Using Flavor Pairing to Solve Taste Challenges

By Chris Whiting*

Plant protein is a growing market representing 16% of all new product launches in the sport nutrition category (Innova, 2018) and the global plant-based protein market is estimated to have been valued at USD 18.5 billion in 2019 and is likely to reach USD 40.6 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 14%. [1] According to data from Mintel, the importance of flavor is a key purchase driver – over 75% of consumers are influenced by flavor choice when purchasing a sports nutrition product – so creating innovative flavors for this market must remain a priority for any brand looking to thrive.

All types of proteins can have taste challenges, making flavor and application expertise critical for success in the nutrition category. This is where Synergy’s expertise in flavoring nutrition products comes to the fore, thanks to the shared knowledge with its parent company, whey protein expert, Carbery. Understanding and masking the potential volatile ‘off flavors’ of different protein bases is vital to delivering a superior sports nutrition product that meets consumer expectations.

Emerging plant-based protein alter- natives for sports nutrition include hemp, pea, brown rice and pumpkin seed, all of which have their own flavor profile that can impact final products. Synergy is involved in ongoing research to understand the off notes of plant- based proteins using a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS), gas chromatography olfactometry (GC-O) and sensory analysis. Using these methods, Synergy’s flavor experts can identify the volatile compounds present, which helps to then pair the protein base with compatible flavors that are suitable for sports nutrition products.

Sensory and analytical research

Firstly, descriptive analysis is used, in which trained panellists agree flavor descriptors and individually rate different protein bases using the descriptor scales to generate an average score for each product.

GC-MS methods are then used to separate and identify volatile compounds extracted from the protein base. The output (a chromatogram)  depicts  all  of the volatile compounds detected. GC-O involves a human assessor detecting aromas from the end of the GC column. As a sample is separated by GC, the assessor notes any odors they may perceive which are  mapped  on  an olfactogram. The olfactogram and chromatogram can then be overlaid and the descriptors compared to literature in order to identify the odorants in the sample.

Research scientists use all the data (sensory maps and overlaid olfactograms and chromatograms) to determine which compounds are key in characterising the off notes of the alternative proteins. The resulting data gives Synergy’s flavor creation team a ‘fingerprint’ for the flavor, helping them to identify aroma compounds which need masking.

Flavor tailoring

When different foods share key aromas, they are more likely to work well together. Once the key odorants in a protein have been identified, flavor pairing combinations that contain some of the same odorants can be selected.

For example, pea protein has beany, vegetable flavors, as well as savoury/ umami and cheesy flavors. The hexanal in pea protein that contributes to the green, leafy flavor lends itself well to being paired with the flavors of butter, banana, coffee  and nuts.  In  brown rice protein, the hexanoic acid, which contributes a ‘cheesy’ note, means that it pairs well with strawberry, coconut and berries, as well as butter and coffee. Hence, the aroma compounds  present in each protein base pair with, or complement, different flavors that share these compounds.

Once a flavor profile has been chosen using flavor pairing, Synergy’s flavorists work to tailor the profile around the notes from the protein base. Certain notes, already present in the base, may need to be reduced or removed from the flavor to rebalance the profile of the finished product.

The flavor profile of plant-based proteins can vary considerably, as with any natural product, depending on growing conditions and storage. In plant-based blended products, the exact ratio of each protein can influence the final flavor of the product. When it comes to applying relevant flavors to specific applications, Synergy’s flavorists and applications team achieve the best solution by working directly with the specific base, to develop complementary flavor profiles.

Final evaluation by a team of sensory panellists confirms that the flavor level is appropriate and not only meets but exceeds all expectations to deliver a consumer preferred product to market. This detailed research is enabling more plant-based protein sources to enter the sports nutrition market in a variety of flavors.

Flavor innovation

While flavor pairing allows an understanding of  suitable  flavor profiles for protein-based formulations, it doesn’t necessarily match market trends. Although some sports nutrition consumers are becoming increasingly adventurous in their tastes, the core flavors of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry will remain firm favorites for others. These three mainstays account for around half (49.3%) of all high protein launches [Mintel GNPD].

The key emerging alternative proteins identified by Synergy – hemp, pea, brown rice and pumpkin seed – do not naturally pair with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, which is why many brands have struggled to make successful plant-based products using these core flavors, particularly if they are  using the same flavors as they use on other protein sources. The analytical data captured in the process outlined earlier has been used to redesign these core flavor profiles and accentuate notes that complement non-dairy proteins. For example, data has shown that there are four common aromas between pea protein and strawberry flavors: floral, fruity, green and ripe. This information can be used by a flavorist to accurately create a strawberry flavor that can be successfully paired with the plant protein base in question. Using its research, Synergy has also developed exciting new flavors, which pair naturally with plant- based proteins, such as coffee caramel and banana spice.

Flavors of the future

With such high demand for innovation in sports nutrition products, it is important for flavor companies to provide a range of options to excite the growing consumer demographic for sports nutrition products. Synergy has used trend data, including recent product launches, internet search trends and social media to identify trending flavors in and around the Mediterranean, which could add appeal to many sports nutrition products over the coming years.[2]

With influences from Asia, Europe and Africa, the Mediterranean region is a melting pot of cultures and, as such, there are a range of flavor influences coming through. Some of the key trends identified include baklava (a rich, sweet dessert pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey), gianduja (made from a mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts), forest honey (one of the most unique honey varieties), and rum raisin, all of which lend themselves to the sports nutrition category.

Introducing new flavors to plant-based protein products continues to expand the choice on offer to consumers, particularly as the products within the sports nutrition category are increasing beyond powders, ready-to-drink products and bars.

Looking ahead

Truly understanding plant-based protein profiles has driven Synergy’s knowledge of how best to flavor them. As the market for plant-based proteins evolves, Synergy will continue to apply its knowledge and unique process to develop effective flavor solutions for challenging plant-based protein bases. It’s predicted that the next wave of plant-proteins will include bases such as collagen, sunflower and quinoa, and Synergy’s tried and tested approach using in-house analytical and sensory techniques can now be applied to any protein challenge.

* Chris Whiting is Category Manager at Synergy Flavors