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Taste-Bud Teasers and Flavor Tricks


Even pharmacists have caught on. Walk into any major pharmacy to purchase a fluid prescription and you will be asked: What flavor? Indeed, with the right additives, it is possible to trick the taste buds into finding something typically unpleasant tasting, into something, well, in the case of cough medicine, tolerable.

With foods and beverages, the result is often not only acceptable, but frequently downright delicious. As the science of flavor and flavoring foods and beverages unfolds, researchers are discovering new ways to tease and trick the taste buds.

Flavor perception involves a combination of taste (bitter, sweet, salty, acidic and umami), aroma (olfactory input) and chemosensory (cooling and burning) factors; mouthfeel, textures and temperatures; and expectations (perception of a berry flavor may be difficult in a green beverage). All of these may come into play when influencing how the product tastes.

The great flavor coverup

One technology that has grown exponentially in the last decade is masking agents. Masking undesirable flavors in food and beverage systems is no easy task. "Masking agents are very application-specific," says Stephen Wolf, director of flavor applications, Robertet Flavors, Piscataway, NJ. "There is no magic bullet when you are trying to mask a flavor or flavors."

Masking agents function as additive ingredients. In other words, "They are added on top of the undesirables," Wolf says. "The undesirables never go away. They remain in the food. Therefore, it is important that the entire food or beverage system be evaluated, including processing and packaging. All of the variables affect the flavor and how the masking agent performs.

"Furthermore, the components of a masking agent can interact with other ingredients in a food system," Wolf continues. "In order for a masking agent to work, product developers must be in partnership with their flavor supplier and have a masking agent developed for the specific application. And, if any variable changes down the road, the effectiveness of the masking agent must be reevaluated." Depending on the scope of the formulation or process change, product designers might find that the original system does not provide the same effect. For example, pH can have a significant effect on the choice of masking agent.

Jeffrey Cousminer, director of savory foods, Firmenich Inc., Princeton, NJ, concurs. "Masking agents are very application-specific. An all-in-one product would mask all flavors in a food system, even desirable ones.

"We have to remember that the mouth is our personal defense system against danger," continues Cousminer. "Many poisonous plants and toxic chemicals, for example, can taste bitter or sour. Masking agents are a scientist's way of tricking Mother Nature into letting you swallow otherwise unpalatable foods. As we all learned from Mary Poppins: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

For example, the oil in traditional salad dressings mellows the acidity of vinegar; however, when formulators remove the fat, it amplifies the acid taste. "In this application, one can try to camouflage the acidity to some degree with a sweet flavor," says Cousminer.

Today's nutrition and wellness marketplace is inundated with foods and beverages that have masked flavors. "These products have properties that need to be modified for better consumer acceptance," says Agneta Weisz, vice president flavors and technology, Comax Flavors, Melville, NY. "For example, some artificially sweetened products have an unnatural sweetness profile. We can use flavor ingredients to dampen the initial sweetness perception and others to prolong the sensation of sweetness to make the sweetness appear more similar to sugar."

Many good-for-you ingredients just don't taste that good. The active compounds in many botanicals, for example, consist of glycosides and alkaloids, which are typically bitter-tasting, alkaline substances. Jennette Neske, senior food technologist, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), New York, says, "Some formulation issues that relate to functional foods are masking protein, botanical extracts and bitterness from pharmaceutical actives. Masking the beany, sulfury and earthy off-notes found in soy-protein-based foods is also very challenging."

Masking agents work in different ways depending upon what they are masking and the food application. "Some masking ingredients act as modifiers and others cover the undesired characteristic by providing other sensations or ingredients that compete with specific receptor sites," says Weisz. "Many bitter compounds are close in structure to sweet compounds. Sometimes we can use the sweet analogue of a bitter compound to produce a less-bitter food. Also, by enhancing the saltiness of foods, you can decrease the perception of bitterness. A lot of psychology is involved in the taste perception of foods."

Taste is both psychological and biological. Linguagen Corp., Cranbury, NJ, uses biotechnology to provide solutions to flavor problems. The company's patented bitter-blocker compound, adenosine monophosphate (AMP), inhibits the taste of bitterness by altering human perception.

"Through our understanding of the molecular and biochemical mechanisms of taste, we have been able to discover compounds that act by blocking the perception of the bitter agent," says Robert Margolskee, Linguagen's founder. "Our research is based on the science of taste transduction, which is how the taste cells detect positive, pleasant-tasting nutrients and negative, bitter-tasting compounds. The taste buds on the tongue relay this information to the central nervous system. AMP prevents the negative message from being sent to the brain."

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