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Masking Agents Maximize Functional Foods' Potential

Mask: to cover, obscure, hide, disguise, conceal, veil, camouflage. Root of "masquerade": impersonate, go disguised as.

Nutraceutical and functional food products are increasingly making their way to mainstream store shelves. Whether it's a beverage with added lutein for eye health or bread with omega-3 rich fish oil, functional foods offer consumers the opportunity to get added nutrients while fulfilling their caloric needs. "Instead of just buying products that taste good, people want something that has functionality to it," said Bob Marincic, vice president of sales with Blue Pacific Flavors in City of Industry, Calif. "People are willing to pay more for those premium products."

Smaller companies are leading the way in product development, while larger food conglomerates are adding more established ingredients into existing product lines. "There is a tendency to leverage the science coming out on core products with less interest on introducing novel ingredients into food products," said Jeff Worthington, vice president of Food, Health & Nutrition at Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Mass. "Major packaged goods companies are averse to going beyond things such as mineral fortification."

Unfortunately, while manufacturers and consumers are ready to escape the pill-popping days of the past, they are not enthusiastic about the tastes that often come with the functional ingredients. "It's a rule: what's good for you doesn't taste good," said Oliver de Botton, chief executive officer (CEO) of OSF Flavors in Windsor, Conn.

Formulating products with unique ingredients that have health value often involves the use of ingredients that have tastes and aromas not typically found in traditional foods or beverages. Luckily for consumers, the science to cover up those "off" notes is developing as rapidly as the interest. Masking and modifying agents are natural or chemical additions that offset the harsh flavors from other ingredients.

"Formulators are looking to reduce off notes in some manner to make products more palatable and to confuse the tastebuds," said Maureen Draganchuk, vice president of business development with Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Virginia Dare. "Masking agents cover up unwanted flavors without altering the active materials. People are realizing that things that are good for you don't have to taste bad."

Among the most common attributes that flavor houses are asked to mask are bitterness, metallic aftertaste and barnyard/beany notes. Bitterness is found in many botanical ingredients, while soy is the most common beany contributor. According to Marincic, herbal ingredients are declining in popularity, while omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as lutein are picking up speed. Also, soy remains on a fast growth track in many functional products, thanks in large part to the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) allowance of a heart health claim for the ingredient.

Flavor/Masking Development

Many product formulators start the process with a company that has an idea for a functional product. The company might have a nutritional base developed, or a list of ingredients desired to form the nutraceutical component of a food item. Flavor companies work with a nutraceutical or functional base to mask off notes and develop a flavor profile that complements the positives and holds from scent to throat.

Across the board, flavor houses recommend working first with a base to mask off notes and then accentuating desired flavors with the addition of actual flavors. Working with a base first to cleanse it of undesired qualities helps avoid the problem of "over flavoring" and allows the flavorist to select the most complementary flavors for the formula.

Generally speaking, it's best to work with the base and its background notes. "You're not going to take something that has a bitter note and turn it into watermelon," Marincic said. Instead, a flavorist works with the notes to modify remaining tastes in the formulation. Citrus, for example, carries sweet and sour notes, but also has the bitter edge from the pith. Using citrus to flavor a base formulation with a bitter edge, then, might not completely mask the flavor, but consumers who taste the bitter associate it with the citrus identity they are familiar with.

"You've got to come up with a flavor profile for the product to mask the off flavor created by the functional ingredient using compatible flavors," said Phil Katz, president of Shuster Laboratories in Canton, Mass. "If there is a product with a bitter aftertaste, marketing might want it to be banana flavored, but the formulators must explain that with this existing flavor profile, that flavor won't work to mask it."

Flavorists also recommend that manufacturers formulate according to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. "Companies want to produce a cure all with eight to 10 different nutraceutical ingredients, when they should be zeroing in on one or two," Marincic said. "Not only from the R&D standpoint, but from marketing as well, since too many ingredients in the mix leads to confused consumers."

Such kitchen-sink formulas pose a tremendous masking challenge because the chemical interactions lead to exponential taste challenges, far more than the individual ingredients themselves. For example, a fortified soy beverage begins with the beany taste of soy, with additional metallic and chalky notes from minerals or sour notes from vitamins. "Too many ingredients make a nuclear bomb," de Botton said. "The synergy gives a serious off taste that needs a good masking agent."

In addition to using the flavorists' knowledge during masking formulation, many companies use trained sensory panels to gather objective analysis. The sensory panels are different than a consumer tasting panel. "Sensory panels guide product development while consumers help with market acceptability," Worthington said.

Sensory panels use descriptive analysis to allow the flavor group to understand the attributes of the functional ingredients or formulations and to create flavors that allow the final product to have enhanced palatability. The members of such panels undergo training to be able to provide specific, objective details on scent and flavor attributes. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), for example, offers training protocols for sensory panelists on taste standards and estimating strength (by magnitude) of sensory attributes. ASTM-trained agents pass tests and undergo training to maximize their existing threshold acuity for flavor, texture and aroma. "Trained judges can generate descriptive, qualitative data," Katz said. "They can identify flavor, aromatic and texture characteristics and rate those characteristics on an intensity scale." Trained sensory panel judges are not determining drinkability or acceptability, just whether a flavor characteristic is perceptible and to what degree.

In addition to assisting in formulation work, sensory agents can also assist in the characterization of raw materials. This lends insight into what a company or flavor house might expect in a formulation combining several functional ingredients.

Regardless of what ingredients go into a functional or nutraceutical product, flavor houses come up against a range of misconceptions about the abilities of masking agents:

  • There is no silver bullet or cure all. "There is not one ingredient that does it all," Worthington said. "Creating a high-flavor, quality product takes a complex formulation."
  • More flavor is not the answer. Strong flavors may cover up the initial taste on the tongue, but disappear in the throat, leaving a lingering off taste. Also, over-flavoring carries its own problems and distaste. Instead, using a small quantity of natural masking agents cleans the canvas, allowing the flavorist to maximize the lingering tastes with complementary flavors.
  • There is no "best" flavor. Flavor quality and construction are the primary considerations, not whether consumers would prefer orange over cherry, Worthington said. Consumer acceptability correlates to the flavor quality rather than preference on tastes.
  • Flavors do not hold up forever. A well-masked functional product might taste great initially, but only have a prime flavor shelf life of six months. "Flavors dissipate over time," Katz said. "Degradation of the flavor, as well as protein breakdown or oxidation, all affect product flavor."
  • Existing flavor profiles don't fit new formulations. "Certain profiles are just not compatible," Draganchuk said. "Some notes are accentuated when a company adds other proteins or vitamins in, for example, which changes the base." That means heading back to the masking blackboard when a formulation changes.

In the final analysis, flavor formulation remains a partnership between flavorists and marketers to hide the negatives and accentuate the positives. "Working with a masking agent is like alchemy," de Botton said. "It's magical craftsmanship that is learned over time."

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