Things change — they really change — when formulators remove sugar, fat and salt from baked foods and snacks. Even partial replacement has big implications for flavor, texture and mouthfeel.

Good-tasting foods that are lower in calories with less added sugar top the list of consumer wants, according to many researchers. The reasons are simple. “Consumers are looking for foods that they can eat without feeling guilty, foods they can enjoy with less fat or less sugar or more fiber, added vitamins, etc.,” said Catherine Armstrong, vice-president of corporate communications, Comax Flavors, Commerce, CA. “Consumers want healthier options but with the same taste of full fat and full sugar.

“How do you replace something that is so important to the matrix of a product without changing the flavor of the product?” she asked.

Flavor companies such as Comax have developed flavor modifiers and sweetener enhancers to meet specific product needs. Flavor modifiers, Ms. Armstrong explained, can create natural mouthfeel while allowing less fat and/or calories in the product. Sweetness enhancers do a similar job when sugar content is cut, yielding products with the sweetness consumers crave.


Extra dimensions

Herbs and spices offer interesting ways to solve flavor problems when cutting sugar, fat and salt levels, according to Polly Barrett, director, R&D, applied flavors technology, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. “These can give a perception of sweetness and saltiness with very little added sugar or fat,” she said. “Some flavors enhance the fatty mouthfeel in a fat-reduced product. Some of the challenges of making these reduced ingredient formulations include textural changes or stability in the products.”

Dairy flavors also help retain sweet taste while taking out added sugars. “Formulators can use milk or butter flavors with sweet profiles to effectively enhance the sweet notes of other ingredients and, therefore, reduce the amount of sugar or sweetener,” explained Jennifer Lowry, vice-president, sales and marketing, Edlong Dairy Flavors, Elk Grove Village, IL.

“Sugar reduction is a complex issue because the formulator may also be using high-intensity sweeteners such as reb A [stevia] or sucralose that bring along off-notes or peak at a different time than sugar,” she continued. “Milk flavors will help to smooth out a profile and prolong the sensation of sweetness.”

Bill Buhler, president, Butter Buds, Inc., Racine, WI, explained the role of dried cream extracts and similar dairy flavors in foods made with high-intensity natural or artificial sweeteners. “These products often have off-notes that can be masked.” Such extracts need not be used as a top note and work well at low levels of 0.1 to 0.25% (formula weight basis).

Ron Heddleson, director of technical services, QualiTech, Inc., Chaska, MN, summed up the problems in sugar-sparing formulations. “Sugars impact texture — tenderness and spreading of cookies, quick breads and shortened cakes — and have a critical role in flavor development beyond sweetness,” he said. “Browning reactions, key to flavor development in baked foods, depend upon the presence of amino acids and reducing sugars such as glucose, fructose and galactose. When those sugars are reduced or removed, flavors must be re-balanced and often increased to retain effectiveness.”

Replacement, in part or whole, of shortening adds considerably to flavor problems, according to Dean Kasper, vice-president, technical services, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Greensboro, NC. The mouthfeel and eating quality of trans-fat-free shortening materials differ from the hydrogenated shortenings long used by bakers. “They seem to block our flavor receptors and require increased levels of added flavor,” he said of new trans-fat-free shortenings. The items most affected include cookies, donuts and pastries.

The rich mouthfeel of traditional full-fat formulations can be created in low-fat foods by using cream flavors, according to Rick Schultz, vice-president of strategic development, Edlong Dairy Flavors.

Similar flavor problems occur when using calcium chloride and other salt alternatives. “Over the long run, consumers may accept less salt in foods if taste sensation is boosted through the addition of flavor extracts,” Mr. Buhler said.

Reducing fat affects the delivery of flavors in baked foods and snacks. Ms. Lowry explained, “Without fat, snacks lose their lubricity in our mouth, and the flavors just won’t linger as long.” So-called “mouthfeel flavors” allow the formulator to simulate the way flavors linger for a fatty impression. “Lower-fat formulations can also require a higher load of flavors to deliver impact,” she added.

Some flavorists choose to emphasize brown notes in items made with less sugar and fat. Marlene Smothers, associate director, sweet applications, WILD Flavors, Erlanger, KY, explained that removal of these ingredients can interfere with the Maillard browning reaction and that some of their taste can be replaced by using a sweet brown baked note.


Expert advice

Because flavors are expensive and missteps costly, flavor companies advise bakery and snack formulators to consult the suppliers’ experts. “We believe it’s absolutely imperative to work closely with the flavor house,” said Phil Sprovieri, vice-president of sales and marketing, Flavorchem, Downers Grove, IL. “We always invite our customers in every step of the way to ensure their satisfaction exceeds their expectations.”

This is particularly true of foods deliberately made to be lower in sugar, salt and fat. Solvay Aroma Performance, for example, set up a Vanil’Expert Center dedicated to vanilla flavor applications, according to Dominique Giannotta, global business development and project director, Solvay Aroma Performance, Houston, TX. “Our food technologists can, thus, provide support to customers by investigating optimal conditions of use for our products in a specific recipe to compensate for reduction and/or replacement of sugar or fat.” Recent experiments showed that the company’s vanilla products allow fat reductions in the range of 10 to 15% in cookies and sugar cuts of 15% in cakes.

Whether you use a flavor modifier or masker or another flavor altogether, the taste of the finished product is what will bring consumers back to low-sugar, low-sodium and trans-fat-free foods. The challenge is to find the right solution, and every product can be different.