Flavor Bites: γ-Nonalactone

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An old boss once advised me, “Don’t throw away your old shoes before you’re certain your new shoes fit.” Good advice, but advice we all probably find hard to put into practice. Flavor chemicals can be a little like old shoes. In the dim and distant past γ-nonalactone (FEMA #2781, CAS #104-61-0), frequently, but oddly, misnamed as “Aldehyde C18”, was the main driver behind all coconut flavors. Aldehyde C18 was an excellent example of chemically driven research.

Some determined soul may well eventually find “Aldehyde C18” to be present in coconuts in nature, but that, in my opinion, is stretching things. The key coconut recognition chemical is δ-octalactone, the subject of a previous article. γ-Nonalactone is relatively bright and harsh compared to δ-octalactone and, in my coconut flavors at least, it has been well and truly thrown out with the rest of the old shoes. γ-Octalactone has the additional advantage of blending far more harmoniously with the creamy higher delta lactone that are also present in coconuts.

This does not mean γ-nonalactone should be totally discarded. It is a useful chemical and can be very helpful in other categories. If it is not found in coconuts it is actually found in an unusually wide variety of other natural foods. The rather bright and aggressive note can find good use in a number of other flavors where its unique characteristics can be turned to advantage.

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Note that the dose rates given throughout this article are the levels suggested for use in flavors that are intended to be dosed at 0.05% in a ready-to-drink beverages or in a simple bouillon.

Dairy Flavors

Butter: Butter, along with all dairy products, contains an unusually wide range of lactones, but the lactones are especially important in butter flavors. γ-Nonalactone can play a very effective role at around 1,500 ppm in authentic style butter flavors, brightening the profile and adding realism.

Milk and Cream: The same is true of milk and cream flavors, but the levels are lower, 500 ppm being a good starting point.

Savory Flavors

Beef: Flavorists struggle to reproduce the characteristic brightness of barbequed or grilled beef with individual ingredients. Instead they all too often fall back on the same old familiar process flavors. γ-Nonalactone, more than any other lactone, can help to achieve a part of this elusive complex. Levels of use vary dramatically depending on the effect required, but 500 ppm is a good place to start.

Chicken: The same comments are true of chicken flavors, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree. Again, levels vary tremendously, but 500 ppm is also a good starting point.

Soy Sauce: This flavor category is deceptively difficult. A few obvious chemicals are dominant in soy sauce flavors, but they scarcely convey authenticity. γ-Nonalactone can help considerably at around 300 ppm.

Seafood: This ingredient can provide a good counterbalance to the pungent phenolic notes in all seafood and seaweed flavors. 200 ppm is an ideal level of addition.

Nut Flavors

Hazelnut: γ-Nonalactone forms a perfect counterbalance to the unsaturated ketones that play such an important role in defining this flavor category. If the ketones are overly dominant the resultant flavor may be very characteristic but it can also tend to be a little thin. The lactone offsets this effect without in any way detracting from the recognizable character. Levels vary, depending on the effect desired, starting around 200 ppm, but going up to 1,000 ppm in very bright hazelnut flavors.

Peanut: Peanut flavors differ from hazelnut flavors in that the ketone notes are often less prominent, but in contrast, the pyrazine and related roasted notes can be higher and generate a similar problem of lack of depth. The ideal level of this ingredient in peanut flavors is around 800 ppm.

Pistachio: Simple pistachio flavors are dominated by benzaldehyde, but more realistic flavors have a notable roasted note and γ-nonalactone can be very beneficial at 800 ppm.

Stone Fruit Flavors

Peach: γ-Nonalactone is a long way from being the dominant lactone note in peach flavors, but the addition of around 1,000 ppm can be very helpful by adding an attractive complexity to the main higher gamma lactones.

Apricot: Exactly the same comments apply equally to apricot and nectarine flavors but the ideal level of addition of this ingredient is a little lower, nearer 600 ppm.

Plum: Plum flavors are more delicate than peach and apricot flavors so the ideal level of this ingredient is even lower, around 400 ppm.

Tropical Fruit Flavors

Passion Fruit: γ-Nonalactone plays a useful role in passion fruit in nature and this can be modestly exaggerated in flavors to very good effect. A good starting point is 800 ppm.

Mango: The same comments apply to mango flavors and the added creamy character is especially attractive at levels around 600 ppm.

Pineapple: Pineapple flavors also fall into the same category where a modest overemphasis of the natural effect can be beneficial. An ideal starting point is 600 ppm in this flavor category.

Brown Flavors

Vanilla: γ-Nonalactone can play a small part in rounding out realistic vanilla bean flavors, but it is more suited to a dominant role in “French” style vanilla flavors, where it performs well at 1,000 ppm.

Brown Sugar: The shoe is well and truly on the other foot here and γ-nonalactone forms an important part of brown sugar flavors in nature, adding depth and realism to flavors in the region of 800 ppm.

Chocolate: More modest levels are effective in all styles of cocoa and chocolate flavors. A good place to start is 200 ppm.

Coffee: The ideal level in coffee flavors is quite subtle, 50 ppm, but the effect even at this level is still quite noticeable, adding a hint of creaminess.

Spirit Flavors

Rum: This ingredient is useful in all spirit flavors, reproducing something of the character of oak ageing and the ubiquitous, but more costly, whisky lactone. It is especially beneficial in rum flavors because it also contributes helpfully to the raw sugar note. An ideal level in lighter rum flavors is 200 ppm, rising to 500 ppm in aggressive dark rum styles.

Whiskey: Here, as with brandy and Cognac flavors, lower levels are more appropriate and 100 ppm is a good starting point. Outside the important category of rum flavors it is arguable that, unless cost reduction is vital, whiskey lactone may be a better bet than γ-nonalactone.

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 John Wright; johnwrightflavorist@gmail.com

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