Food Product Design: Applications - July 2005 - Toys of the Trade: New Flavor Technologies

July 1, 2005

24 Min Read
Food Product Design: Applications - July 2005 - Toys of the Trade: New Flavor Technologies

July 2005

Toys of the Trade: New Flavor Technologies

By Kimberly J. DeckerContributing Editor

Everybody loves a new toy. That's as true of a veteran food technologist as it is of a seven-year-old sending his wish list to Santa. So whenever the flavor industry's elves let loose another plaything from their laboratory workshops, you'd expect product developers to feel like kids on Christmas morning. And judging by the shiny new flavor technologies waiting under the tree, they've been very good boys and girls, indeed. To compare the state of the flavor art today with what was available as recently as a decade ago is akin to taking the wraps off a PlayStation 2 versus winding up with set of Lincoln Logs.

The sheer mass of research that goes into clarifying the composition of flavor compounds, isolating and reproducing their blueprints, packaging them as efficient functional ingredients, and understanding how they interact with foods and our brains could put the wonks at NASA to shame. But it's all in a day's work (and a year's budget) for the flavor chemists whose discoveries have set spinning a circle that's spoiled consumers with better-flavored products and, in turn, put the onus right back on us to innovate some more.

The consumer is king "May you live in exciting times" goes the ancient Chinese curse. For anyone who places a premium on taste, the excitement in today's flavor business is an unmitigated blessing. "When you look at things that R&D and operations tried to do 10 years ago, the equipment and the technology weren't there to achieve them," says Roger Arnold, business industry director, savory group, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ. "As everyone's grown and technology increases, our ability to create new flavors with different processes makes it a lot easier and a lot more exciting."

In their zeal to road-test new technologies, food processors shouldn't park "flavor solutions" in applications where no apparent problem exists. In other words, taste, not whiz-bang technology, must drive development. "It's not just about having the technology solution," says Emmanuel LaRoche, marketing manager, flavors, Symrise, Teterboro, NJ, "it is about how you use the technology to satisfy customer desires." By integrating technical expertise with sociocultural savvy, flavor suppliers set their innovations apart. "That's why we spend a lot of time understanding the consumers' drivers of liking and expectations within a concept through qualitative and quantitative research," he continues. "This is on top of understanding the technical aspects of the application: the heat stability, the complexity of the ingredients, the processing tolerance and the flavor's functionality in the product."

The state of affairs is no different in any other sector of the food industry: Wherever you look, the consumer is in the driver seat. Competition from within the supermarket, from foodservice and even from the endangered home-cooked meal long since ended the days when a product could coast on a reputation of "just good enough." In the area of flavors -- that sensory fulcrum on which our food choices pivot the pressure to be all things to all palates only intensifies.

These days, flavor creation isn't just about analytical chemistry, it's concerned with "what consumers are 'into,' not just in food, but in other segments of their lives, as well," says June Montanari, global marketing manager, beverage flavors, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), Dayton, NJ. Consumers build their own "brand identities" out of everything from iPod playlists to their favorite energy bars, and manufacturers have to shape their own brands accordingly if they want their message to get through.

Hitting that target wouldn't be so maddening if today's consumers weren't such expert collectors of cultural intelligence. "Consumers are very smart in how they make choices," Montanari says. "They're very well informed. They don't just make casual decisions about what products they choose. In terms of health ingredients, they're much more astute, whether they're looking for disease prevention or antioxidants or different fortification nutrients -- glucosamine or chondroitin, for instance."

In case you haven't heard, they're darned sophisticated, too. "They may want the flavor to be attractive from a concept standpoint," Montanari continues. "But they also really evaluate that product and whether it lives up to that expectation. In beverages, they're very particular about, say, strawberry-kiwi: 'Is this realistic? Do I believe that this is really the named fruit?' I think it's exciting because consumers are enthusiastic about the flavor of the product and whether we deliver on it."

Of course, their scrutiny ups the ante. Consumers have littered the product-design path with obstacles that only four-wheel-drive flavors can surmount. "There's definitely a lot going on in terms of what food and beverage companies are facing with how consumers' tastes are changing, both from what consumers are looking for in taste profiles and also in terms of the ingredients they do and don't want in their products," says Jeff Peppet, director of marketing communications, flavors division, Givaudan, Cincinnati. These pressures, he says, "travel back all the way to suppliers and how we relate to companies and work with them" -- and fill their flavor needs.

Better eating through science Improved flavor technology might be only one part of filling those needs, but it's still an instrumental one. In times past, deriving a flavor meant squeezing an extract from a raw material and hoping it tasted right. Nowadays, flavorists use the same analytical tools as geneticists and molecular biologists to view flavors at the atomic level, producing an accurate map of a flavor's "DNA." With that map, they can better separate signal from noise to provide an ingredient as potent as the real thing.

"In creating a new flavor, you begin by establishing a taste target," says Anton Angelich, group vice president, marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. "This can be done by identifying a consumer gold standard, a recipe, or choosing a specific fruit, vegetable, spice or herb found in nature. Analytical techniques such as GC/MS can aid the flavor chemist in identifying the taste-contributing compounds, and with help of expert sensory panels, can create a matching flavor. It is an iterative process, matching and advancing the flavor developments with the sensory feedback. A thorough knowledge of sensory descriptors and working with an established lexicon can greatly aid the development process."

At Symrise, scientists have coupled nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy with traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to take a clearer snapshot of the nonvolatile residues in cold-pressed lemon oil. Much of flavor creation deals in volatiles, but flavorists also must identify the amino acids, lipids, salts and other nonvolatiles that round out a true-to-character flavor by acting as odor fixatives while also stabilizing the oil. The company's HPLC-NMR investigation revealed a roster of nonvolatile coumarins, psoralens, carotenoids, fatty acids and sterols that ultimately helped guide the company's creation of improved natural-citrus-oil alternatives, including lime, and sweet- and bitter-grapefruit varieties.

The natural citrus flavors are liquids appropriate for use in isotonic, fruit and alcoholic beverages, as well as in yogurts and salad dressings, LaRoche says. "These natural extract alternatives (lime) are more concentrated compared to traditional alcohol- or water-based extracts," he notes. This helps take the edge off of storage and shipping concerns. As it happens, he adds, the grapefruit alternatives couldn't have hit the market at a more-opportune time right before last year's hurricanes leveled Florida's grapefruit crop and slashed harvest forecasts by roughly two-thirds.

A true sense of things Besides unlocking the precise composition of flavors, molecular flavor development also exploits a growing familiarity with the structure, purpose and mechanism of taste and smell receptors. "Taste is a complicated thing," says Sandy Balco, global marketing, Givaudan. "It isn't just the flavor notes -- the tonality of flavor. Taste has to do with the total experience in your mouth." Sensory scientists have probed these relationships for years, and by sharing their insight, they help flavor companies create ingredients that replicate the way we experience flavor as it evolves.

Such activities keep in-house R&D busy, but flavor companies also flirt with academia and research centers to preview innovations coming down the pike. "We have partnerships with many universities and biotech companies," notes Balco, among them institutions such as Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Institute and two in Germany, the Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbruecke and the Institute of Food Chemistry at the University of Muenster.

Danisco USA, Inc., Ardsley, NY, took a sensory-based route to developing a line of flavors. Because our perception of a food changes with every chew, gulp and inhalation, an ingredient that best reproduces that time-sensitive experience must also reproduce the chemical and enzymatic changes that occur within the food while we eat it. "By linking the senses of taste and smell to state-of-the-art techniques," explains Zyla Vucetovic, flavor business analyst, Danisco, "we have developed methods to measure the release of volatiles that lead to the human perception of flavor as it happens."

The science to do so only emerged in the mid-1990s as researchers realized that swallowing played a large role in how we perceive the aromatic elements of flavors. Using highly sensitive equipment, scientists now analyze pockets of air sampled straight from the nasal cavity as chewing and swallowing proceed, paying special attention to molecules that, though transient, are still fundamental to constructing a flavor's fingerprint.

Danisco currently applies its real-time flavor portfolio to soft-drink and dairy applications, where the lineup of its WONF, natural-and-artificial (N&A), and from-the-named-fruit (FTNF) flavors in strawberry, orange, peach, apple and raspberry profiles tastes right at home. Vucetovic also notes that the flavors are available in encapsulated form. Encapsulates "often are used in products that require a longer shelf life, especially for flavors that have limited stability when exposed to harsher storage conditions, such as temperature extremes or air and light," she says. "And encapsulated systems are used in special-release flavor systems, such as bakery or reconstituted-powder applications." As for what's in the works, she says that coffee beverages, as well as chocolate -- with its more than 1,200 individual flavor components -- are ripe for analysis. "Because there is a growing market in indulgence products and a large consumer base for flavored coffee, we have recently extended these technologies to develop a line of Commonsense chocolate flavors for coffee applications," she explains.

The garden of eatin' Meanwhile, flavor technologists at IFF have gone back to the garden for their flavor line. In a state-of-the-art greenhouse with a botanical pool topping 750 plant species, "we actually capture the headspace around the fruit, vegetable or herb as it's growing on the plant," Montanari says. This allows flavorists to isolate the full spectrum of volatile and nonvolatile components present in the live plant, sketching out a "living" flavor profile, she continues, "that has a very similar composition to the fruit or vegetable as it's growing." This matters, she says, because the company's "R&D found that the composition of the living fruit and vegetable is very different from the harvested plant." A living strawberry, for example, gives off markedly less ethyl butyrate, ethyl-2-methylbutyrate, and isoamyl acetate than its plucked sibling, but expresses amounts of hexyl butyrate, octyl butyrate, and gamma-decalactone that dwarf those found in a picked berry.

What about duplicating the flavor composition of a "living" dulce de leche? According to Montanari, product designers can turn to IFF. The technology behind one of its flavor lines purportedly allows the company to use any gold standard as the flavor template. "So, with a lot of our culinary-type flavors -- if it's sautéed mushrooms or grilled steak -- we have very sophisticated analytical-chemistry techniques that we use to analyze that gold standard," she says. With headspace analysis, extract analysis, twister analysis and GC-olfactometry, flavorists "recreate the profile using only the compounds that are actually found in that food or fruit," she continues. "And that enables us to create very realistic flavors -- authentic and true to character."

Child's play Is atom-by-atom flavor authenticity always the appropriate goal? "There's been a lot of work identifying the top notes, the headspace, and what makes an apple a true apple and a raspberry a true raspberry," says LaRoche. "But the real question is: Is this what the consumer is looking for? And I'm not so sure about that. I think it really depends from one case to another and from one consumer and application to another." For example, the boomer generation will respond favorably to a functional fruit-flavored drink with a true-to-life mango-guava profile, but give Junior a few swigs it's doubtful he'll notice the difference.

Flavors geared to the kids' crowd fare better with less "down-to-earth" and more "out-of-this-world." According to Montanari: "We know that there are specific flavor notes that appeal strongly to kids. We know the types of attributes that you would find in a kid's strawberry that you wouldn't find in an adult's. It would be 'jammier,' candy-sweet. We've always tracked kids' market trends, their taste preferences, as well as all the other things that they're into in terms of consumer products, icons and idols."

Such research spawned a new line of flavors designed specifically for kids. Used primarily in beverages but developed with an eye toward candies, ice cream and other kid-friendly dairy desserts, the 60 liquid and 15 powdered flavors range from nature-defying combinations to longtime favorites like apple, grape and punch. "Those are the flavors that kids perennially accept," Montanari says. "As consumers, we don't change all that drastically." Nevertheless, she touts the line's "more-innovative flavors types" such as dragonfruit-grape, a surprisingly high scorer. "That's one of the flavor types that tested really well. Kids were not initially familiar with dragonfruit as a fruit type," she says, "but they liked it."

By pairing dragonfruit with grape, the company helped shave some of the fear factor from the unusual fruit. Flavorists frequently introduce new flavors using the "buddy system." In the case of melon profiles, which were a rare sight in beverages a few years ago, matching them with classics like apple, lemonade and strawberry has familiarized them enough that they can now show up with kiwi and star fruit without causing a fuss. Other popular flavor duos include cherry-berry and citrus blends, especially those featuring lime. "Kids are now getting into lime," Montanari says. "Kiwi-lime and things like that are appealing."

Special effects Kids gravitate to lime in part because of its pucker potential. As with the super-hot and super-cool flavors colonizing lunch bags across the country, notes Montanari, "the mouthwatering sour that kids love" is another special-effect flavor worth its weight in lunch money. "Kids want the extra sensation that brings fun and excitement to the product," she says. So, suppliers have released ingredients that do for the sour sensation what heating and cooling enhancers do for those chemosensory responses.

Granted, food acids achieve the sour effect with fewer bells and whistles, but if you want salivary stimulation without a tart taste, you might consider an ingredient from Symrise. This FEMA-GRAS artificial flavor, typically added at 0.05% of a formula's total flavor content, relies on a proprietary chemical to "stimulate the trigeminal nerves, which produces a slight tingle, followed by increased salivary flow" without an acid taste, explains company literature. Part of a line of chemosensory enhancers, the product complements a nonmint, nonmenthol cooling agent with effects that range from subliminal to downright bracing, depending on use level; another enhancer that leaves a pleasing pungency without tasting peppery; and a range of flavor blends with highly volatile ingredients that give other flavors, especially fruit profiles such as lemon, a noticeable "lift."

LaRoche suggests delivering chemosensory enhancers in an encapsulate that delays their release until they hit the mouth for a "surprising burst of high-impact flavor." His company has a line of encapsulates that are made in a process called submerged coextrusion that passes a liquid flavor and a gelatin solution through the inner and outer nozzles of an extruder into an oil bath. There, the flow breaks into individual droplets consisting of a flavor core wrapped in a thin, gelatin shell. The capsules' flavor load can range from 20% to 90%, and the oxidative protection provided by the gelatin shell can stretch their shelf life to two years. "In flavoring savory applications," adds LaRoche, where onion and garlic aromas can leave the production floor smelling high and ripe, "if you use an Evocap instead of the usual powder, then you have no more of these odor issues."

Healthy flavor These days, no flavor issue dogs manufacturers more than maintaining a product's profile -- or, in some cases, its bare palatability -- while retooling it for the health-and-wellness trend. "If you develop a product with a fine, acceptable flavor, and then you add a combination of 12 vitamins, four or five minerals, and some amino acids, you are going to throw off the whole matrix totally," says Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president, chief scientific officer, Fortitech, Schenectady, NY.

"How do you develop products that have a certain sweetness perception," asks Angelich, "but that deliver less calorically? How do you incorporate the ingredients that are currently more interesting from a nutritional standpoint and still deliver the same satisfaction and hedonic pleasure? How do you take the tastes of things that are well-entrenched in consumers' expectations and deliver them in a healthier form?" With functional-food sales reaching $1.3 billion in 2001 and expected to grow 39% by 2006, according to Mintel International Group, Chicago, these questions aren't just academic.

The past few years saw the ranks of health-and-wellness products swell as manufacturers committed themselves to leaving no carbohydrate behind. Unfortunately, that often meant leaving the flavor behind. Artificial sweeteners restored the sweet taste, but not without introducing a bitter, metallic finish of their own. The response was often to cover it up with an improved crop of masking agents and flavor blends.

One of the most-impressive solutions took aim at the sensory receptors that detect bitterness itself. In April 2003, the Linguagen Corporation, Cranbury, NJ, gained patent status for a form of adenosine 5'-monophosphate (AMP) that preempts bitterness by blocking the receptors responsible for sensing it.

The nucleotide-based blocker, along with several other compounds that the company discovered (with more than 30 bitterness receptors in the human mouth, no single compound will block them all), aroused interest among a number of industry players, including Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, and The Solae Company, St. Louis. Some manufacturers have applied nucleotide blockers to combat off-flavors associated with amino acids and other fortification ingredients. "In some beverages, manufacturers want to use L-carnitine or choline chloride," says Chaudhari. "Those are very difficult ingredients to add and overcome fishy odors -- trimethylamine from the choline, for example. So in order to do that, you can add some of these nucleotides and be successful."

In its assault on bitterness, Danisco yoked its flavor proficiency to the expertise of its sweetener division in the sensory and chemical differences between sugar and artificial sweeteners. Researchers identified and isolated key flavor components in raw sugar and recombined those with FEMA-GRAS-approved flavors to trick the tongue into mistaking artificial for the real thing. The result: a flavor line designed specifically for artificially sweetened and reduced-sugar drinks and dairy. "The Danisco sweetener division has developed proprietary compounds that affect the perception of taste at the receptor level," explains Vucetovic. "These, in conjunction with other components used by the flavor division, work by altering or enhancing the perception of flavors by the various sensory receptors."

With so much research focused on masking artificial sweeteners' bitterness, it's easy to forget that carbs aren't the only nutrient we've eliminated from healthful foods. Sales of low-sodium products reached $2.46 million in 2003, with 525 launches landing on the market, notes Symrise literature. Many of those low-sodium products suffer for lack of the savory, salty bite that sodium brings, prompting the company "to come up with a savory enhancer that allows soup or chip manufacturers, for instance, to bring down the level of salt and sodium in the formulation and still bring back some of this salt sensation," LaRoche says. At levels of 0.2% to 0.6%, the powdered flavors bring about sodium reductions of 25% and 35% in broths, snacks, soups and packaged meals.

For protein-packed products, Virginia Dare offers a line of flavors designed specifically for working with high-protein applications. "We do a lot of work with nutritional bars, and they seem to be getting more fortified every week, with higher levels of protein and amino acids," says Gregg Bromberg, manager of flavor creations. While the new line of flavors aren't maskers per se, when combined with protein-masking flavors, they suppress off-notes, promote quick flavor release, resist absorption onto the protein and remain stable over the long shelf life common among these bars and beverages. "They're processed a certain way and with more-durable carriers to be stable and keep that masking effect lasting longer," he continues. "They're also stable under the different processing temperatures and equipment used to manufacture these bars."

With this product category's wide selection of fruit and berry profiles, developers can create high-protein products with a lighter taste complexion. "Often, there are elements to things like soy that are nutty in character," Angelich says. "You can complement that by working with nut profiles: peanut, pecan -- flavors like that. But if you had to develop something along the lines of a delicate-apple flavor, the soy would come right through more readily. That's where the greater needs are for a kind of technology like VidaPro."

Emulsion action Turning to combination ingredients is another option. Mastertaste figured out how to deliver both the fortification ingredient -- plant sterols -- and its companion flavor in one handy package. Sterols naturally concentrated from vegetable oils are waxy substances structurally similar to cholesterol. "If someone flashed the chemical structures of cholesterol and of any of a number of plant sterols on a screen, you'd have to look twice or you'd probably think the sterols were cholesterol," says Steve Fowler, director of beverage applications, Mastertaste. In fact, the two substances are so similar that gastrointestinal receptors that absorb cholesterol will, in the presence of plant sterols, loosely bind those instead. Thus, by "blocking the door" that permits the uptake of dietary cholesterol and the cholesterol associated with circulating bile salts, the sterols "clog up the whole process," he says. "So the sterols pass through the GI tract, the cholesterol passes through," and the body absorbs up to 15% less of the latter.

The evidence was convincing enough to prompt FDA to grant a cholesterol-lowering claim for products offering 0.65 grams of sterols per serving (two serving of which fulfill the FDA's 1.3-gram daily recommendation). So, says Fowler, someone who's slightly concerned about cholesterol and only needs to lower it maybe 15% might consider sterol supplementation.

The problem is that the waxy nature responsible for sterols' cholesterol-lowering activity also makes them unsuitable for aqueous media, such as beverages and some sauces. That's where emulsification comes in. "We use sterol esters which have a fatty acyl group connected to the sterol molecule," Fowler says. "That makes it more fat-soluble. So we're able to melt that and emulsify it to the point that you can put these emulsions in beverages and other kinds of applications." Because manufacturers routinely deliver flavors -- particularly water-insoluble flavors -- as emulsions are tailor-made for piggybacking with an appropriate flavor system.

Citrus flavor emulsions for sodas are a common example, but "you can do everything from peach to strawberry to tropical. You can do grape," Fowler says. "You can do any flavor as a flavor emulsion." Because the emulsions have what he calls a "fatty, papery mouthfeel" and impart a whitish opacity, he recommends against using them in clear, fruit-based beverages and lightly textured sodas. "We've shown them in a lot of protein-containing drinks, like smoothies," he explains. "They go well in a shake or a milk-type system." Actually, their weightier texture and appearance turn the eerie blue cast of skim milk more toward the direction of whole. A skim milk thus fortified "also has more mouthfeel, like whole milk," he says.

Translated to the label, the emulsions read as "natural flavor," "sterol esters," and the chosen emulsifier; Fowler prefers acacia gum for its natural bona fides. The flavor load in the emulsion will also depend on the nature of the flavor, the product's mouthfeel and the concentration of sterol ester needed for a label claim. "I definitely have to adjust the flavor to match the sterol-ester quantity so that at the required sterol-ester delivery, you're getting the right intensity of flavor," Fowler says.

The customary customization Fowler's comment highlights a trend product developers have probably already gotten used to: No longer can we order a stock cotton-candy flavor profile from a catalog and be done with it. As flavor technology marches onward, working one-on-one with a supplier -- not only during purchasing, but well into formulation and production, too -- is unavoidable. And while manufacturers might at first have been chary about opening the door to their R&D process, they're learning that closer relationships with their flavor suppliers yield dividends. "As we talk to customers, we're finding that every opportunity is a unique opportunity," says Jon Seighman, sweet goods applications, Givaudan. "For each of those systems that our customers present, we have to look at what our capabilities are and customize an approach that fits."

Take Givaudan's Virtual Aroma Synthesizer(TM) (VAS). It's not a new flavor or delivery method, but rather "a tool that allows us to blend aromas in real time," says Diego Luzuriaga, research and development, Givaudan. "If you think about the traditional flavor-creation process where you make up a flavor with 20 different ingredients and then weigh each ingredient and then taste it and adjust the levels, that's a very time-consuming process. But with the use of this tool, you can blend up to 20 flavor components in a matter of a few seconds and make iterations and adjustments in no time."

The synthesizer was originally designed to ease the flavor chemist's workload but, says Seighman, "we use it with our customers. One of the big benefits is that it breaks down the typical language barriers between highly trained professional flavorists and our customers," for whom the minutiae of flavor chemistry might not be daily considerations. "Using this, we can put products in front of our customers and ask, 'Is this the right flavor?' and let them answer the question. If it's 'No, that's close but not it,' we can make another adjustment and allow them to answer the same question again. And through this back-and-forth conversation, we can rapidly zero-in on the profile they're interested in, all in a very time- and resource-efficient way," he says. Because this instrument gives customers a preview of an aroma and not a flavor, "the real advance in technology is in how you go from smell to taste," he notes.

"It's very complicated," says Luzuriaga. "One of our research goals is to better understand how smell and taste work, and we've spent a lot of time trying to model these processes and take the benefits that can quickly allow you to blend an aroma that you like and then make the translation from the smell into taste to give you a similar profile." Welcome to the next frontier in flavor technology.

"It's just one of the pieces," Seighman says. "I go back to that customized approach: We don't use the VAS in every situation. But with the technology and the experience, combined with marketing knowledge and consumer insights, the VAS is just one piece of it. So we're dealing with two ends: You've got the technology end that we have and the good flavors, but then you have to deal with all the other issues and support those flavors with different enhancers and modifiers and maskers and blockers. To be successful, you have to have them all."

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected]

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