Article: Overcoming Flavor and Taste Challenges -- December 2009
Consumers today are very interested in functional foods and beverages. To meet growing demand, both ingredient suppliers and formulation companies are working diligently to create products.
Fortunately, the market offers some beneficial and Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) ingredients that address various needs--pain relief, joint inflammation, cardio health, weight management, increased focus, energy, intestinal health--and provide a healthy addition to a person’s diet.
However, formulating functional food and beverage products continues to yield two distinct challenges. First of all, how do functional food and beverage manufacturers overcome the flavor and taste challenges of the active ingredients? Secondly, does an efficacious dosage of the active ingredients survive the production process/product form and, thus, provide benefit to the consuming public? In other words, how can the ingredient be delivered to the consumer in an acceptable format and taste?
The Science of Taste
Taste perceptions are like fingerprints. They are unique to each person and change with age and surrounding health conditions (e.g., smoker vs. non-smoker). Ever wonder why children do not like to eat vegetables, but do so as they grow older? Taste receptors fade over time. Children have an acute taste for bitter and sweet that begins to decline with age.
Typically, humans can distinguish between four major tastes: sweet, bitter, sour and salty; umami, or savory, is a fifth distinct taste.
In addition to taste, consumers must accept how the product feels in the mouth. Is the product smooth, rough, slimy or gritty? Does it linger on the tongue after consumption? Consumers also care about speed of taste--initial taste, middle taste and aftertaste. To properly formulate any product, the three speeds of taste must be equally satisfied. The consumer must enjoy the product throughout the entire process, not just during the initial taste or the aftertaste.
Additional taste characteristics that formulators face are matching the taste receptors with the other senses—sight and smell. If the final product’s taste does not align with the other senses, the product’s marketability is drawn into question. For example, a lemon-flavored product is expected to be sour (low pH), smell like lemon and look yellow. However, if the product has a high pH (tastes sweet), is colored green and smells like grape, the brain will have a difficult time accepting or processing the finished product.
Functional Formulation 101
Before a functional food or beverage can provide an efficacious dosage of an active ingredient, four interconnected components must be carefully balanced to create a product consumers will enjoy:
* Sweetener--Usually, formulators have a specific goal for a sweetener, such as grams of sugar per serving or a targeted calorie level. All sweeteners will make a product sweeter to some degree, but they do not all function the same way, or when used in the same platform. Additionally, natural and sugar-free sweeteners often bring forth taste off-notes that need to be addressed as part of the formulation.
* pH impact--pH is used in formulation for two primary reasons: finished packaging requirements (to help the longevity of the product’s shelflife) and creating a specific flavor. For example, a citrus flavor tends to have a lower pH, creating the desired sour taste.
* Masking agent--There are some traditional masking agents used that are very expensive and somewhat inconsistent. Additionally, there are masking agents supplied by various flavor houses that are just different flavors. One new, patented masking agent on the market works well in masking some active/functional ingredients.
* Flavor--More flavor does not always equal increased flavor; it is a careful balance of sweetener, pH, masking agents and flavor. Additionally, products use different types of flavor forms--liquid or powder—based on shelflife, reactions with other ingredients and stability.
Once the initial functional product formulation is achieved, the remaining components of the final product equation are placed into motion. This working model provides the platform for functional food/beverage evaluation and market determination:
* Water activity--Outside of the beverage industry, water activity is one of the major considerations in finished foods. It is carefully monitored because of the potential for food spoilage and shelflife considerations. In the functional foods arena, water activity can have a dramatic impact on flavors and active ingredients.
* Production process--Understand the product’s production process, such as heat, pressure, moisture, storage conditions and the thresholds of each ingredient contained in the product. These conditions can have a dramatic impact on flavors, masking agents and active ingredients.
* Active ingredients--Assuming the level of active ingredients is efficacious before formulation, the strategies used in formulation and production can help increase post-production efficacy. These strategies may include heat of the process, water activity, exposure to UV light or reactions with other ingredients. For example, some vitamins will degrade active ingredients in a finished product.
* Final packaging--All flavors, many active ingredients and some masking agents have an effective life that diminishes over time. The final packaging selected can either prolong or shorten the product’s shelflife. Understanding what causes each of these to break down--air, moisture, temperature and light--can help ensure the best final packaging is chosen.
* Visual (clarity)--Consumers buy with their eyes, so it is important to match the product to the senses. Both flavors and active ingredients have an impact on the visual characteristics of the finished product. For example, some flavors are not fully soluble, which leaves debris in the beverage.
* Price/Cost--Price and cost are powerful tools used in the formulation process. A 20% increase in the amount of flavor needed to mask an active ingredient can be a multi-million dollar decision for a national brand or retailer.
* Shelflife--The combination of the right ingredients, made in the right way, stored in the right packaging, will ensure the best strategy for solid analytical results.
* Market demand--Demand for a product is the start of any formulation for functional foods/beverages. The more information available about the desired product, the easier it is to determine if the formulation will match consumer wants.
Formulating a successful product is a commendable task on its own. Add some functional ingredients to the mix, and the workings of true talent emerge. The demand from consumers for functional foods and beverages is predicted to only increase in the coming years, thus creating the need for talented formulators who can manage the balance of active ingredients, flavors, sweeteners and pH. pf