The future of flavour

Related tags Flavours Flavor Research

Flavour houses are increasingly collaborating with universities and research institutes to tap into their primary research, says Justin Pugsley

Flavours research and development (R&D) is being shaped by rapidly growing consumer demand for health and wellbeing products. This poses numerous challenges to flavour houses, which are having to re-engineer many of their formulations around natural ingredients, which are typically more expensive and less consistent in quality.

There is also a general trend towards reducing or even eliminating important base ingredients such as sugar, salt and fat, which has created a massive challenge to manufacturers, but potentially a huge opportunity for flavourists.

Reducing salt and fat in mass market snack items such as crisps poses considerable challenges in terms of preserving flavour and texture. To help achieve these aims, companies are increasing their collaborations with universities and specialist institutes to tap into their primary research.

Indeed, flavours research is moving into areas more readily associated with pharmaceuticals, such as genetics.

For example, New Zealand's Horticultural Institute has created a gene bank for different fruit varieties, which means flavour houses can recreate natural flavours using fermentation techniques rather than using chemical synthesis or direct extraction.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) is identifying molecules that underpin flavours in different potato varieties by comparing their germplasms. "Ultimately we wish to find markers that are associated with the key flavour genes, to accelerate the breeding of tastier potatoes," says the SCRI. These are just two cases where genetics is playing a role. It's an area that should provide a rich seam for discoveries to drive flavour research for years to come.

And there is a lot at stake. Finding viable substitutes for many base ingredients can translate into a big sales boost for a flavours house. Some have been anticipating the market and doing their own research. Others are responding to specific requests from clients.

Discovering a viable replacement for something like salt is seen by many in the industry as the 'holy grail'. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to replicate all the various characteristics of salt. Secondly, it is almost impossible to do so at a reasonable cost given that salt is so cheap and abundant. The most popular base ingredient for these substitutes is potassium chloride. But even this ingredient can pose its own particular set of health risks.

For sugar, there are a range of substitutes, some of which have been on the market for decades. These include aspartame, sucralose, neotame and acesulfame K. These are often used in diet soda drinks and low calorie foods. However, many are viewed with scepticism by consumers.

There are also natural ones such as the polyols sorbitol and xylitol, which are synthesised from fruits and plants. But much research is going on this area as many of these low-calorie substitutes lack all the characteristics that make sugar so appealing (see p39). Also, sweeteners extracted from corn are becoming more expensive as subsidised ethanol production absorbs a growing share of the crop.

This poses a serious cost challenge to the food industry. Meanwhile, a great deal of work is also going into finding fat substitutes. "We've developed a range of high-fry flavours, which give a deep fried flavour and aroma for low fat products and it is being used in baked product and crisps," explains Jonathan Jones, chief flavourist with Creative Flavours. Again, companies are trying to isolate the components that give fats the flavours and textures that consumers want, and then reduce the fattening agents.

At the same time the flavours houses are expected to deliver their solutions at lower costs, particularly for the more run of the mill commodity-type formulations.

However, a key trend at the moment is the move towards using natural ingredients. This is typified by the recent £2.55M purchase by Treatt of 50% of Earthoil Plantations, which specialises in organic and ethically traded essential oils.

"We're doing 41% of our turnover in natural products now," says Isabelle Mulet, spokeswoman for Aromatech. She adds that in the last five years the percentage of the business dedicated to organic flavours has grown to 7% of turnover from 1%. Synergy, meanwhile, is looking to add fair trade vanilla extracts to its existing range of organic and natural extracts.

Multinationals such as Givaudan or International Flavours & Fragrances (IFF) have also geared up to provide natural ingredients. However, providing them does pose numerous challenges. One such is variability in supply.

Vanilla, grapefruit and nutmeg have all experienced wild gyrations in prices in recent years due to violent weather patterns wrecking crops. "This type of thing feeds through into pricing and customers understand that," says Mark Dewis, head of flavours R&D with IFF. Nonetheless, they are unwelcome fluctuations that impact on the tight budgets of food and beverage companies. He also cites quality as a challenge, a far bigger issue when you are dealing with natural ingredients: "You've got to be able to ensure the product integrity of every shipment."

Another issue for the industry is upcoming EU legislation, which looks at the classification of flavours. However, there is still uncertainty as to how it will be applied. "We don't fully know yet about what the classification of various compounds will be," says Gail Underwood, technical manager, beverages and dairy with Synergy.


Another impact on R&D is that of industry consolidation so recently exemplified by the purchase of Quest by Givaudan. Steadily, research is being concentrated into fewer hands. Some contend this could lead to less innovation. On the other hand, however, larger groups will have a bigger spending capacity and may be more willing to undertake riskier innovative research. Another effect will be to accentuate the different industry tiers with the biggest players primarily focused on the needs of multinationals such as Unilever, PepsiCo, Diageo and so on.

Greater industry consolidation could in turn leave market niches best served by small innovative and more flexible flavour houses. Indeed, there is a very large number of small food manufacturers, best served by similar league flavour houses. Changing consumer trends have also led to the emergence of companies dedicated to making natural, organic or fair trade product ranges.

However, there are other areas driving research, such as novel flavours. The area of chewing gum has seen plenty of innovation, such as gums that give off sensations of heat or cool (see p12).

"These cues can be used to drive brand identity and recognition," says Dewis at IFF. "It can also provide an additional twist to consumers so that warming increases sweet textures for instance. There are still some gains to be had there on a technology basis." Another area is developing products that change flavour while being consumed.

"The big areas for innovation from a primary standpoint are probably for textural taste and experiential factors," says Dewis. Another innovation from Treatt is to provide longer lasting flavours in chewing gum - up to 12 minutes.

Even for traditional flavours there has been innovation. Creative Flavours managed to make a new twist on the strawberry flavour often based on the Elsanto variety - a favourite with UK supermarkets. It based its formulation on an old English variety called Royal Sovereign, which has proved to be popular.

In the meantime, there is ongoing research to improve the quality of compounds of functional products and their flavour. Aromatech for example has developed a solution that masks off-notes from iron, folic acid and soya for functional beverages.The next couple of years will see lots of innovation aimed at satisfying shifting consumer preferences. This will no doubt drive R&D spend higher and lead to a raft of exciting new innovations.

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