Village Green Foods in Irvine, Calif., makes salsas, soups and sauces for a variety of customers, most of them restaurants in Southern California. While its products are fresh and refrigerated, maintaining quality over the course of their shelf lives (usually about 28 days) is no easy task.
“What’s most important to me in making salsa and sauces is achieving the flavor and texture you and your customer want, and then getting that to be consistent over the product’s shelf life,” says Jenny Rosoff, owner of Village Green (www.villagegreenfoods.com). Whether it’s 28 days for a fresh product like Rosoff’s or six months for a shelf-stable product, it’s a similar challenge for all food processors.
Barbeque sauces, cooking sauces, salsas and condiments have demanded more shelf space in recent years. An upscale grocery store might have dozens of SKUs of mustard or hot sauce alone, right around the corner from an equal amount of Asian cooking sauces. And how many salad dressings?
These products are popular because they deliver complex flavors right from a bottle. But they can also deliver a heavy load of sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats. So food formulators who develop sauces are grappling with a dilemma: how to keep things fresh in an exciting category while delivering the same amount (or more) flavor and less of what consumers are trying to avoid.
For dairy-based sauces and dressings, that can mean removing fat or salt, says Steve Dott, director of sales and marketing for Grande Custom Ingredients Lomira, Wis.
“In these applications, food processors are most concerned with maintaining their formulation’s texture and taste,” Dott says. “Typically, a formulation challenge includes improving or maintaining these properties while reducing costs or reducing fat to fit consumers’ needs.”
Depending on its customers' preferences, Village Green Foods uses fresh vegetables and other fresh ingredients for its products. The company relies heavily on long-term relationships with the growers who sell them these input ingredients. But that doesn't mean they do not have variations in quality to deal with, Rosoff says.
“We usually use fresh onions rather than minced dried onions, because we feel it usually gives you a better onion flavor,” she says. “When we are getting onions a week after it rains in the central valley, we know that the onions are going to be more wet, and we have to account for that.”
Food processors working on a larger scale also have to monitor the quality of their ingredients, of course, but they might expend more energy looking for stable products from flavor and spice houses that replicate fresh flavors.
Under its Tostitos brand, Frito Lay sells a line of Cantina Chips and Salsas. The chipotle flavored salsa features label graphics depicting a whole pepper and a wedge of red onion. The ingredient list includes fire roasted tomato, dried chipotle pepper and pureed garlic. Not heavy on processing or preservatives, the label sounds a lot like a recipe that might be used in a restaurant.
While a serving of that chipotle salsa includes just 1g of sugar, other sauces, especially the sweet and savory variety, might contain a good deal more. And sodium, in a realistic serving, can approach 25 percent of RDA.
Ingredient companies currently offer numerous solutions that can allow formulators to turn up the heat on flavor without raising blood pressure.
Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., offers a line of stevia-based sweeteners under the brand name Tasteva that has applications in sweet-savory foods. The company describes Tasteva as a natural, zero-calorie stevia sweetener that offers a clean, sweet taste with no bitter aftertaste. It recently demonstrated the product with a prototype beverage at a food ingredient trade show.
“We know that consumers are concerned about calories but aren’t willing to give up the great taste of the foods and beverages they love,” said Amy Lauer, Tate & Lyle's marketing manager for North America. “In order to develop a proprietary stevia sweetener that delivers on that demand, we put extensive sensory testing at the heart of our development process. Because the bitter aftertaste associated with other stevia sweeteners is absent with Tasteva, there's no need to use masking ingredients, which lowers the costs and complexity of formulation and leads to a simpler ingredient list for our customers.”
Several ingredient companies also offer salt-replacement products that provide savory flavors with a much lower sodium count than ordinary salt. Among those are Tate & Lyle's Soda-Lo, and the FlakeSelect line from Cargill Inc. These products have numerous applications in sauces and salsas.And for cooking sauces, Kikkomann USA has developed several low-sodium Asian-inspired sauce bases, including umami enhancers and low-sodium soy and teriyaki sauces.
Kikkoman now offers organic sauces as well as a new gluten-free soy sauce, made with rice in place of wheat, and many of its products are kosher and vegan.
Flavor enhancers can boost the other flavors in a sauce when a lower sodium level is targeted, and Kikkoman produces a line of fermented flavor enhancers that are made without monosodium glutamate or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. On an ingredient deck, they can be labeled “naturally brewed soy sauce.”
These ingredients can help in numerous ways, but in the end, formulating sauces also requires some serious testing, says Village Green's Rosoff. Recently she was asked to develop an Alfredo sauce ingredient for a pizza restaurant to use on its white pizza offering.
“They said it would need to withstand the heat of an impingement oven,” Rosoff said. “It took some trial and error to come up with something that wouldn't gum up. Eventually we hit it, and it worked well. A short while later they took the white pizza off the menu anyhow.”