Cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as terpenes, hold much promise for medical and health-focused applications, and recreational products that serve as alternatives to alcohol. The characteristic flavor notes found in compounds derived from cannabis can bring signature notes to foods and beverages.
However, the distinctive flavor and aroma of cannabis and hemp flower isn’t always desired. When seeking to reach the majority of mainstream consumers, product developers often prefer a blank canvas as a starting point for crafting on-trend flavor strategies for their cannabis-infused foods and beverages.
Cannabis-infused gummies often see success with fruit flavor profiles. “We find the popular flavor trends are still exotic and tropical fruits, along with sweet and spicy blends,” says Colleen Roberts, director, sales, Flavor Dynamics, Inc., South Plainfield, NJ. “Non-alcohol beers and mocktails are also very popular categories in the cannabis segment. We create flavors that mimic these profiles: stout, malt, hops, and spicy ginger, along with mojito, bourbon, piña colada, etc.”
Michelle Sundquist, director of innovation and product design, SoRSE Technology, Seattle, finds that flavor strategies often depend on the type of cannabinoids going into the food or beverage.
“In the CBD market, most customers are looking for products that are natural and effective,” says Sundquist. “They want a product to make them feel mentally and physically better. This is highlighted in the flavors people choose. Citrus flavors, such as grapefruit, are popular, as well as cucumber, mint, and watermelon.” They’re categorized as “spa-type” flavors. “The flavor reminds the consumer of a healthy space, perhaps yoga, the spa, or vacation. When you sip the beverage, your mind takes a little journey back to a relaxing space, even if you’re currently at work.”
But in the THC market, Sundquist is finding people lean toward bolder flavors. “We’re seeing a lot of grape, orange, and mango. The flavors are bold and reflective of caffeinated energy-style drinks. Because of the similarities in hops and cannabis, we are also see overlap in those worlds. We’re seeing cannabis drinks that give you a ‘beer-like’ experience without the alcohol.”
Bill Stewart, product design consultant, Half Baked Labs, Portland, OR, has used Blackberry, Red Raspberry, White Peach, Pomegranate and other purées from The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley in his fruit and pectin gummies. He also uses the purées in CBD infusions for beverages.
Recent releases from The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley include Red Jalapeño, a bold and savory combination of mature jalapeños puréed with rice vinegar, and Peach Ginger, a purée that combines the classic flavor of yellow peaches with real ginger and a splash of citrus.
Cannabis ingredients can see significant variation across today’s supply chain. “One of the biggest challenges is when the developer starts with a cannabis/hemp isolate, yielding minimal bitter or off notes, and switches to broad or full-spectrum extracts to provide the ‘entourage’ or ‘ensemble’ effect,” says Dawn Riviere, West Coast technical sales manager, Flavor Dynamics. “This adding back of terpenes and various cannabinoids now requires the addition of a masking agent to mute these undesirable notes, or even total reformulation. We have successfully developed several masking agents for this purpose.”
Using well-formulated CBD and THC isolates also remove off flavors from the equation. But some product developers want to offer the health benefits of a broader-spectrum cannabis extract. That involves a higher level of ingredient technology.
While the off notes common to cannabis ingredients can pose challenges, notes Sundquist, through research and refining of raw materials, she says SoRSE Technology’s emulsion system offers a smooth, neutral-tasting solution.
But sometimes the characteristic flavor and aroma of cannabis is desirable, says Riviere, and product developers might seek a flavor note that complements the cannabis terpene. “They might look for a complementary flavor that supports the characteristic of the flavor, like citrus and spice types,” she says. “This might include lemon, lime, hops, fruit blends, or piney citrus notes.”
Sundquist likens broad-spectrum cannabis ingredients to boutique gin or single-estate wine. “The flavors can be very delicate and unique, or they can be bold and aromatic,” she says. “It can be desirable if the customer enjoys the nuances. It can also be polarizing if the customer is not expecting it. This changes as people become more comfortable around cannabis.”
Cannabis has some bitter notes to it—but aromatic bitters are popular additions to cocktails, says Sundquist. “They’re used to create roundedness, dimension, and complexity. You can take the notes of cannabis and build around them to create very sophisticated flavors, or you can try and hide it by adding sweetness and bold flavors. My favorites are bright fruit flavors or bitter grapefruit. The earthiness and terpene mixture of a broad spectrum can give you a very herbaceous beverage, similar to a rosemary grapefruit cocktail—bright, slightly bitter, with a botanical flavor.”
Stewart notes that alcohol-free beverages are trending in the cannabis-infused market. “We’re seeing non-alcoholic wine, beer, and apéritifs.” Characteristic cannabis flavors work well, he suggests, in items that naturally feature some desirable bitterness, such as beer, bitters, and chocolate.
In savory foods, the cannabis/hemp flavor and aroma can be treated as just another herbal note, says Stewart. “It brings a lovely grassy, floral, herbaceous flavor to the mix. One of my favorite CBD savories is infused pimento cheese.”
Stewart suggests a several other flavors that can serve as complementary or beneficially contrasting components to cannabis:
- Peppers, both chiles and peppercorns
- Zingy spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, or mint
- Herbs like basil, cilantro, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, or thyme
- Tart flavors like vinegar, tomatoes, or hoja santa (Piper auritum)
It’s vital to carefully vet cannabis ingredients, says Sundquist. “Find a company that has traceability on all of its ingredients, that buys only the highest grade, and is consistent and able to provide a repeatable product. You want to start building your flavors around the purest flavor possible. If you find you need to mask your flavor because it’s so unpalatable, you may want to reassess your source.”
Success boils down to working with a trusted supply chain. When starting R&D on a new cannabis-infused food or beverage, work with your flavor house to determine the right strategy. “We work with the developer to recognize the existing flavor components in their system and look to support or mask those components with complementary flavors,” says Riviere. “Through sensory guidance, we support our customers with direction on what flavors might accomplish their goal. There’s a lot of experimenting.”