Savory Ingredients Meet Demand for New Flavors

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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The basis of savory or umami is in meaty tastes that primarily round out other flavors and taste sensations. Photo courtesy of McCormick.


Flavor manufacturers and food processors believe savory roughly describes the fabled fifth flavor: not salty, sour, sweet, nor bitter. Umami, its Asian synonym, has been understood in China and Japan for more than a millennium, but it's a relative newcomer to this continent. There is no simple definition, but it's generally understood that the basis of savory or umami is in meaty tastes that primarily round out other flavors and taste sensations.

The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary describes savory as "pleasing to the taste and smell." There is general agreement that savory flavors are often found in cooked foods, often the result of a reducing sugar (like glucose or maltose) and amino acid subjected to heat and/or acid. Some savory flavors are produced via the Maillard reaction, which produces toasted, cooked and sautéed notes.

That leaves a lot of latitude (and longitude), a lot of directions in which processors and their ingredient suppliers can take savory. "The most noticeable trend is for Far East and Indian-type flavors," says Simon Poppledorf, vice president of RandD for flavors at Bell Flavors and Fragrances, (website), Northfield, Ill. "Curry, a blend of spices, is showing up in all kinds of foods. It's aromatic, flavored with spices including cardamom and cinnamon, and using capsicums of all types so that it's getting hotter all of the time. It's showing up in snacks, yogurt dips, and other cultured dairy products as well as sauces, main dishes, and snacks." It's all savory, he says.

Vegetable flavors offer savory flavor notes, too. Vegetables such as mushrooms, tomato, asparagus, onion, and garlic, all of which contain large amounts of glutamic acid or other specific amino acids, are new, popular sources for savory flavor. Mushroom, especially shitake mushrooms, contribute a lot of savory flavor, which is why they are so popular with chefs as flavors in rice dishes and others.

Flavor and Fragrance Specialties (www.ffs.com), Mahwah, N.J., offers these flavors as well as cabbage and broccoli flavors (possibly building on the sulfur ingredients of those cruciform vegetables) to provide savory notes. As fruits and vegetables gain popularity, they become more important as a source of savory flavor. A number of firms offer toasted, fried, sautéed and otherwise altered garlic and onion flavors that offer an easy route to making foods tastier.

A savory history

While the umami flavor/sensation has been understood by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years, apparently the first identification of a protein-based savory flavor was made by the Japanese in the early 1900s. Kikunae Ikeda separated the crystals of monosodium glutamate from seaweed broth. The flavor, described by Ikeda as like that of tomatoes or cheese, was described as umami, which approximately translates to "delicious."

NOTE TO PLANT OPS

Savory products have very complex flavor systems, so temperature control during processing can be extremely important. If flavors are changed, the effect of temperature should be monitored.

Some of these new flavors are protected by very complicated systems. While certain flavors are designed to be very effective in a heat-processed or frozen product, the same flavor could have a totally different effect in a refrigerated or dry, shelf-stable product.

Hot flavors, especially concentrated ones, must be very carefully measured as small errors can make the final product inedible. And they should be weighed and handled while wearing protective clothing and goggles. An accidental rub of the eye can be very painful and quite dangerous.

S. Yamaguchi further defined the flavor in an article published around 1987, describing the impact of a solution of 0.005 percent inosine 5'monophosphate (IMP). It was described as a "fifth taste dimension" that imparted savoriness, deliciousness or succulence to foods. Combinations of inosine 5' monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine 5'-monophosphate (GMP) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are described in the literature as "beefy," "oak-mushroom" and "sweet-salty."

A key component of naturally occurring savory flavor is glutamic acid, which is also a major component of proteins, with great variations in concentration. One of the earliest uses of the protein-reaction flavors was in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, with its high content of glutamic acid, in the early 1960s.

Bound glutamate is a major source of umami flavors, and the amount of glutamate often is similar to the savory flavor impact of those foods. For example, parmesan cheese has 9,847 mg of glutamic acid per 100 g of the cheese, chicken has 3,309 mg per 100 g and cows milk offers 800+ mg per 100 g.

While the science of producing savory flavors is not new, the variety of flavors preferred by the public does change with flavor and food preferences. These flavor preferences are impacted by Americans' desire for something different, fueled by a well-traveled generation that has been influenced by Thai, Vietnamese, Caribbean and other cuisines, as well as the impact of the growing Latino population, which is being increasingly Americanized. So savory foods today are generally hotter and more complex than in the past.

Flavors with fashion pluses

As personal tastes in foods change, so do the types of savory flavors that strike the public's fancy. New flavor trends often are spotted first by chefs and later developed by new product teams. The current interest in somewhat more unusual vegetables and mushrooms is seen in the new flavors and savory products being introduced to Americans and others.

In its "Market Trends for Food (2004)" study, New York-based Packaged Facts (www.packagedfacts.com) identified umami flavor as a key flavor trend -- calling it the new, but ancient flavor. Plus, the report's chapter on ethnic flavors talks about a number of savory flavors, especially for Hispanic and Indian foods.

Because of changing trends in food products, there is a growing interest in savory flavors based on vegetables, spices and fruit products. Spices, including allspice, ginger, pickling spice, curry and cardamom, were identified by McCormick and Co. (www.mccormickflavor.com), Hunt Valley, Md., among flavors of the year in early 2005.

These flavors already are seen in restaurants, and probably soon will show up in retail mixes and prepared products. McCormick uses these spices and other savory notes for the four new flavors of the company's Zatarain's ready-to-serve rice. One of the flavors, Caribbean rice, includes coconut and pineapple, along with a variety of spices and vegetables. And it's hot.

Herb flavors, especially sage, combined with poultry tastes are growing, as are barbecue flavors, and smoky flavors, says Dominik Nosalik, an analyst for London-based Datamonitor (www.datamonitor.com) and a principle author of "Trends in Savory Flavors 2005" report. Nosalik comments that alcoholic flavors, cheesy flavors (except goat cheese) and buttery flavors are losing popularity. One can track the trends of savory flavors by checking the top of the pizza on the next table: a popular new trend is chicken, spinach and goat cheese.

Early savory flavor preferences included beefy, brothy tastes which have lost popularity as beef and other red meats have lost some of their panache. Work reported by the Monell Institute, Philadelphia, found that babies fed a protein hydrolysate formula while very young preferred that flavor, whole those fed a milk-based formula rejected the protein hydrolysate flavor later in childhood. Flavors given to children while very young imprint their preferences. Study leader Julie Menella noted that early feeding practices affect the food choices later in life. 

Heat has remained a popular element of savory flavor, with specific taste types such as chipotle (the smoky notes are particularly popular) replacing the more raw hot flavors. But these taste types are more complicated than simple heat. For example, the combination of smoky cheese, sweet fruit and vegetable notes is becoming popular.

"We have seen trends for hotter [higher Scoville units] as well as for overall spicier seasonings [black and white pepper included] and stronger, bolder flavors overall," says Bill Rauh, manager of seasoning product development for McCormick. "Chipotle pepper is still ‘hot' but there has been a definite interest in other chilies such as ancho, habanero and guajillo in snacks, chili, soups, sauces, etc.  This interest is most likely due to the surge of consumer interest in location-specific food, as well as their increasing savvyness regarding regional ethnic cuisines. We have seen requests for hot and sweet, and sweet and fruity, although not as many of the latter."

"One great way to achieve the desired heat level in most any application is by using a spice, herb or chili alternative. Think of it as the actual spice, herb or chili to the X power," says Abe Sendros, marketing manager of McCormick. A FlavorSpice (McCormick's brand) version, in oleoresin, essential oil or dry form, provides an intense hit of flavor and heat.

Boldly going where no snack has gone before with a wide range of savory flavors has helped Herr Foods guard its local turf against domination by the mega-brands.

Snacks as a bellwether

Americans call them potato chips and the Brits call them crisps. Either way, these salty and savory snacks reflect flavor trends, although usually a year or so behind the leading edge. The most popular flavor of potato chips in the U.S. still is the plain salted variety, especially if the marketer is Frito-Lay or Procter and Gamble (Pringles). However, chips from regional processors or those bought in specialty shops are likely to be more exotic.

Herr Foods Inc., Nottingham, Pa., has proven successful in guarding its Philadelphia area turf against the Frito-Lay onslaught. Many of the weapons have been savory flavors the national brands wouldn't touch: potato chips in Steak and Worcestershire, Bacon and Horseradish, Salt and Pepper, Honey Barbecue, and Ketchup (co-branded with Heinz) and tortilla chips in Mexican Cheddar and Black Bean and Salsa and Lime.

Jays Potato Chips, the hometown favorite of the Chicago area, last month added three and savory new flavors to its Crispy Ridged potato chip line: roasted garlic and parmesan, jalapeno and cheddar, and garlic herb ranch.

Favorite flavors move from country to country, so the top potato chip flavors of countries that Americans visit often show up in the U.S. a few years later. Salt and vinegar, for instance, started in the UK on fish and chips. Current new UK flavors, according to recent travelers there, include roast beef and mustard or roast chicken and stuffing. More exotic flavors, such as Durian and shrimp, are seen in Thailand. Hot chili and chicken curry currently are spicing up Egypt.

Raw materials and flavor research

Encapsulation techniques are helping maintain and deliver savory flavors (see also "The hidden ingredients"). "Flavors are better protected than ever, making it possible to recreate restaurant dishes with real precision," says Bell Flavors' Poppledorf.

"Most flavor companies have done extensive work in both encapsulation for protection of delicate flavors and specific release, so that the appropriate flavor notes are released under the right conditions," he continues. "A number of new encapsulation systems have been introduced in the last few years and months, include new glassy matrix technologies and particle size management to enhance both the holding qualities of flavors and ingredients, and their appropriate release."

Vegetables are adding extra savory notes to refrigerated products, such as pre-cooked meals. Graceland Fruit, Frankfort, Mich., developed the Fridg-N-Fresh process, which gives red and green peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, peas and carrots a 90-day shelf life. A proprietary rapid high heat system kills bacteria without the vegetables becoming mushy or losing color and flavor.

Florida Food Products, Eustis, Fla., offers some new varieties of savory vegetable concentrates, including onion, beets, celery and other types, in various strengths. Some of these products are heated, sautéed and roasted for complete flavor development.



Frances Katz was vice president of research for American Maize Products, a past editor of Food Processing and was director of publications for the Institute of Food Technologists.

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