Improving Flavors for Kids' Foodservice

Aug. 14, 2006
Removing bitterness, getting children to enjoy vegetables plus other mysteries of improving children’s nutrition.

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.

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 (www.kerryingredients.com), 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.

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.

Cynthia Sasaki, senior research manager at Kerry Savory Ingredients, Kent, Wash., says requests for fruit and vegetable seasoning blends are growing largely from processors wanting to make healthful foods fun for kids who are increasingly vegetarians.

Funding from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program helps plant breeders develop strains with markedly less bitter qualities. While these advances are increasing the acceptance of many vegetables among young people, health experts fear that cultivation to remove bitterness may be decreasing the nutritional value of the vegetables.

Physiologically, acrid-tasting foods like broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce and kohlrabi are also loaded with cancer-fighting phytonutrients, which tend to cause the bitterness.

Another approach is to leave in the bitterness, but hide it. Senomyx (www.senomyx.com), La Jolla, Calif., is using proprietary assay technologies to identify molecules that bind to taste receptors to create the sensation of bitterness. Senomyx has identified taste receptors that respond to bitter ingredients known to be in a variety of foods and beverages, and it has used these receptors to discover bitter taste blockers, Mark Zoller, chief scientific officer, revealed in a recent press conference.

Senomyx has identified functional responses to 18 of the 25 known human bitter receptors. These bitter-blocker compounds are being scaled up for safety studies to establish GRAS status. The technology should be a boon to formulators at Ajinomoto, Campbell Soup, Kraft and Nestle – companies already working with Senomyx.

The compounds developed by Senomyx are highly potent and will need to be compounded with bulkier inert materials for an easier way of computing how many micrograms of the product to add to pounds of the formulation. Also, application-specific formulations will be necessary because the functionality of each bitter blocker depends on what else is present in the recipe.

Extreme flavors

Superlatives, a big marketing tool for the retail aisles, are rapidly entering the foodservice sector. “Extreme” flavors have proven successful in many categories, but part of the appeal is novelty. Does sensory overload have staying power, even with children?

Kerry’s Sasaki sees the extra-intense salt, spice or sour blends as short-lived requests from consumers. After the novelty wears off, kids tend to go back to the tried and trusted flavors, she says.
Nevertheless, Pepperidge Farm has launched Flavor Blasted Goldfish Crackers in Xtra Cheddar, Xplosive Pizza, Nothin’ But Nacho, and Burstin BBQ Cheddar flavors. According to advertising copy, the flavor overload is meant so one bite can “blast off kids’ taste buds into a new galaxy of flavorful fun!”

Not all extreme flavor sensations are new or can expect to be fads. Lime and cracked black pepper flavors have been around for decades in savory snacks of Spanish and East Indian cultures. Frito-Lay’s launch of Lay’s Sensations and Tostitos Sensations undoubtedly will appeal to the growing trend among kids looking for new shocking flavor experiences and to immigrants who grew up on such combinations in their home countries.


Use of flavor compounds requires significant caution by plant operators. Often very expensive, they are also very delicate and highly susceptible to changes in ambient temperature and humidity. Ensure that the storage conditions are proper. Some require cool dry storage; others may require storage in the dark.

As much as possible, opt for compounded flavors so inert materials protect the potent flavor compounds and protect your investment from deteriorating in intensity and functionality.

Evolving flavor-derivation technology helps. In contrast to the ancient way of deriving flavors by squeezing raw materials, sophisticated extraction and analytical techniques and expert sensory panels are being used to identify, extract and duplicate the essence of key flavor compounds in foods and beverages.

Flavor preservation

New York-based Quest International (www.questintl.com) uses freezing technology to create true-to-fruit flavors to benefit dairy manufacturers seeking realistic tropical fruit flavors without the reaction issues of fruit inclusions. For new taste sensations that tease and satisfy kids’ curiosities, the company’s Tropicsense portfolio of flavors includes the popular banana, pineapple and mango as well as the more unusual and exotic bacuri, feijoa, cactus fruit, maracuja, papaya, passion fruit, guava (pink and green), pitahaya, pomegranate, soursop and tamarind.

Flash freezing with liquid nitrogen prevents enzymatic and oxidative degradation and boosts flavor by capturing only the most authentic top notes, so products assume that first-bite freshness of juicy fruits. In addition to identifying new molecules key to freshness in fruit flavors, Quest uses bio precursor technology to develop the ripe character components that children love in tropical fruit.

Young children particularly like strawberry flavor, but the notes should be much “jammier” than the “freshly picked” flavor their parents would prefer, according to Sherry Karow of Kerry Ingredients, Beloit, Wis.

Flavors geared to kids still are often designed with an eye toward candies, ice cream and other dairy applications because that’s where their palates seem to be attenuated. And example is Bravo! Foods’ Starburst Slammers, a line of fortified and flavored milk drinks, which follow the flavor profiles of Starburst candies.

In addition to longtime favorites such as apple, grape and punch, Capri-Sun, a division of Kraft Foods, is beginning to venture into nature-defying combinations such as orange-dragonfruit and raspberry-lemonade. Capri-Sun says the “buddy system” – for example, pairing exotic dragonfruit with familiar orange – works well to usher in these novel flavors.

Encapsulation technology often is used to help protect such flavors. Encapsulated systems are particularly effective for special delayed release flavor systems, such as coffee beverages that are growing in popularity among teenagers. Teens gravitate to coffee beverages in part because of their sugary and sweet creamy flavors but also for their “cool,” adult factors.

While freeze-dried and powdered coffees are the least expensive coffee flavoring ingredients, they also tend to deliver an acidic or bitter aftertaste, which can be noticeable in cold beverages. So, especially when formulating for children, product developers might prefer to use concentrates for higher-quality and smoother flavors.

Ethnics for kids

Ethnic flavoring is another way to introduce complex flavors with a hint of bitterness to children. Not only are immigrant children influencing the culinary offerings of restaurants, but even melting-pot kids are watching the Food Network and getting curious about different cuisines.

Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA’s Campus Foodservice division is gearing up to offer soba noodles in broths featuring lime and garlic flavors, as well as other Asian noodle or rice bowls. These layer exotic textures and flavors with depth and complexity. Besides, offering an entire meal in a bowl moves students through the line faster.

"Kids love wraps," Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas vice president Brian Jacobs enthusiastically observes. What's not to like? They're colorful, available in vast variety, and at least potentially, ethnically diverse.

The new ethnic offerings come with additional advantages: They include more vegetables, tend to be lower in calories and often are much healthier than the grilled, fat-laden offerings that once were school lunches.

“The growing demand for ethnic foods is a good one for school feeders to capitalize on,” says vice president Brian Jacobs of Tumaro’s Gourmet Tortillas (www.tumaros.com), Los Angeles. “Soy flatbreads with ethnic fillings are healthful, and kids love wraps.”

Aramark studied kids’ lunchtime food purchase habits during an 18-month period. It revealed middle- and high-school students on average spend almost $100 weekly on retail food purchases. Much of this demographic is framing its tastes and choices around restaurants like Chili’s and Panera Bread – a far cry from the fare of the school cafeteria. Savvy chefs would be wise to retool adult foods into tasty fun morsels for children, and perhaps serving them with flavorful dipping sauces.

Dipping sauces are an easy way to transform practically any food – vegetables, chicken tenders, cheese sticks and other bite sized foods – into gourmet and healthful dining pleasures. McDonald’s has a range of dipping sauces for its Chicken McNuggets, as well as its Fish McDippers in Japan. Rainforest Café has created fruited-lime sauce for shrimp tempura on the children’s menu.

Today’s youngsters don’t always reach for the sickly sweet or abysmal deep-fried, hand-held foods. These kids are sophisticated, and establishments need to have equally sophisticated offerings alongside burgers, macaroni ’n cheese and french-fried potatoes for their patronage.

Kantha Shelke is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and expert witness services. Contact her at [email protected] or 312-951-5810.


Researching children’s eating habits? Type “children” into the search bar and you’ll find 102 articles, 43 news stories, two products, one whitepaper and eight other items. Start all your research at www.FoodProcessing.com.

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