Nutritional bars are at the frontier of product development. Some 20 years ago, a “nutritional bar” was synonymous with chocolate-covered brick of straw. Now, with new techniques from flavor houses, many staid confection and bar manufacturing companies are creating indulgent products with nutraceutical benefits.

Flavor houses like Flavors of North America (FONA, Carol Stream, Ill.) are conquering the vast unknown with experience and knowledge of consumer trends. “The line between functional and confection is starting to blur,” says Andy Dratt, marketing director at FONA. Dratt's marketing team closely observes market trends and creates custom reports for clients based on specific inquiries. FONA is a full-service flavor house with core competencies in nutritional bars, confections and beverages.

“Consumers aren't quite sure what they want from these products.” One thing is for sure, says Dratt: though consumers want healthful products, “taste and texture are king. There is an opportunity to innovate pure indulgence with a benefit.” Reaching that standard is what FONA applications technologists have been doing for almost 20 years.

Challenges in flavoring nutritional bars stem mostly from the problem that healthful additives, like vitamins, minerals or protein bases, generally are not appetizing. Also, many protein sources have an inherent bitter taste, suffer from water-migration problems and absorb flavors. In effect, disguising the protein flavor with a flavor like strawberry does not defeat the problem, since as shelf-life increases, flavoring generally changes for the worse. Protein absorbs flavor.

“Masking flavors” do not have a characteristic flavor in the product. They round out the backend bitterness caused by vitamins, minerals and soy without contributing to the flavor profile. Masking will help to [hide] the grassy or beany flavors,” says Rebecca Sells, applications scientist at FONA. The brown flavors, such as caramel and maple, tend to work well as masking flavors. “They aren't used at thresholds where you taste it,” she adds.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that flavor masking will involve just one magic flavor. “It is often a system of flavors,” explains Sells. FONA uses a three-prong approach to flavoring. First, the company identifies the bitter or undesirable component and then suppresses it by using a variety of masking techniques. Sweet Am™ is a FONA product that accomplishes this task. Next, application scientists will equilibrate the product with an enhancing agent. “For instance, they may use vanilla, not to make it taste like vanilla, but to balance it,” explains Dratt.

The suppression and enhancement steps “neutralize” the base, so that finally, the characterizing flavor, which is often the label-endorsed flavor, will shine. Accelerated shelf-life and actual time stability testing is used to check the sensory attributes of the product at three, six and nine months.

Even with such an exact protocol, the results are dependant on protein content, base material and the greater volatility of some flavors. “You can set up flavor levels in a formulation and, a week later, it might taste differently, depending on your base,” says Sells. Over time, FONA scientists have found that oil-soluble and spray-dried flavors work better than water-soluble flavors in bars; another example of how after 20 years in business, FONA is familiar with many different flavoring scenarios. “A lot of that comes from experience,” says Dratt.

For more information:

Flavors of North America Inc., Andy Dratt