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A Tale of Four Demos: The Process Flavorist’s Evolving Toolbox

By Douglas Young; reported by Jeb Gleason-Allured, Editor

Read more presentations and find photos of the event here.

What ingredients are acceptable to the consumer and which are not? Designing around such specifications—as much as is practical—is crucial for today’s flavorists. “This is something that our customers are struggling with just as much as we are,” said flavorist Douglas Young (Symrise) during his presentation at the 2009 Flavor Symposium. To illustrate, he presented four demo formulas that highlighted traditional process flavors and those that reflected various contemporary ingredient restrictions spurred by a desire for natural, GMO-free, vegetarian, and/or low-sodium products and label claims.

Young noted that the question of all-natural has come up more and more in recent years, adding that the US Department of Agriculture is currently working on a potential definition. Meanwhile, customers such as Whole Foods have already created their own definitions specifying what they do not want to see on product labels ( Some of these specs call for no preservatives, colorings or artificial flavorings, and minimal processing. On this last point, Young pointed out that much of the “processing” that goes into his work isn’t much more extravagant than, say, the preparation of a can of soup.

Process flavors, he explained, are really about cooking. And while the Maillard reaction—the chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, typically involving heat—is the dominant process flavoring, anything that undergoes heating treatment can undergo thermal degradation. A non-Maillard reaction might involve the heating of thiamine in a solvent and breaking it down into a meat character. Young added that, while flavor compounding involves adding chemical upon chemical to a mixture, process flavors involve many non-volatiles. In a finished product, he said, one usually has a great deal of thermal stability, which makes process flavors good for retort products. They may also be freeze-thaw stable and sometimes even microwave stable.

Technical and commercial evolution has reshaped the process flavorist’s work over time. In the past, Young explained, one might use cysteine and sugars to develop natural meaty notes. In trying to make a corn chip flavor, one might have used acetyl pyrazine, pyridine and other materials. Yet those ingredients are largely unavailable as naturals. Today, said Young, a process flavorist might use the tactic of heating proline to get the corn chip character. In that case, an amino acid is present, but no sugar is needed to be present; thus, it’s non-Maillard. With any of these process flavor variants, he added, the key processing considerations facing the flavorist are time, temperature, solids and pH (this typically drops after processing). The higher these are numerically, the more browning that will take place.

Changing Consumer Demands

As mentioned above, customers are driven by marketing, which is where many of the trends affecting the flavorist’s job are set. These trends spell out what can and can’t be used in products. In addition to natural products, customers are also calling for label-friendly, health-conscious flavors. Some also call for no MSG, trans fats, GMO or allergens; others may require kosher, halal or vegetarian solutions. Young presented four formulas to illustrate both traditional formulations and those reflecting ongoing trends.

Demo 1: Traditional

Young’s first formula, a meat flavor, employed cysteine for its amino acid and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP). The latter supports meaty character and provides mouthfeel. While Young likes working with HVP, the material has fallen out of favor due to concerns over MSG intolerance and the GMO status of source materials such as corn and soy. (Not to mention that soy is an allergen.) HVPs contain nominal amounts of trans fats, which are undesirable. Young noted that the poor economy could make price-advantageous materials such as HVP come back into favor.

In addition to the above, the formula also contained beef fat for speciation. To “hold the whole thing together,” Young included polysorbate 80. Meanwhile, he employed sodium hydroxide to balance pH and maltodextrin as a bulking agent. The latter, he explained, usually comes from corn, which can be a GMO issue.

Demo 2: Replacing Key Materials

Young’s second formula substituted HVP for yeast extract (adding salt for balance) and swapped polysorbate 80 for GMO-free corn starch. The formulation, he said, would be slightly more expensive than the first version; in addition, depending upon what material the yeast was grown on (such as corn syrup), there could be lingering GMO questions.

Demo 3: Another HVP-Replacement Scenario

Young’s third demo replaced HVP with beef stock and salt. Another sugar and some amino acids were added to match the HVP and yeast-based formulas. The absence of yeast and HVP of course meant that the umami impression was diminished. In addition, Young explained that the use of animal extracts such as beef are becoming prohibitively expensive. And who can forget the BSE concerns of a few years ago? In addition, Young pointed out that the formula had both kosher and halal issues, in addition to not being vegetarian-friendly.

Demo 4: Non-Protein-Based Product

In this formula, Young compensated for a lack of protein by balancing out the amino acids. While the salt content remained unchanged, more sugars were added. In this demo, Young swapped beef tallow for decanal to maintain speciation; despite this replacement, the absence of animal lipids or beef extracts resulted in a lack of fidelity. In addition, pH dropped considerably due to lack of protein, which would buffer it from reaction. This same lack of protein also means the demo had very little umami effect. Maltodextrin was again used as a bulking agent.

While the four demos illustrated methods for overcoming various formulation obstacles, Young explained that process flavors have yet to meet organic standards. The philosophy of organic, he said, aims to keep the chemical industry—and by extension the flavor industry—out of the food business. Most of the formulation issues come from the lack of availability of amino acids that are well-documented and pass muster for organically certifiable flavors.

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