Flavors and Seasonings Combine in Flavor Systems

As American palates get more discerning and adventuresome, complex flavor systems are needed to keep foods at the forefront of trends.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

Food companies are rediscovering that flavor, the "essence" of taste, is also the essence of consumer preference for any food and beverage. The category of flavor ingredients fetched more than $10 billion in annual sales in 2004, according to Freedonia Group, (www.freedonia.com) Cleveland, and is poised for even more promising growth due to a number of factors.

In addition to contributing taste, food flavors help manufacturers modify texture, mask bitterness and other off-flavors and enhance the nutritional value of foods.

The flavor industry is experiencing growing demand from three key segments: beverages, ethnic foods and functional foods. These food categories satisfy growing consumer demand for convenience, new and different taste experiences and ways to minimize health risks associated with major disorders or to provide distinct health benefits.


Not too long ago, food product developers relied upon flavors simply to make processed beverages and especially dairy-based beverages more palatable. Today, flavors are becoming key marketing tools to outpace the competition. Sophisticated and exotic offerings such as hibiscus, passion fruit and green tea are helping to grow demand for the beverages that contain them. Flavors have revived beverage categories that were lagging. Milk, for instance, for years has suffered yearly declines in consumption, but the flavored categories of milk are growing.

"Consumers and the food industry have high expectations for low-fat products," says Adam Anderson, technical director at Mastertaste Savory North America (www.mastertaste.com), Peterboro, N.J. So the company developed fat flavors to create the perception of higher fat content in dairy products, especially yogurt and cheese. However, "One cannot expect one magic bullet to solve everything," he warns. "Different products raise different expectations and therefore require different flavor solutions for different products."

In the beverage industry, functional beverages and specifically soy beverages are one of fastest growing segments. While true fans are content with "original" soymilk flavor, strong, pleasant flavors are required to mask the unpleasant "beany" and rancid oil-like taste of soy beverages caused by the enzyme lipoxygenase. Soymilk marketers also must deal with consumer complaints about chalky mouthfeel and medicinal notes. Some also are looking to cover the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.

While chocolate and vanilla are still leading flavors, green tea flavor is a bold new move from WestSoy (www.westsoy.biz), made by Hain Celestial Group, Uniondale, N.Y. A year ago, the company introduced cappuccino. White Wave (www.whitewave.com), the Boulder, Colo., subsidiary of Dean Foods, recently introduced a children's version of its Silk soymilk. "Silk Kids" come in 6.5-oz. cartons in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. White Wave's Silk Live! is a protein-rich, vitamin-fortified cultured soy smoothie, complete with six active cultures, in raspberry, mango, strawberry and peach.

Speaking of green tea, that's a flavor that is naturally bitter. But green tea's perceived health benefits are picking up so much momentum that the flavor is showing up in almost every aspect of consumer application, from cosmetics to foods to beverages and even candy. The polyphenol flavonoids catechins, theaflavin and quercetin, which are highly sought-after beneficial components, are also astringent in mouthfeel. Green tea compounds also pose special challenges in formulation because of their solubility and high susceptibility to oxidation. The key is to complement green tea extracts with flavors that linger so as to mask and compensate for their bitterness and astringency.

Linguagen Corp. (www.linguagen.com), Cranbury, N.J., has developed the concept of natural compounds to block the bitter taste of foods and medicines. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the company's use of adenosine monophosphate (AMP) in foods and beverages. Bitter blockers like AMP work by interfering with the process by which taste messages travel from the mouth to the brain and offer several advantages over other taste-masking and taste-improvement methods. Unlike flavors and sweeteners, most bitter blockers are natural substances derived from botanical extracts.

Weight management company NutriSystem (www.nutrisystem.com), Horsham, Pa., sought a way to help its weight loss clients consume the recommended eight glasses of water every day. The result was Aquascents, a flavored water but not flavored in the traditional way.

NutriSystem collaborated with ScentSational Technologies (scensationaltechnologies.com), Jenkintown, Pa., and Firmenich (www.firmenich.com), Plainsboro, N.J., for the first commercial application of ScentSational's CompelAroma encapsulated aroma release technology. The system encapsulates food grade flavors within the polymer structure of thermoformed packaging during manufacturing to release a lemon, peach or berry flavor, giving taste to the water without adding any calories, sweeteners or preservatives. This is a first for a flavor system that incorporates food grade flavors into the packaging.

Ethnic foods

Vendors of flavors for ethnic foods are seeing a growing market because flavors and foods once considered specialty/gourmet/ethnic are now being sought in mass market products. There is a subtle but important difference, but there are twin opportunities for both flavor systems for ethnic foods and for true ethnic flavors.

The flavor industry has become increasingly sophisticated in the ethnic realm. Flavor products have evolved from simple taco and curry flavors to complex flavor systems. For instance, it is not just onion flavor but "toasted shallots" for sophisticated French onion soups without the cumbersome roasting and toasting step.

Formulating ethnic flavors for mainstream foods is a complex balancing feat. The flavor system, in addition to accentuating the characteristic flavors of the "borrowed" cuisine, also must replace the entire spice-herb mix without the additional bulk of the actual ingredients it replaces - all this while retaining the original texture and appearance of the product being flavored.

President Brian Jacobs says his company, Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, Los Angeles, accidentally discovered flavored tortillas. "We added honey as a humectant to prevent frozen tortillas from cracking and noticed the strong honey flavor. We asked ourselves, if we can add honey to tortillas, why not flavors? No one had really made a flavored tortilla before, and there's a lot of chemistry involved in making flavored tortillas."

Tortilla makers do not add garlic and certain herbs directly to the dough, because these flavorful ingredients tend to interfere with gluten development - which is critical for the structure and texture of the final product. The starch and the gluten tend to encapsulate the flavor compounds and diminish the contributions of the milder flavored components in the mix. Flavor formulators employ hydrocolloids, maltodextrins or starches to carry and protect the flavors during the mixing and baking steps. These flavor systems also employ a variety of methods such as including fresh extracts (for cold expression of essential flavor oils) for enhanced perception of the freshness of the product, and enzymes or acids to create flavor compounds during baking and enhance retention of flavor for release during consumption.

Gourmet Garden has captured the essence of fresh herbs, some in multi-flavors systems, in a paste form with a 120-day shelf life.

Food companies often partner with flavor houses with culinary expertise to develop proprietary flavor systems, in part as a barrier to entry for copycat products. In addition to the typical coriander and cumin flavors, ethnic food formulators request aromatic notes associated with "roasted" peanuts, "dry roasted" fenugreek or "sautéed" shallots, and in a proportion characteristic of Madrasi or Punjabi cuisine. Flavor vendors are resorting to cutting edge technology to develop flavor systems specifically for ethnic food formulations and for mainstream foods with the flavor of ethnic cuisines.

Kikkoman's recently developed Natural Flavor Enhancer NFE-S, a flavor system designed for flavor retention during heat processing and freezing, helped create a new market for commercially produced shelf-stable wasabi. Produced by a natural fermentation process, glutamic acid and short chain peptide-rich NFE-S allows for flavor enhancement with a clean-label advantage. It appears as fermented wheat protein (wheat protein, salt and maltodextrin) on the ingredient label.

The growing popularity of Asian and Latin cuisines is driving the use of fragrant spices such as lemongrass, bay leaf, dill, turmeric, cumin, cilantro and coriander, and flavorful seeds, including fenugreek, poppy and sesame. Food processors rely on flavor houses to reproduce these "fresh aromas" to incorporate in mustards, mayonnaise, oils, vinegars and even salts.

The fresh product is great, but sometimes impractical for formulating. An Australian company, Gourmet Garden (www.gourmetgarden.com), captures the essence of fresh herbs in a convenient paste form, which lasts longer than fresh options. Gourmet Garden processes herbs and spices through a patented "cold captured" technology that gives these flavor systems a 120-day shelf life.

All this effort isn't limited to high-end entrees. Even Kettle Foods (www.kettlefoods.com), Salem, Ore., has extended to its popular Kettle brand potato chips with such ethnic flavors such as Chai, Moroccan Curry and Spicy Thai, all the result of flavor systems developed in concert with its flavor suppliers.

Fortified and healthier foods

Fortified foods - increasingly the norm in practically every food category - suffer from the reputation of generally having terrible taste or texture compared to their traditional counterparts. Fortification poses a huge challenge to product formulators: Most essential vitamins and minerals bring with them textural issues such as chalkiness, grittiness, and bitterness, or they may have metallic and other objectionable tastes and flavors. The impact of fortification is particularly noticeable in foods that are consumed in small serving sizes and in beverages.

Foods fortified with iron almost inevitably develop an unpleasant cloying metallic taste. Food product developers have yet to find a flavor system to mask iron-fortified foods.

Product developers use a wide variety of calcium salts for fortifying foods, each of which possesses unique characteristics that affect the quality of the finished product. Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate are typically inert in food flavor systems. Calcium carbonate often contributes soapy or citrus notes. Calcium citrate creates acidic taste, while calcium chloride may render the product bitter. Tricalcium phosphate, popular for its blandness, plagues formulators with its gritty mouthfeel.

The addition of salt can reduce bitter taste, according to Russell Keast, research associate at Monell Chemical Senses Center (www.monell.org), Philadelphia. Hydrocolloids are another way to mask off-flavors; the gum systems coat the mouth and the taste buds preventing contact with the bitter component.

Artificial sweeteners are skyrocketing in use as weight-conscious Americans look to lower their calorie intake. But aspartame, saccharin and sucralose all have aftertastes, some of which depends upon the food they're being used to sweeten. As a result, each sweetener and its application must be treated in an individual manner. Flavor modifiers can help provide a sweetness profile to mimic real sugar. Flavors of North America (www.fona.com), Carol Stream, Ill., has a range of masking agents to help manufacturers with formulas.

Another approach comes from Senomyx (www.senomyx.com), La Jolla, Calif. The company is researching "chemosensation," which entails devising molecules that trigger the receptors responsible for taste and smell. As a result, enhancing the sweet taste might allow food companies to make cookies and soft drinks that require less sugar without sacrificing flavor.

"Our work is very timely in terms of what ails the American food culture," says Kent Snyder, CEO at Senomyx. He says his company's flavor enhancers could take some of the "junk" ingredients, such as excessive sugar, salt and other problematic but satisfying ingredients, out of many food and beverage products. "All the big food companies are trying to decrease the amount of sodium, sugar and fat in foods. We have signed deals with some of the biggest players in the food industry, among them Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Kraft," he adds.

Senomyx in March received Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for four savory enhancers - S807, S336, S263, and S976 - from the Food and Extract Manufactures Assn. Products S336 and S807, for example, enhance the taste of naturally occurring glutamate and eliminate the need for added monosodium glutamate. Many processors are seeking substitutes for MSG because of safety concerns and negative perception among consumers. Snyder says Nestle and Campbell Soup are to begin test marketing these enhancers in some well-known foods later this year.

The FDA recently allowed for evidence-based labeling claims that phytosterols and stanol esters assist in lowering blood cholesterol. Several flavor companies including Blue Pacific (www.bluepacificflavors.com), City of Industry, Calif., are feverishly working on flavor systems that incorporate phytosterols and stanols for regulated dosage application in a variety of food products.

A compelling flavor issue awaiting solution is the masking of fish and omega-3 oils in foods and beverages. The market demand for omega-3 foods and beverages are expected to grow rapidly as scientific evidence points to omega-3s as the nutrient to mitigate risk of coronary, diabetes, and other inflammatory diseases.

Note to Procurement

The food industry has changed considerably in the last decade. Downsizing and cost-cutting have shifted much of the scientific research and expertise from food processors to ingredient suppliers. Food developers have come to rely on their suppliers for direction and ideas. Nevertheless, become an expert in your flavor system - understand everything you can about the nuances of the flavor. Chances are that your understanding can contribute to the major discerning difference over other products.

Flavor companies not only know how to apply their flavor compounds but also how to maximize effectiveness and minimize waste. Educate your flavor vendor on the nuances of your plant facilities and help them fine-tune their flavor system for your particular application.

Formulating with new flavors should be highly collaborative, and successful initiatives involve marketers who provide the concept, flavor suppliers who provide the aroma compounds, flavorists who understand the material interactions, product developers who put it all together and plant operators who help ultimately to make the flavor system work.

Understand the impact that the selection of flavor ingredients has on the total product: overall formula cost, ease of incorporation, impact on production processes and impact on the finished product's nutritional characteristics (calories, fat, protein, fiber). Keep up front the value of your product and brand, rather than looking at simply the cost of one flavor compared to another.

Keep your end-user close at hand, too. Incorporate feedback from consumers to ensure that your product appeals to a wide range of consumers with different tastes. While you and your flavor company can take a new product far, some of the best ideas and solutions come from listening to consumers.

Listen also to retailers and distributors, who are in continuous contact with consumers and often understand consumer behavior and purchasing habits better than anyone else.

When engaging flavor houses, ensure they have knowledgeable research chefs on board with supporting sensory science and food science professionals for accurate nutritional and ingredient analysis and declaration services. If your product is slated for interstate distribution and storage, make sure the flavor house has shelf-life testing and regulatory expertise.


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