Masking protein's undesirable flavors

by Jeff Gelski
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Food and beverage companies have been aggressive launching protein-enriched products this year, but being in too much of a hurry may lead to taste issues. The protein source may come with an unwanted or “off” flavor. For example, a “beany” soybean flavor or a bitter pea protein flavor may require flavor-masking agents.

About half of U.S. consumers purchase protein-enriched foods, and 78% believe protein contributes to a healthy diet, according to The NPD Group.

“It seems like the protein levels are getting higher all the time,” said Jim Hamernik, director of research and development for Flavorchem, Downers Grove, Ill. “The level of protein and the source of protein can cause off-tastes that can detract from the product appeal.”

Certain products may contain 25 to 50 grams of protein per serving, he said.

“The source of protein makes a difference, and the best tasting one should be chosen depending on product criteria,” Mr. Hamernik said. “For example, whey proteins are often better tasting than soy or other vegetable/animal proteins. However, it is not always possible to use whey. So a different protein source would be selected.”

Flavors and masking agents may aid in covering up the bitter protein off-notes.

“However, it is not always possible to mask the off-notes completely, and it is usually a matter of lessening the off-tastes,” he said.

Consumers may perceive high protein content negatively in both mouthfeel (gritty, pasty, etc.) and flavor (bitter, burnt, etc.), said Mel Mann, director of flavor innovation at Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis.

“In familiar products with boosted protein levels, the expected flavor may be changed in intensity (stronger/weaker), duration (lasts too long or not long enough) or profile (not balanced, sharp taste where smooth is expected),” he said.

Masking agents may be general or specific.

“A general masking agent can be used where the overall flavor impact of added protein needs to be reduced,” Mr. Mann said. “Such an agent operates by lowering the perceived intensity of the whole flavor by blocking taste receptors. Where there are one or two specific flavor off-notes contributed by the increased protein content, specific masking agents are used to focus on blocking those flavors. For example, a bitter-blocker can be used to offset the bitter aftertaste in some high protein applications without impacting the other flavors in the product.”

Complaints about flavor in products high in soy protein usually center around the “beany” note imparted or, depending on the type of soy, a “burnt” or “cooked” flavor, he said.

“These can be more prevalent in foods with little to mild flavor or sweet, fruity flavors,” Mr. Mann said. “Flavor enhancers targeted at these notes can block their impact on the overall profile without interfering with other flavor notes.”

The use of pea protein in applications is growing because it has such amino acids as lysine, arginine and branched chains like leucine and valine, he said. Complaints about pea protein seem to center around bitter flavors.

“Flavor maskers targeting bitter notes will reduce the impact of this,” Mr. Mann said.

Pea protein may have “earthy” notes, according to a white paper from FONA International, Geneva, Ill., and written by John Fishel, applications technologist.

“If you are using a protein that delivers strong earthy notes, such as pea protein, then using a flavor that also has earthy aspects to it, a nut flavor perhaps, can sometimes work to overcome the undesirable attributes of the protein,” the white paper said.

Pea proteins also may require stabilization to avoid sedimentation.

“It is likely that a product developer will find that flavors that have performed well in products utilizing other sources of proteins do not necessarily translate well when working with a beverage containing pea protein,” the white paper said.

Soy protein may bring inherent green notes and a strawberry flavor, according to the white paper.

“A strawberry flavor that is strong in green notes may taste unbalanced in the presence of soy since the green notes inherent in soy protein will have an additive effect with the green notes of the strawberry flavor,” the white paper said. “However, if one selects a flavor that is higher in other flavor characteristics, say ‘jammy’ or red notes, and has a lower amount of green notes, the inherent green notes of the soy protein can be used to create a balanced overall strawberry flavor.”

Several other ingredient options address unwanted flavors from protein sources.

Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., promoted Pro-Mask, a new series of protein-masking flavors, at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition last month in New Orleans. The company featured the flavors in ready-to-drink beverages fortified with whey protein and soy protein, cookies fortified with whey protein, and ice cream fortified with milk protein.

Seventy-two per cent of consumers indicate the protein content of foods is somewhat or very important, according to a national Virginia Dare 2014 on-line consumer protein survey that involved 694 adults. The survey asked consumers what foods or beverages fortified with protein they would consider buying. Breakfast cereal and yogurt both registered over 50%. Pasta and snack bars both were over 40%.

SymLife masking systems from Symrise include ways to mask protein flavors. The systems may be used to overcome undesirable sensory perceptions such as astringency, bitterness, chalkiness, medicinal tastes, metallic tastes, off-notes, saltiness and “throat-catch.”

Senomyx, Inc., San Diego, last year introduced a direct sales program. Rather than relying solely on licensing collaborations for commercialization, the company now sells ingredients directly to flavor companies for re-sale to food or beverage companies. The ingredients include Bittermyx BB68, a bitter-blocker that has shown efficacy in reducing the bitterness of hydrolyzed soy and whey proteins as well as unsweetened cocoa powder, caffeine, Rebaudioside A and menthol.
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