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Flavoring for top-flight functionality

There is little doubt that functional nutrition is being widely embraced by consumers — but taste is still king. Markus Eckert and Paul Riker discuss how to negotiate successful food and beverage creation, from simple calcium fortification to botanical infusion and organic sourcing.

When formulating with functional ingredients, manufacturers face many roadblocks on the path to a healthy and flavorful product. For example, if you desire to boost calcium levels in a beverage, how do you reduce calcium's inherent chalkiness? If artificial sweeteners are to be used, how do you counter their bitterness? Flavorists must rebalance the characterising flavors as they learn the best masking and modulating ingredients for any particular scenario. By adding functional ingredients to a product, you are changing the taste perception and the flavor profile; therefore, flavorists must work to find that ideal balance to achieve the desired characteristics.

Common flavor hurdles

The most formidable flavor challenges facing formulators often appear in functional foods and beverages. For example, herbals have beany notes, proteins have meaty notes and some vitamins have bitter notes; each has negative flavor attributes that can be dealt with by formulating with flavors.

Calcium: The US Department of Agriculture recently approved the use of a claim that increasing calcium consumption may improve bone health in women. Claims such as these are important to food and beverage manufacturers seeking to fortify their products with calcium, an essential nutrient for children and a known combatant against osteoporosis, a bone disease that affects the elderly, particularly women. In response to the above claim, many manufacturers are seeking to add calcium or boost calcium levels in their products.

The challenge with calcium is that it is a very acidic mineral, and when a product formulation requires an increased level of calcium, processors are often met with a very acidic, sour flavor note. Particularly when formulating with beverages with a low pH (pH less than 4.4), it is a challenge to increase calcium levels above 30 per cent. While food and beverage companies want to include higher percentages, the result of such fortification would be tooth etching and a chalky mouthfeel.

To counter these negative notes, processors turn to flavors such as chocolate and vanilla, whose flavor properties work well to mask the chalky mouthfeel. Higher levels of calcium can also be achieved in products consumed quickly.

Herbals: This market has seen significant growth in recent years and is poised to gain even more ground with new products that boast calorie-burning capabilities through weight-loss ingredients such as hoodia, hydroxyl citric acid and polyphenols.

A popular example of a polyphenol is EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), a thermogenic agent that is helpful in burning fat, yet causes a bitter or astringent flavor note in the mouth. In order to overcome a flavor challenge such as this, flavorists will modulate the taste receptors by masking the bitter receptors and increasing the sweetness perception through receptor binding, or through steric blocking of the receptor. This process fools the tongue into ignoring the bitter flavor, yet embracing the sweet.

Another popular herbal some processors have begun using is rooibos, more commonly called African red tea. Among the increasing population of health-conscious consumers, rooibos is getting more attention due to its high level of antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase, its lack of caffeine and its low tannin levels. Rooibos has a fairly plain taste, which affords the flavorist a blank canvas from which to begin building its flavor identity.

Protein: As the low-carbohydrate diet fad continues to fade, consumers with a focus on weight loss have begun adding more protein to their diets. In return, formulators have begun adding more protein and satiety components to their products. The vast majority of protein-enriched products launched for the general public use soy protein or whey protein, often with casein to round out the amino-acid profile, and to add viscosity. Pea, rice and egg proteins (albumin and yolk) are used more often in drinks fortified specifically for bodybuilding or protein-recovery beverages.

A challenge manufacturers face when formulating a product with increased protein content is the harsher processing conditions such as retorting, high-temperature/short-time processing, or ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processing. These conditions often create off-notes such as burnt, caramelised, nutty, beany, cereal, sulfuric or bitter flavors. The addition of protein is done with both dry and liquid protein sources, and will often require homogenisation to emulsify the fats to increase the product's stability.

Organics: While demand for organic products is high, consumers are less likely to purchase an organic product with an unsatisfactory flavor profile. In order to maintain a clean label, food and beverage manufacturers must formulate their products with organic flavors.

Organic products produce their own challenges that go beyond flavor formulation in conventional products and include supply limitations, flavor compatibility, sourcing and certification.

While all flavors can be created organically, the challenge of availability is often formidable. This supply issue makes communication with vendors and an understanding of farm cycles very important. Manufacturers should make commitments for products with high juice content before harvest, and allow for processing time to ensure that supply meets the need.

In order to create organic-compatible flavors, organic-compliant techniques are used to extract and concentrate the flavor from the natural ingredients. These organic flavors are then compounded to increase their potency and complement the inherent flavors of food ingredients. This allows food processors to highlight and intensify specific flavor notes or profiles, such as 'juicy,' 'peely' or 'candy.'

The flavorist's toolbox

Sensory evaluation is a powerful tool used to support functions within quality-assurance, research and development, and marketing departments by providing meaningful data to help better understand the flavor profile of the products being created. Sensory evaluation can help answer, 'Is there a difference in taste, aroma and mouthfeel?' but more importantly, 'What are the differences and how large are these differences?'

By adding sensory evaluation to the mix, techniques such as descriptive analysis can be used, whereby trained panelists are able to describe the attributes of the product and measure the intensity of each attribute. The collected data are analysed and graphed, providing a visual representation of the information, which developers use as a guide for further development.

Similar challenges with providing 'better for you' products were seen in a previous study of sodium reduction in chicken broth. In this case, the reduced-salt broth was unable to deliver an acceptable taste, and would require the use of a salt-enhancer modulator. Descriptive analysis was used and the trained panelists evaluated the full-salt and reduced-salt chicken broth. The flavorists were able to use this information and create a low-sodium product that exhibited a more similar flavor profile to the full-salt product. Results can be seen in Figure A.

Similar techniques can be applied to help create fortified beverages without sacrificing flavor.

Another method used by flavorists is mixture suppression — a method that helps block bad notes. In flavors, one method in the quest to improve the taste of functional products is to find ways to marry the off-component into the flavor system. For example, a flavorist may add a grapefruit flavor to build off of bitter notes apparent in many nutraceutical beverages. Why? Most palates accept the bitter flavor in grapefruit, so the bitter note it is masking is inherent and does not taste out of place.

Innovations in flavor technology allow flavorists to reduce the ingredients associated with undesirable health effects, and mask the flavors of those that provide nutritional benefits. This process is a complex one, requiring a great understanding of how unique ingredient flavors and functionalities interact. Products in today's health-conscious market successfully marry function and flavor. Consumers expect nothing less.

Markus Eckert is vice president, technical, at Mastertaste. Paul Riker is Mastertaste manager of beverage applications.

Figure A. Sensory evaluation chart allows product developers to design better-for-you foods with similar taste profiles to the original. flavor profiles of full-salt, reduced-salt and reduced-salt with modulator chicken broth.

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