence will be forwarded to the author.

Flavouring successfully
Any functional food must first and foremost deliver the nutraceutical benefit promised at the approximate dosage promised. All flavour alterations must keep this in mind and comply accordingly.

  • Identify the source of the off-flavour.
  • Make a model for dealing with the off-flavour (see chart, below).
  • Think culinary first — use the undesirable flavour nuance as a building block, if possible, and then bring technology into play in order to achieve the result on a production scale that fits your product?s market demand.
  • There might be ways to hide an off-flavour nutritional active from sensory perception without reducing its bioavailability.
  • Use flavour masking as a fall-back position.

Off-flavours are a common component of food products that contain nutritional additives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making the flavour more acceptable. Here is a model to help with your product formulation challenge. (chart)

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