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Flavor Challenges in a Protein-Centric Market

Contact Author Gary Reineccius
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Consumer trends are demanding innovative plant protein sources, creating opportunities as well as challenges for flavorists.

The market trend today strongly favors increasing the protein content in the diet. Protein is considered healthy, relative to other major food ingredients. There is also a trend away from animal sources of protein (meat and dairy) due to sustainability issues. These consumer trends are creating a strong market for existing plant proteins (mainly soy-based) and generating a great interest in novel plant protein sources that do not carry an allergen warning, e.g., pea, oat, canola, etc.

Flavor Challenges

Plant proteins bring challenges in that they commonly carry flavor components characteristic of the plant source. Ideally, the protein source should be free of any characterizing flavor and be able to accept or be compatible with an added flavoring. The industry has managed to reduce the characteristic beany flavor that accompanies soy protein isolates through processing, but the sensory notes associated with soy isolates still leave room for improvement. There is substantial research being conducted in both academia and industry to learn how to produce high quality, low off-flavor and highly functional plant protein isolates from non-soy sources. Most of the research focus in this area tries to avoid extraction of the plant protein with an organic solvent. However, the solvent-free techniques have met with limited success to date.

At this time, the flavor industry has no option but to “live with” the off-notes contributed by various protein isolates. Solutions to manage these off notes include selecting a flavor that would include the off-notes characteristic of the protein. For example, if the protein brings in some bitter character and the choice of a flavor typically has a bitter note, the flavor can be formulated without bitterness, which would then be provided by the protein isolate. A similar situation could be for some aromatic character that could be provided by the protein isolate rather than in the formulation. For example, green notes in the protein isolate may fit into a fruit flavor. This approach limits one’s choice of flavor type but can work quite well. An alternative approach offered by the flavor industry is to use a flavoring that is designed to mask the inherent off-flavors. This approach tends to be somewhat problematic in that masking an odorant is more challenging than masking an undesirable taste. Taste perception involves a limited number of types of receptors, while odors involve numerous different receptors, and thus to block an odor, one must block several different types of receptor sites.

For the full article, please check out the Perfumer & Flavorist+ September 2021 issue.