Ask the Expert — Flavoring Nutritional Products

In today’s marketplace, the modern consumer has both an increased awareness of and demand for nutritional food and beverage products. Adding functional ingredients to consumables is one way that manufacturers are meeting this demand.  Examples of these ingredients include proteins, botanicals, vitamins & minerals, natural sweeteners, caffeine, amino acids, and preservatives.  These ingredients are utilized in a variety of applications ranging from sports nutrition, energy products, powdered drink mixes, ready-to-drink beverages, desserts and bars. One of the biggest challenges associated with developing functional food products is masking bitterness. The bitterness sensation is caused by a combination of what we taste on our tongue and what we smell with our nose. The five tastes are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. These perceived sensations are the result of stimulation of receptor cells that are in the taste buds on the tongue. This blog explores the challenges in masking off-notes and the tools a flavorist uses to effectively address them.  

The first step in developing a nutritional product is to formulate an unflavored product base which will eventually contain the desired functional ingredients. This task is usually accomplished by the product developer or food technologist. It is recommended that the nutritional product base be optimized prior to adding flavor to reduce off-notes from the functional ingredients. The goal is to make the product base as neutral as possible. It can be very challenging to accomplish this goal. Below are four approaches to masking the base product. 

  1. When utilizing vitamins and minerals, which can contribute a metallic and astringent taste to your product base, it is advised to incorporate microencapsulated versions of the vitamin and minerals which can diminish off-notes. Microencapsulated versions have a protective coating which reduces strong odors and bitter tastes. This in turn, can optimize the base to a degree where it requires less masking.   
  1. Adding a sweetener to the base can reduce sourness and bitterness. However, consumers today are concerned about the number of calories and sugar they consume. Therefore, a combination or replacement of the sweetener with a high-intensity natural sweetener such as stevia or monk-fruit, or an artificial sweetener like sucralose and acesulfame potassium, can be used to lower calories and carbohydrates. Alternatively, salt, also known as sodium chloride, can be added to inhibit bitterness.  
  1. Utilizing hydrocolloids can also mask off-notes in the functional product base. By incorporating some starch and gum systems that coat the tongue, taste buds are prevented from perceiving the offending flavor(s). Once the off-notes have been swallowed, the coating will dissolve, and a more pleasant after taste will occur. 
  1.  If the product is salty, which is common for snack type products, perceived bitterness can be reduced without reducing the amount of salt. This can be achieved by choosing a sodium compound that has a larger anion than chloride. An example of this would be sodium gluconate, which blocks the sodium from going through tight junctions between taste cells, resulting in the reduction of perceived saltiness.  

Once the unflavored base is optimized, flavoring can be addressed. Flavors are used to mask the remaining off-notes and to deliver a good-tasting nutritional product. This may lead one to ask, “why didn’t we just mask the nutritional product with flavor to begin with?” Flavors are designed to be utilized at a certain threshold level, and when that level is exceeded, externalities exist. Excess flavoring contributes to higher costs and flavor burn, which is undesirable. Therefore, beginning the process by optimizing the unflavored nutritional product base is best practice. 

One of the easiest ways to flavor and mask the off-notes of nutritional product bases is to incorporate the flavor off-notes as part of the flavor. An example of this is designing a grapefruit or dark chocolate flavor with the bitterness coming from the base. Tropical flavors, in particular, help with consumer acceptance of a bitter base because of the naturally sour and bitter notes. We have identified three tropical flavors for nutritional products in our Flavor of the Week post HERE. Another approach to mask off-notes is to utilize sweet flavors such as vanilla, caramel, maple, butterscotch, honey and cotton candy. The natural sweetness inherent to these types of flavors can counteract bitterness in the base product.  

In addition to bitterness, there are many other types of off-notes to consider. One example is the beany-cereal off-note of soy nutritional products. In this case, a flavor that has a nutty and/or brown profile would work best (ex. caramel, maple-walnut).  

Whenever nutritional products are masked with flavor, other flavors can appear. The challenge for the flavor chemist is to develop a flavor that does not react with the functional ingredient. It is up to the ingenuity of the flavor chemist to find the right combination of the appropriate flavor and masking method to create a pleasant tasting product. To achieve these results, a lot of fine tuning between the flavor chemist and the product developer is required. Many times, the product requires minimal adjustment, such as changing the level of sweetness and acidity. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand or single ingredient that will mask all flavor off-notes. Each nutritional product is unique and must be treated accordingly.  

Trilogy flavorists understand the challenges associated with flavoring nutritional products and have decades worth of experience and expertise in working across many product formats. Contact us today for more information on flavoring your nutritional product! 

Peter Wasko

Peter Wasko joined Trilogy in 2017 with over 40 years of experience in the flavor industry and as one of the over 400 Certified Flavor Chemists in the world. Peter is one of Trilogy’s Senior Flavor Chemist’s and specializes in beverage flavor creation and duplication. Peter is an active member in the industry. He has been involved in patents for texturally Modified beverages and masking bitterness, soy and saltiness. He has also have been published in several food publications. Peter is an active member of IFT, Institute of Food Technologist, ISBT, International Society of Beverage Technologists, of the Society of Flavor Chemists as well as a member of NAFFS, National Association of Food Flavor Systems where he served as past president. The ever changing nature and variety is what he admires about the beverage sector. Peter Wasko was born in Jersey City NJ where he attended Jersey City State College, currently known as New Jersey City State University, and obtained a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Physics and a minor in Chemistry. After graduating he began his career in the food industry. Peter has held various titles from technical director to senior beverage technologist to Vice President of Research and Development on both the East and West Coast. His expertise has been in all beverage product development and plant processing areas including nutraceutral, functional, dairy, still, juice containing, carbonated, alcoholic, non-dairy and powdered beverages. In addition to his beverage work, Peter has developed flavors for salad dressings, popcorn, cheese and other dairy products.