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The Economy of Flavor

April 15, 2009

5 Min Read
The Economy of Flavor

Flavor suppliers are on the front lines of an economic squeeze that is affecting the food chain, from suppliers to manufacturers to consumers. They must meet the challenge of satisfying clientsfood manufacturersthat must, in turn, appease consumers.

With the price of food staples rising dramatically over the past several years, along with transportation costs, manufacturers are trying to reduce or replace key ingredients to cut costs and hold consumer interest. And it often falls to the flavor supplier to ensure that new ingredients meet consumer satisfaction.

Dealing with the squeeze

One perfect example of a category feeling this food-chain domino effect is the beverage industry. Among the largest users of lemon oil, the industry will take a hit this year as lemon-oil prices are expected to increase five-fold over 2004 due to weather-related lemon shortages.

With the majority of lemons currently going to fresh-fruit consumption, this creates even more price pressure on lemon oil, a byproduct of lemon processing, says Jerry Sachs, procurement director, citrus, Givaudan, Cincinnati. Our new lemon-oil-replacement ingredients will enable beverage and food manufacturers to avoid exposure to these price pressures while maintaining a consistently high-quality flavor profile. The line is designed to precisely match the flavor profiles of lemon oils, and also includes replacements for orange, lime and grapefruit.

A tasteful replacement

Ingredients other than flavors can affect a products flavor delivery. One of the biggest culprits is starch.

Standard modified starches are typically made from corn and potato, both of which can impart a negative flavor, thus undesirably masking other ingredient flavors. Ferguson likens the product to neutral tapioca starch, but adds that it provides a slight wheat flavor, which tends to be positive.

Not wheat flour in the traditional sense, the all-natural, heat-treated product has the functionality of a dual-modified food starch that is activated when cookedall while improving flavor and cutting ingredient costs. The cost of the finished product is cheaper because wheat flour is cheaper, and there is less processing compared to modified potato and corn starches. With a replacement ratio of approximately 1:1, more often than not, the only other modification to a products flavor system is a reduction of spices.

Anytime you can reduce the amount of spice you put into something, thats a big savings, says Rob Ferguson, customer account executive, Siemer Specialty Ingredients, Teutopolis, IL. The biggest change that the client will have to make is to their label. The only unnatural ingredient in a lot of these soups and gravies is the modified food starch. So, a change to heat-treated wheat flour allows them to add an all natural claim to the label, depending on what else is in the product.

A powerful umami punch

Some ingredient suppliers havent seen a big difference in business these days since, for them, reducing costs has always been part and parcel of the business. Cost reduction is a staple in the industry. Customers are always looking to save money, while still delivering taste and functionality, says Joe Formanek, Ph.D., associate director of business development and application innovation, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients, Chicago.

The biggest difference he has noted is in the quantities of products ordered, as customers become more cognizant of maintaining smaller inventories.

In addition to the high-intensity sweetener aspartame, which reduces the need for higher levels of other sweeteners in a system while offering a substantial cost savings over sugar, the area in which the company delivers the biggest bang for the fewest bucks is in flavor ingredients that generate and amplify the taste of umami.

According to Formanek, the most-effective umami ingredient is monosodium glutamate (MSG). A pure sodium salt of glutamic acid, it is umami in its most-concentrated form, able to extract the full flavors locked in a food system using only very low levels. MSG is also excellent for replacing other, more-expensive umami ingredients. By replacing a portion of a more-expensive umami ingredient with a smaller amount of MSG, you have the potential to deliver that enhancement on a more cost-effective basis, he says. Other ingredients that deliver umami include yeast extracts and fermented wheat-protein-based ingredients. These also deliver kokumi, a characteristic that helps bring out richness and complexity of flavors in a system.

Sourcing headaches, flavor solutions

Inevitably, ingredient suppliers are faced with the challenge of satisfying their customers needs while looking ahead to meet new trends, whether economic or fashionable, to stay relevant and afloat. Current trends to adjust product quality and/or price are met with increased communications between our customers, account managers and technical staffs, says John A. Bauman, senior director, Food Strategic Business Unit, WILD Flavors, Inc., Erlanger, KY. To reduce costs, some of its customers are using flavors to replace ingredients that are hard to source, have variable quality issues or have seen particularly large spikes in price. But, he says most customers are looking to add value to existing product lines by offering additional new flavor options and healthier products.

Despite the fact that healthy or natural products tend to cost more, products in those categories are reportedly still selling well despite the economy. Some of this may stem from the fact that many consumers are eating at home more often instead of frequenting restaurants, suggests Bauman. The perception is that restaurant food is natural, so the consumer wants this in the foods they buy and prepare at home.

One way to help cut costs is through time savings; specifically, decreasing the amount of preparation necessary in the factory, back-of-house or commissary. For example, a customer wanted to reduce the prep time for a sauce, Bauman notes, while also reducing the variability of that sauce from batch to batch. A flavor system that replaced approximately 10 ingredients made the sauce easier to produce and reduced batch-to-batch variability.

At the end of the day, its about customer service, which encompasses great-tasting flavors that are cost-effective, good, pertinent applications; on-time deliveries of orders; and bringing proactive products to customers that target new and emerging trends, says Bauman. Its about being sensitive to customer needs and really trying to understand the customers business so you can help them be successful in the marketplace.

John Spizzirri is a Chicago-based freelance science and technical writer specializing in the food and food-packaging industries.

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