Improving Flavors for Kids' Foodservice

Removing bitterness, getting children to enjoy vegetables plus other mysteries of improving children’s nutrition.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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Children are developing higher expectations for practically every aspect of their lives – and that includes their food. The power kids wield over selection of restaurants and foods is a clear signal to food manufacturers and foodservice operators to investigate seriously what attracts kids.

A recent survey by Mintel International, Chicago, indicates 84 percent of children ages 6 to 11 made at least five visits to a fast food restaurant in the past 30 days. Spokesperson Chanda Rowan says almost three-quarters of the children surveyed said they choose their favorite fast food restaurant for the best-tasting food first, and toys next.

The taste preferences of young people represent a blooming opportunity for the food industry. But first, companies must understand why certain flavors make products successful with this target audience – they should discern what turns flavors and products into a yuck or a yum in children’s eyes. Speaking of eyes, kids may do a lot of selecting with their eyes, but it is taste that keeps them coming back.

Taste is a complex matter, especially with the younger generation. Humans are born loving sweetness. Newborns, on their very first day of life, prefer sweetness to bland and reject sour or bitter flavors. In the first few months, they learn to appreciate fatty foods and recognize salty tastes.

Young children generally eat what they like. They do not like bitter tastes and therefore avoid vegetables such as broccoli and kale – anything with even a hint of bitterness. Naturally, their choosiness limits their intake of important nutrients, especially if they lack variety in their diets.

Soy analog barbecue
Advanced processing and use of various forms of soy are yielding milder-tasting, more kid-friendly soy products, such as the analog in this barbecue.

But the food industry is responding with newfound ingredient technologies that can eliminate bitterness in healthful foods. Companies are applying the biology of taste to develop novel taste modifiers, such as bitter blockers and sweet enhancers – anything that will help widen the range of foods kids will select.

Less bitter soybeans

The affinity for bitterness – such as bitter-sweet and bitter-fat tastes of beer, coffee and dark chocolate – develops later in life, generally during the late- or post-teenage years. The mouth is particularly sensitive when it comes to bitterness – we have an elaborate taste sense that includes dozens of sensors for bitter.

Bitterness is a turnoff for many foods and ingredients that would be good dietary choices for children. Soybeans are on that list. But St. Louis-based Monsanto developed a variety of Vistive soybeans with inherently higher levels of beta-conglycinin (7S globulin) protein. This was specifically to improve taste and texture in products such as soy milk, meat alternatives and energy bars. Monsanto’s high beta-conglycinin soybeans are marketed by Solae Co., St. Louis, and began appearing in consumer goods this year.

Solae also is adapting technology from Linguagen Corp., Cranbury, N.J., to improve the flavor of soy-based ingredients. Linguagen is developing bitter-blocker compounds based on gustducin, a taste-specific protein discovered in 1991 by Linguagen founder Robert Margolskee.

The result should preempt the need for “junk” additives – masking agents such as fat and sugar – which remain the formulation approach still used by many to mask soy taste. Such masking additives challenge the health image of soy especially among school feeders.

In lieu of masking technologies, New Sun Nutrition, Santa Barbara, Calif., opted for advanced processing to produce Intellisoy. This soy derivative is ultra-soluble, high in protein, has neutral taste and is versatile across a broad range of applications. Formulators can incorporate all the health benefits of soy germ without the negative taste and non-nutritive components that kids may reject.

Companies such as Acatris, ADM, Cargill, Cognis and Solae are finding that soy protein isolates work better than whole-bean extracts for beverages and yogurts for kids. The isolates make for delicate food systems that are particularly difficult for masking flavors.

New, mild-tasting textured soy ingredients soon will be the base ingredient for a range of kids’ favorite foods, predicts Terry Gieseke, business development director at Kerry Ingredients–Nutriant (, Cedar Falls, Iowa. Nutriant’s isolates allow for a hand-pattied, “fresh-made” appearance that helps young consumers get past the appearance of other analog products.

It helps that Nutriant’s identity preserved soybeans – chosen for flavor, protein and functional characteristics – also allow for a consistently mild taste even at inclusion levels that deliver nutritional values.

Products such as Morningstar Farms Grillers and Gardenburger’s hamburger-style patties offer healthy levels of protein plus fiber with a sense of “healthy indulgence” for a growing vegetarian demographic among youngsters.

Help for vegetables

Everyone is looking for ways to increase vegetable consumption among children. Since 1991, when Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., helped found the national 5 A Day for Better Health program to encourage vegetable consumption, the company has focused on introducing less bitter vegetables such as Bibb and iceberg lettuce.

Foodservice for Kids: Dole stir-fry vegetables
Dole Food Co., which helped found the national pro-veggie "5 A Day for Better Health" program, also encourages vegetable consumption among children by focusing on less bitter varieties.

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