Nothing is more important for the consumer acceptance of foods than flavor. Flavor, or taste, is the reason people choose products and consume them. Flavor, of course, is nearly inseparable from other product attributes such as texture, sweetness, acidity, salt and appearance so it all gets bundled to most consumers as “taste.” Our job as food developers and scientists is to get all the pieces correct under the heading of flavor, so the total product is well liked by consumers.
Flavors or Perception?
During my years in the flavor business, I came to think of us selling not flavors, but perception. We were selling a mixture of chemicals meant to evoke the experience of something we were trying to copy. We could make chewing gum taste like steak. With the proper “chemical cues” in place, our brains react to the experience appropriately. Thinking of flavors in terms of “perception cues” frees the flavorist from using chemical levels inherent in the actual food and allows the use of chemicals and levels designed to fool the brain into thinking it is eating something else. In the early days of flavor chemistry and GC analysis of foods, it was thought the ideal flavor was one that exactly copied nature. This was not the case.
Flavor and the Flavor Business
Experts called “flavorists” create the mixtures we call flavors and they work for flavor companies. They have trained to become skilled in how various chemicals taste and are used to make a flavor. However, putting together a flavor which will work in a particular application (beverage, ice cream, etc.) is nearly an impossible task and often takes years of trial and error development. There is still a lot of art in the process, and with twenty to one hundred chemicals in a flavor, the process is difficult. This is why the success rate for flavors submitted by flavor companies is less than 3 percent. The main reason for the low success rate is because of the interactions, which occur once a flavor is added to a food.
Once a flavor is added to a food, the rules of chemistry take over. The rules of chemistry in this case largely center on solubility, specifically where the individual flavor chemicals can take up residence in the food. Fat-soluble flavor materials will go into the fatty regions of the food and their impact will be reduced. Flavorists can compensate, but it is not an exact science. Other flavor materials may be complexed by starch in the well-known amylose complex where amylose chains wrap around the flavor chemical.
Proteins are well known for their ability to form new covalent bonds with aldehydes and ketones, which are typical flavor ingredients. These materials are lost, and baking, frying, and heat processing all accelerate these processes and more flavor can be lost due to volatilization. If you can smell it, it’s leaving! This is sometimes referred to as the “angel share” going back to early brewing days. Additionally, if the other pieces of a flavor profile, such as sweetness or acidity are not exactly correct, the best flavor in the world will not perform correctly. Remember, a peach flavor, for example, in water does not taste at all like peach! It will only begin to taste like peach when the proper sugar and acid levels are present. Product storage and common reactions such as oxidation all take a toll.
The level of a flavor is probably one of the most important factors to consider. A good flavor, at too high a level, will be perceived as “chemical-like.” It is important to try two or three levels of a flavor in the actual application to get the level correct. As mentioned above, it might also be important to move the salt, sugar and acid levels of your product around once you settle on a flavor level. When tasting products, it is also critical to let them rest for a period after they are first made in order for the flavor to completely diffuse into the product. This may take several days or just overnight.
Flavor Optimization in Products
The technique employed to get to optimized products is the use of statistical experimental design. It is the quickest, cheapest, and most direct route to optimized products for the marketplace. With this technique, the exact salt, sugar, acid, color and flavor levels can be dialed in directly to the liking of your consumers. It’s not art—it’s science—and remember, art is just mostly poorly understood science.
If you’d like to learn more about optimizing your product or developing flavors from scratch using our techniques, please contact Fields of Gold Consulting LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org or (610) 742-2569.
Steve Leusner, a trained organic chemist, has spent his 30-year career working at General Foods, Kraft, General Mills and a small private flavor company in Philadelphia. He founded Fields of Gold Consulting LLC in 2010 and now works with companies worldwide to develop optimized products, processes and flavors applying advanced statistical methods.