Food processors are searching for creative ways to distinguish products with cleaner flavors while meeting labeling, nutritional and economic demands. For years, flavor enhancers have been standard-issue for most product developers. Yet with the push for clean labels, flavor modulators may be in for an evolution, and the use of artificial flavors may no longer be standard procedure.
Consumers want healthier food options that incorporate fewer ingredients and those they can pronounce. A 2014 study from the marketing research firm Nielsen shows that more than 60 percent of Americans claim the absence of artificial flavors and colors is important to their food purchasing decisions. Food and beverage companies are listening. About a dozen of the big food companies have announced they will be doing away with artificial colors and flavors in the next year or three in response to consumer demands.
"Increasingly, companies in a majority of food categories are switching to natural flavors," says Marie Wright, executive flavorist at ADM/Wild Flavors & Specialty Ingredients, Erlanger, Ky.
But flavor modulation remains important, says Sue Quach, senior beverage technologist at Sensient Flavors and Fragrances Group, Hoffman Estates, Ill. "If the product doesn't taste good, there will be no repeat purchase. Thankfully, the technology around flavor modulation is improving, and the toolbox formulators have to work with has expanded in efficiency and effectiveness."
Nestlé is one of the companies committing to eliminating artificial ingredients. In fine-tuning flavor, "We are looking to create flavors authentically with cooking processes," says Sean Westcott, director of R&D at Nestle Frozen Foods' newly opened, $50 million, 144,00-sq.-ft. research and development center in Solon, Ohio.
"Flavor modulation is about the profile of the taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami), the character of the taste (chicken, honey, lemon) and the overall balance, so it's very important to product development," he says. "Consumers are rejecting synthetic or highly processed products. As such, we're going back to culinary techniques and techniques chefs use (reducing a sauce, for example) and are developing new ways our factories can reproduce [products] and resulting flavors."
Mind those modifications
Food companies must be careful modifying flavors. Consider stevia, in which many people detect a liquorice and metallic off note. You can't modify a natural sweetener like stevia with an artificial masking ingredient.
"Natural flavors and natural taste modifiers are used to modulate bitterness or metallic notes associated with some healthy ingredients," says Wright. "The reward is in developing a great-tasting product that satisfies the rigorous requirements of clean label. As the popularity of clean labels grow, ingredient companies have responded by investing in R&D to produce a wide array of ingredients that have high performance. This also includes modulators."
In fact, she says, much of the current R&D in flavors now is focused on the discovery of flavor modulators from natural products.
"Improved technologies [exist] for the isolation of ingredients from complex mixtures, together with fermentation and other biotechnologies," she says.
Suppressing negative tastes is one of the primary uses of modulation, agrees Aaron Graham, creative director of flavors at Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill. "Vitamins, added proteins and high-intensity sweeteners deliver bitter or metallic tastes, which can be overcome with flavor modulators. Reducing sodium while maintaining a great taste is always a challenge, and flavor modulators can help deliver the salty taste that consumers often crave, without out associated sodium levels.
"As my kids often note, the foods that are the most healthy are often the least desired at meal time," he continues. "The bitter taste from vegetables containing high levels of vitamins and minerals is a challenge for many people. Suppressing these tastes can allow developers to deliver these health benefits in a more desirable way."
Research is also being conducted regarding the function of taste receptors, Westcott points out. "Also, how we cognitively process the signal from our taste and flavor receptors. ‘Real’ ingredients can be more variable in taste and more difficult to formulate to achieve a winning taste," he adds. "They can be more complex and rewarding in the flavor, so it requires investment in mastery of the ingredient, the cooking process and the sensory assessment to work with them effectively – this is a large part of the investment in R&D Solon."
While umami was a recent discovery as a fifth taste, scientists now believe there might be a sixth addition to the basic tastes that could dramatically change the way we eat: Evidence exists that fat interacts with our taste buds in a similar way as other basic tastes. Fat can carry flavors because it coats the mouth so it can hold a flavor longer. It has been discovered that receptors inside our mouths can distinguish fat, which is leading scientists to think we can perceive fat in food in a similar way that we recognize sour and sweet.
A recent study from Purdue University's nutrition science department reveals fatty acids evoke a unique sensation satisfying another element of the criteria for what constitutes as a basic taste, just like sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
"By building a lexicon around fat and understanding its identity as a taste, it could help the food industry develop better tasting products, and with more research, help clinicians and public health educators better understand the health implications of oral fat exposure," states Richard Mattes, professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., and lead author of the study. Although a fatty taste itself is unpleasant, low concentrations of fatty acids in food may enhance them, just like unpleasant bitter chemicals can enhance the pleasant taste of chocolate, coffee and wine, Mattes says.
Food products are such complex systems, there is rarely a "one-size-fits-all" approach or a general-purpose flavor solution for developers, Graham says. "One of the advances in this area is identifying the best solution for specific taste challenges. For example, the modulation system that works best for suppressing bitterness from some vitamins may not be the best for suppressing the bitterness from specific high-intensity sweeteners. Real chocolate, for example, can be extremely bitter without sufficient sugar and fat to round out the flavor," he explains.