Consumers Seeking Different Flavor and Texture Sensations

Some consumers are looking for sensory sensations that tickle their taste buds.

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

Flavor trends clearly show that Americans are going to extremes. Hotter than in previous years, cold enough to take one’s breath away, super strong and super sour.

Flavor sensations need to be stronger, just as music is louder, movies sexier and television more violent. But in addition to strength, if flavors can also tingle, well, so much the better.

When you’re hot...

Hot flavor, to lots of consumers, means hot peppers. It doesn’t have to, of course. It could mean horseradish, Hungarian paprika, mustard, ginger or black pepper, or one of their active ingredients recombined in formulated flavors.

Capsaicin, the heat factor of hot peppers, is measured in Scoville units (see sidebar, "Scoville tests being replaced by chromatography," for details). Pure capsaicin measures at 16 million Scoville units. To reduce the heat of peppers, the ribs of the pepper cavity can be removed, as that is the site of most of the capsaicin. Dehydrated peppers are often much hotter than the just harvested vegetable.

Are hot peppers a problem for most eaters? For years, ulcer patients were warned not to eat them, but for the last several years, studies have shown they aren’t harmful. In fact, peppers have more vitamin C than citrus and are rich sources of various carotenoids.

A product that has gotten a lot of attention lately is chipotle, the grayish-tan, stiff pepper that looks a lot like a cigar butt. It is not a particular type of pepper but rather the end result when you smoke and treat any of a handful of peppers. The resultant taste is smoky, hot and flavorful. Chipotle has become a popular flavor, and is now used in a number of fast-food offerings, ensuring that the flavor will be around for a while.

Chipotle can be made from various chili peppers such as chili ahumado (smoked chili); chili meco (blackish-red chili; meco is close to seco, meaning dry); the double terms chipotle meco and chipotle ta­pico, and just ta­pico. Further confusing the issue is a cultivated variety of jalapen that is also named ta­pico. The tipico variety is often smoked to become a ta­pico chipotle.

Other varieties of smoked jalapenos are often mistaken for the ta­pico chipotle. The most common one is called morita, which means "little blackberry" in Spanish. The color of this smoked chili is dark red to purple. Both the ta­pico and the morita are smoked jalapenos; the difference is that the morita is not smoked nearly as long, and thus it remains very leathery and pliable. Not only is the smoky flavor much more intense in the ta­pico, its flavor is much richer.

Combinations of hot and other flavors provide interesting results for consumers. Flavor combinations using peppers and other hot flavors are spreading from the traditional chili and hot sauces to chili-and-cheese dips, a little more heat in brown sauces and heavier use in traditional Oriental dishes.

As Americans travel more, and as people of Asian and Hispanic backgrounds become residents of the U.S., they will look for more authentic flavors in the ethnic foods they have been exposed to. Authentic, in this arena, means both hot sensations and the other background flavors so important to these cuisines.

Sweet and hot are combinations that are popular among Hispanic populations, according to Jeff Bogus, a formulator with Chicago-based Ferrara Pan Candies (www.ferrarapan.com). “Flavor companies have done a good job of isolating the heat and some of the other characterizing flavors from peppers so they can be used in confections. People really like the combination of heat and fruit flavors, if you can get them to try the products.”

T. Hasegawa USA Inc. combines chili with chocolate flavors for confections and mole sauces and adds hot peppers to curries. “We’re also making fruit dips that are sweet and hot, with various types of chilies,” notes John Mattcheck, corporate chef for T. Hasegawa USA (www.thasegawa.com), Cerritos, Calif. He’s responsible for reading trends and demonstrating the company’s flavors in those areas.

Mattcheck has a fascination with “chiliheads,” as he calls them, tasters who can tolerate the intensity of Scotch bonnets and still taste the subtle flavors and other aromatic notes through the heat. “There are more people with that kind of tolerance than there used to be,” the corporate chef says. “It’s a lot like wine tasting. They actually taste the flavor of the peppers instead of simply the heat.”

In addition to being natural customers for Hasegawa’s chili-and-flavors combos, chiliheads are responsible for cranking up the heat for all of us on snacks, sauces and salsa, Mattcheck believes. “They are clearly hotter than they were a few years ago,” notes Mattcheck.

Gary Hainrihar, vice president of sales and marketing at Kalsec Corp. (www.kalsec.com), Kalamazoo, Mich., agrees that chilies are showing up in a variety of foods that never used to have the little heaters. "It's the effect of fusion cuisine and the result of expanding ethnic diversity," says Hainrihar. "People are being exposed to cuisine that, up till now, was not readily available to them. They find that they enjoy both the pungency of chilies as well as the other flavors they impart to foods.”

Kalsec suggests specific types of capsicum extracts to achieve specific effects. Extracts express pungency differently in different foods. There is the instantaneous perception of heat or bite, which may fade quickly, or there is a pungency that builds slowly to a crescendo and slowly fades.

Hainrihar also agrees that mild products have grown hotter over the past few years, and the popularity of curries, sauces and dips with added heat has increased as people have acquired a taste for pungent foods. Kalsec’s pepper extractives are responsible for Crunchy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other corn-based snacks.

Speaking of Frito-Lay products, “Our dips and sauces haven’t changed heat levels, but we’re shipping more of the medium and hot varieties, replacing mild versions,” observes Richard Metivier, principle scientist at Frito-Lay (www.fritolay.com), Dallas. “The gourmet sauces we evaluate are almost always hot, at the high end of the heat spectrum. You’ll see more of them.”

Metivier notes that he, too, has changed his preferences—he likes things hotter than he did a few years ago. “We keep running flavor and preference tests in various parts of the country to be sure our preferences (in Texas) aren’t biasing our judgment. But preferences are running toward the hotter, aromatic flavors.”

Keeping it cool

On the opposite side of the temperature spectrum are the cooling effects, provided by certain of the polyols, menthol (a derivative of peppermint or made synthetically, menthone) and a few proprietary compounds. By combining these materials, some intense cooling flavors have been produced, and they are reaching new levels of popularity.

One of the early companies into the fray, International Flavors and Fragrances (www.iff.com), Dayton, N.J., uses some proprietary cooling molecules that are not mint-derived. The product line, called CoolTeK, is based on a better understanding of the measurement of “coldness” in the mouth.

CoolTek initially was developed for confections in a variety of compounded flavors, such as wild berry and strawberry. Two years ago the flavors were applied to beverages, and now they are expanding into sweet flavors.

“Cooling is not a basic taste such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami, nor is it an aromatic sense,” says Carol Brys, a category manager for IFF. “It is perceived as a chemical sense known as chemesthesis. In sweet applications, it is most commonly used in chewing gum, adding refreshing intensity, especially with mint flavors. In non-mint applications, it adds a fun and unexpected taste sensation along with the expected flavor.”

Cooling fits well into the "extreme" tastes enjoyed by kids, adding an exciting dimension to the taste experience. Cooling is characterized as a “sensate,” a compound that causes sensation in the mouth but is essentially without flavor, and does not interfere with other flavors in a system.

Most of the polyols, including maltitol syrup, sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, isomalt and xylitol, provide a cooling sensation. While they are primarily used for sugar replacement, their cooling effect can be useful, either alone or to support other cooling molecules.

The “coolest” of the polyols, erythritol, provides a distinct cooling sensation; xylitol is not far behind. Both have a negative heat of solution in the range of -40 cal/g. Both erythritol and xylitol cool the mouth and fight the sensation of dry mouth commonly associated with prescription drugs and dental hygiene products.

Erythritol is a naturally occurring four-carbon structure. Xylitol is a five-carbon sugar found in fruits and vegetables and made in small amounts by the human system as a metabolic intermediate. Interestingly, bacteria that cause dental caries usually cannot metabolize polyols. There is evidence that xylitol and possibly erythritol inhibit bacterial action on sugars, making them ideal for dental hygiene products.

Although the major reason for using the polyols is their reduction in calories, there is increasing interest in the cooling sensations, says Marie Kozlowski, polyol sales specialist at Cargill Food & Pharma Specialties (www.cargillfoods.com), Wayzata, Minn.

Snap, crackle, pop

In the 1950s, John Mitchell, a food scientist for General Foods, patented a process that encapsulated carbon dioxide in a sucrose melt, producing an exploding candy nugget. Pop Rocks were introduced in 1973, packaged in a little envelope that looked like a Kool-Aid package. Kids tore the package open and poured it into their mouths, listening to the snap and crackle and licking up the relatively strong flavors.

Then began a strange urban legend. Rumors circulated that a child who represented a major cereal product had blown up from eating several packages of Pop Rocks. Hotlines were set up to answer parent’s questions, and the FDA found the product harmless.

But fighting urban legends is difficult and expensive. General Foods took the product off the market in the mid-1980s. “It was just too much trouble, although it was clearly ridiculous,” said a retired General Foods executive, who didn’t wish to be named. “It’s good technology, though.”

Now off patent, the combination of sugar and carbon dioxide has been used in breakfast cereals, lollipops, as a coating for beverage glasses and in other products.

Recently, Fizzy Fruit Inc. has been launched in Portland, Ore., with the goal of getting kids to eat more fruit by infusing it with carbon dioxide. Galen Kaufman, a Texas neurobiologist, discovered it while he was on a sailing trip. Biting into a pear that had been in a cooler chilled with dry ice, he sensed an unusual fizziness in the fruit.

Kaufman figured out some of the dry ice in the cooler had sublimated, changing from a solid directly into carbon dioxide gas and entering the fruit. He decided to try to develop a commercial product and applied for a patent. Then he contacted OSU professor John Henry Wells, an expert in food packaging, to develop a process of carbonating fruit on a commercial scale. OSU's Qingyue Ling further developed the product and is R&D vice president of Fizzy Fruit. The company is in the formative stages of getting Fizzy Fruit products into grocery store produce sections, schools via vending machines and its own chain of franchised stores.

Scoville tests being replaced by chromatography

Scoville units were named for pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who invented the measurement in 1912. Scoville tests are run using large dilution factors and finding the lowest concentration that a trained panel can detect.

Scoville tested peppers by soaking them in alcohol (capsaicin is alcohol-soluble) and adding increments of the alcohol solution to sweetened water. In the case of Japan chilies, it took sweetened water in volumes between 20,000 to 30,000 times the pepper extract before the pungency was barely discernible. So Scoville rated the Japan chilies 20,000-30,000 Scoville Heat Units. Zanzibar chilies were rated 40,000-50,000, and Mombasa chilies 50,000-100,000. Habanero peppers measure up to 350,000.

The scotch bonnet, a small, brilliant yellow pepper, is slightly cooler (about 100,000-250,000 Scoville units). Mild bells and sweet banana peppers are usually between 0 and 100 units. A single drop of capsaicin, diluted 100,000 times, can still raise a blister on the tongue of a taster. (One part per million is the equivalent of 15 Scoville units.)

This oral test is being replaced by high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), which eliminates differences between tasters. It has also increased the number of tests that can be done in a day. The Scoville method allowed only six samples a day to be run reliably through a taste panel, while HPLC can be used to test about 30 samples in eight hours. HPLC tests are expressed in ASTA (American Spice Trade Assn.) heat units and can be correlated to the Scoville figures. But CODEX standards are expressed in standard Scoville units.

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