Flavor Modulation with High Expectation

Whether its a recovery drink jacked up with protein or frozen pizza with less sodium, today's masking and modulation ingredients can help 'improved' foods taste super.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

Clean label efforts notwithstanding, a lot of stuff goes into food products these days. Things like added protein and fiber, or superfruits or other antioxidants.

Vitamins and minerals have been tossed into formulas for ages, all with the idea of making foods better for you. But all these beneficial add-ins can sometimes weigh heavily on a product’s flavor. That’s where flavor modulators can help.

“The high levels of protein in some meal supplements or some of the ingredients found in energy drinks can pose real challenges,” says Bill Smith, director of beverage R&D at Sensient Technologies Corp., Hoffman Estates, Ill. “For one thing we are starting to get some very high levels of proteins – maybe 25g per serving compared to 8 or 10 a few years ago.

“And I think if you went back 15 or 20 years there was soy protein and whey protein in use and those had some very strong off-flavors, but they have been improved significantly over the years.”

Today’s formulators are also using pea protein and even meat proteins in new applications, and are again having to find ways to mask unwanted flavors associated with those, Smith says. That’s where a flavor and aroma specialist can help.

Flavor modulation or masking is not a new science, by any means. Vanilla is a terribly complex ingredient that provides an array of flavors, but Smith points out that it also works wonders when a sweet formula is suffering from unwanted bitterness. Confectioners have used this to their advantage for years. Certain hop and malt pairings can hide off flavors or provide a short-cut to improved characteristics in beer.

In creating a zero-calorie soft drink using naturally derived sweeteners, soft drink start-up Zevia, Culver City, Calif., blended stevia with other sweeteners to avoid bitter notes on the finish. “High intensity sweeteners have no brix,” explains Zevia’s CEO Paddy Spence.

“What monk fruit (and erythritol) allow us to do is to really boost that sweetness and eliminate any of the bitter notes,” he says. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol similar to xylitol and mannitol. Zevia’s formula adds erythritol for bulk, which means that bitterness is not as apparent as it would be in a formula with thinner body.

“The solution to masking bitterness, astringency and other off-notes is not usually found in a single molecule or ingredient, but in an entire toolbox of ingredients that work together to mask off-notes and enhance flavor,” Sensient Flavors said in announcing in September its proprietary, all-natural Smoothenol 2G line of ingredients.

Smoothenol 2G is designed to enhance the palatability of food, beverage and health products by masking undesirable off-notes commonly associated with sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, vitamins and minerals, nutraceutical and functional ingredients. By modifying the sensory perception of these ingredients, Smoothenol 2G essentially eliminates potential aftertaste in a product, the company claims.

Sensient scientists created Smoothenol 2G following recent developments in flavor chemistry and the emerging science surrounding taste receptors. It allows formulators to develop complex masking systems capable of blocking with multiple receptor sites, and inhibiting the transmission of a signal to the brain.

“The Smoothenol 2G line was developed using advanced knowledge of receptors and ligand design, offering formulators the flexibility of customizing the optimal masking solution while simultaneously maintaining an all-natural label,” says David Bom, technology development manager at Sensient Flavors.

“Yesterday’s masking technologies were based on a single-compound approach that we now know is at odds with the reality of taste receptors.”

While there’s quite a bit of customization involved, Smoothenol 2G has broad (and descriptive) applications called BitterFix, which masks the wide variety of negative flavors associated with natural and artificial sweeteners; AstringentFix, which smooths the dry mouthfeel caused by tannins in fruit, tea and red wine; FunctionalFix, which reduces metallic off-notes caused by added proteins, omega 3s, vitamins and minerals; BurnFix, which masks the perception of alcohol burn in spirits; and SourFix, which softens sour notes associated with citric acid and acidulants in lemonade and citrus-flavored drinks.

“People might not think of alcoholic beverages as needing modulation, but with more and more flavored vodkas, for instance, there is a need for it,” says Smith.

And in the category of what goes around comes around, Smith notes that the Smoothenol line was first developed some years ago to help reduce alcohol burn in cordials. The current thrust in spirits is to modulate in the opposite direction.

“In some cases, if you are working on a lower-alcohol product, you might be looking at adding some tingle, perhaps with carbonation, that will simulate a bit more alcohol,” he says.

Savory snap

In a low-sodium/savory formulation, the key flavor (from ingredients peppers, vegetables and seasonings, for instance), can end up muted or muddled. Monosodium glutamate, soy sauces and yeast extracts have long been used to enhance and brighten some of those notes. Another approach is to carefully select sodium replacements.

“In some cases, a non-sodium ingredient may be substituted for the sodium-containing one, but the impact on flavor is going to be dependent on the version type (e.g., a potassium chloride) and amount being introduced into the formula,” says Janice Johnson, food applications technical director for Cargill Salt. “At lower levels, the non-sodium containing ingredient may not alter the flavor, but at higher levels, it may bring an undesirable flavor, such as in the case of some potassium-based substitutes.”

Salt provides not only salty taste but flavor enhancement and bitterness suppression, Johnson adds, which is part of the reason why Cargill offers an array of products under its FlakeSelect and SaltWise lines, some with potassium chloride. In some formulas a combination of those might help dial-in the flavor profile that has taken a product to the top of its category.

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