The clean-label and better-for-you products are moving from a niche marketplace and into the mainstream at a rapid rate. The ingredients for these new formations often have special needs, including the need for clean label bitter blockers, flavor maskers, flavor potentiators, and flavor extenders.

Ingredient statements must include the names of any modifying ingredients, presenting with the challenge of finding flavor modifiers to match their products’ attributes. In some cases, desirable profiles such as sweetness, richness, and specific subtle undertones or overtones can be lost during processing. In other cases, the addition of enhancements, such as caffeine, cannabinoids, or vitamins, or some of the components used in plant-based meats, dairy alternatives, and other on-trend better-for-you products carry undesirable flavors and off notes. 

Flavor-masking agents are designed to distract the palate from unwanted flavor notes, while flavor blockers bind directly with taste receptors, stopping the taster from experiencing the off flavor. An example is glycyrrhizic acid, derived from licorice extract, which functions by creating lingering sweetness that can cover up any undesired flavors. Some masking agents are made with simple, clean-label ingredients. Sucrose and vanilla extract are two great examples. They sweeten and distract the tongue from the undesirable flavor attribute. 

Botanical boosters
Herbs, spices, and chili peppers function formidably as natural flavor modifiers. Generally used as flavor enhancers, these natural ingredients can also behave as maskers. The key when using these natural alternatives is to find the right balance between the natural flavor of the chosen enhancer/masking agent and the formulation’s overall flavor.

Flavor potentiators are designed to enhance flavor or mouthfeel. In the savory category, boosters are made from vegetable extracts, yeast extracts, amino acids, or fermented forms of soy, mushroom, and certain vegetables. Glutamic acid is the common denominator in all of these products. Glutamic acid compounds occur naturally in foods such as mushrooms, seaweed, tomatoes, cheese, yeast extracts, and fermented soy sauce. Extracts, powders, and concentrates of all these products can be used to boost umami and kokumi notes and reduce sodium.

While these ingredients have a centuries-old history of use as flavor enhancers, ingredient technology is building them out. An example of how such technology is expanding on these traditional ingredients is the use of tomato fiber and clear tomato concentrate to enhance the rich “tomatoeyness” and mouthfeel of tomato paste.

On the subject of sodium reduction, several ingredients can be used to achieve that aim. One option is to use a more potent salt that provides a bigger salt kick than traditional NaCl salt. A handful of sodium chloride ingredients take on different forms of salt crystals, increasing surface area. For instance, a smaller crystal, about one-fifth the size of an ordinary NaCl crystal, could be used to increase contact with the taste receptors, so less salt goes further in the formulation.

Bitter blockers
Some chemicals work specifically with the palate’s bitterness taste receptors. They bind with one of 25 known taste receptor types (referred to as “T2Rs) on the tongue, inhibiting the individual receptor’s function, thus blocking the unpleasant flavor. Growing in popularity are ingredients derived from fermented mushroom mycelia that possess this trait.

The “miracle berry” (Synsepalum dulcificum) has moved from a novelty to the front line of flavor-blocking technology. The berry contains a glycoprotein (dubbed “miraculin”) that, when used in neutral pH formulas, blocks bitter receptors. However, miraculin also stimulates sweet receptors in low-pH products, causing sour foods to taste sweet. Miraculin is currently classified as an additive by the FDA but has yet to obtain GRAS status.

With so many options on the market to mask and enhance flavors, the formulator has a formidable toolbox from which to choose ingredients targeting the flavor notes that need to be reduced, magnified, or synergized. As for considerations about how such ingredients will appear on an ingredient statement, the availability of natural formats for masking or enhancing is continually expanding.

Most ingredient company technologists are well attuned to the types of applications in which enhancers and maskers are needed, and can aid the formulator in tackling such challenges as cost, storage, and shelf-life requirements in addition to flavor management.

— Regular contributor Anne-marie Ramo is a Seattle-based research chef and food writer with more than 25 years of experience in flavor development. She was director of culinary development for Revolution Foods Inc., executive chef of Fork in the Road Foods, LLC, and executive chef for Aidell’s Sausage Co. Read more of Ms. Ramo’s articles at Contact her at

Sweetening up
Reducing sugar can be a challenge. High-intensity sweeteners like monk fruit or stevia carry a bitter aftertaste when used at high levels. Compounds derived from licorice, vanilla, and citrus can mask that bitter note and contribute pleasant flavor notes to the overall flavor profile. Fruit concentrates can add sweetness without added sugar or lingering bitter aftertastes.

Vanilla is a powerful masking agent and adds delicious notes to baked goods and formulations with a sweet flavor profile. It is especially good at blocking the natural bitterness of pure chocolate, covering up the beany flavor of plant-based protein drinks and nutrition and snack bars, and even enhancing the flavor of acidic components of savory formulations, such as tomato- or wine-based sauces. Warm spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, also are commonly used to boost sweetness.

Sweet & Savory Future
Ways to enhance flavors in sweet and savory items are becoming more sophisticated as consumers seek a greater variety of choices and stronger, yet more natural, flavors. The future of flavor boosters includes greater reliance on traditional sources ranging from herbs, roots, rhizomes, bark, spices, and fruit concentrates, to reduced spirits, wine, beer and other alcohol beverage sources and segue over to those umami shots from yeast extracts, vegetables, fermented products (think: soy sauce, fish sauce, and mushrooms). Smoked and infused salts and a treasure trove of peppers are also coming back strong.