Consumers expect foods to perform based on their appearance. Crackers should crunch. A fudge brownie must melt like a piece of candy on the tongue while a slice of bread ought to spring back to form after that first bite of a sandwich. And they should all be flavorful, too.

The problem today is that many better-for-you formulations might deliver visually, but disappointment sets in after a few bites. Reducing sodium, removing gluten, lowering fat or sugar, and adding extra nutrients not only can affect a baked food’s characterizing flavors, but it can alter various flavor functions including release, lingering impact and off notes. And while developing baked foods with unique flavors or unusual twists (see “Flavorful discoveries” on Page 64) may catch consumers’ attention, if the product does not taste right, a repeat purchase is out of the question.

“We like to use the ‘Can you eat more than one?’ test to qualify our work,” said Bill Cawley, director,
culinary R&D, Eatem Foods Corp., Vineland, NJ. “We can be guilty sometimes of taking a taste of something and basing our judgments after just one bite. But the consumer often eats several pieces at one sitting.”

Saving salty sensations

When it comes to sodium, bread and similar products get a bad rap for that very reason: People eat a lot of them. It’s not because a single piece is high in this necessary macronutrient, but rather because most Americans
consume bread products throughout the day and the sodium adds up. In fact, in early February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the Top 10 categories of foods responsible for 44% of people’s sodium intake. The underlying message was that if the manufacturers of these foods reduced their sodium content by 25%, they could help prevent an estimated 28,000 deaths per year from sodium-induced high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

CDC’s Top 10 sodium-source list names breads and rolls; luncheon meat; pizza; poultry; soups; cheeseburgers and sandwiches; cheese; pasta dishes; meat dishes such as meat loaf; and snack foods such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn. The report explained that some foods consumed several times a day, such as bread, add up to an excess of sodium even though each serving is not high in it.

Bakers continue to make progress with reducing sodium content in bread products as well as snack foods. The latter can be particularly challenging because lowering the sodium of snack foods can significantly compromise the product’s flavor since saltiness is the focal point of salty snacks, as the name implies.

Although salt, a molecule composed of one sodium and one chloride atom, is one of the five basic tastes, salty has become known as a flavor, too. And when sodium levels are reduced, the salty flavor is diminished. No other compound is able to duplicate the salty flavor of sodium chloride. The closest substance is potassium chloride, but unlike salt, potassium chloride’s saltiness is recognized slower and accompanied by bitterness.

Flavor suppliers use advanced flavor technologies to build back the salty flavor without contributing sodium and at the same time mask bitter off notes. “When it comes to reducing sodium, it is sometimes helpful to employ bitter-reduction ingredients to compensate for off notes that might develop,” Mr. Cawley said. “Or perhaps a blend of flavors is necessary to mask a particular off taste that becomes more dominant when the salty taste is minimized.”

“A lot depends on how much of a sodium reduction is desired,” said Jim Hamernik, vice-president, R&D, Flavorchem Corp., Downers Grove, IL. “Sodium has an effect on all aspects of a food product, and if it is reduced, the other flavor characteristics might be more pronounced and will require adjustment.”

One way to do this is through innovative use of flavors that contribute umami, the fifth taste, explained Rudy Roesken, vice-president, food ingredients, QualiTech, Chaska, MN. “Umami is usually defined as a meaty, savory, satisfying taste,” he said. “For example, this can be achieved through the addition of bacon, cheese and chipotle flavors. We manufacture inclusions in these flavors. They have less sodium than their namesake counterparts but have great flavor, which can either be characterizing for the application or simply provide flavor undertones to compensate for the reduction of sodium.”

Marlene Smothers, associate director, sweet applications, Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, KY, added, “Our flavor modification technology provides for a 45% reduction in sodium using it as a one-to-one replacement for salt in baked snack foods as well as breads. Even without using potassium chloride, the finished flavor profile is salty without bitterness. The ingredient appears on labels as ‘sea salt, natural flavor.’ ”

Assistance with off flavors

Sometimes the ingredients used to replace gluten such as other proteins and hydrocolloids contribute unfavorable off notes that must be masked by flavors. The same is true of some nutrients, fat replacers and high-intensity sweeteners that can either contribute off flavors or even deleteriously interact with
other ingredients.

“During the fat-free craze of the 1990s, formulations were often overloaded with sweetness to compensate for the flavor and mouthfeel that was lost when fat content was lowered,” said John Randazzi, chief technical officer, Eatem Foods. “The level of perceptual sweetness was off the charts. In cookies, for example, ingredients such as plum juice concentrate were added along with sweet flavors, and the combination of the two pushed the perceived sweetness level too high.”

In savory reduced-fat grain-based foods, formulators must add back flavors of richness. “For example, with a reduced-fat snack cracker, the flavor chemist will manipulate a butter or cheddar flavor formulation by increasing butter fatty acid notes,” said Phil Sprovieri, vice-president, sales and marketing, Flavorchem. “The product developer must determine the right level to add to have the flavor linger on the consumer’s palate, providing the satisfaction of the richness one would get from the full-fat product.”

Lowering sugar and calorie contents brings a host of other flavor problems. “Sugars not only contribute to the spread during the baking of cookies, they also caramelize in the oven, contributing a very desirable sweet, brown flavor,” Mr. Sprovieri said. “It is often necessary to use a combination of flavors and colors to deliver that caramelized sugar taste.”

When sugar replacements are part of the formula, flavor chemists must carefully mask their off notes. “In our experience, sugar alcohols and high-intensity sweeteners often carry some bitterness baggage with them,” Mr. Randazzi said. “Formulators will overcompensate by misusing flavors, vanilla and malt in particular. We like to use a broad range of sweet brown flavors to mask the bitterness while maintaining a mellow baked taste. At low usage levels, sweet brown flavors can manage flavor release and balance the product’s overall flavors to provide a pleasurable eating experience.”

Indeed, over-flavoring is a typical response by formulators to help overcome negative tastes, but not only does this increase manufacturing costs, the true flavor of the product often gets lost. Suppliers have developed technologies to ensure the consumer tastes what the baker intends.

For example, Wild Flavors developed a flavoring system that overcomes undesirable taste components by selectively influencing the tongue’s taste buds. It works through specially designed natural flavors that block the taste receptors’ ability to taste bitterness and astringency.

To better understand, visualize how a flavor molecule must fit exactly onto a relevant receptor on the tongue. The ingredient blocks the receptor by attaching itself to the receptor but does not trigger the taste sensation, a principle similar to a lock and key. In this case, the taste receptor is acting as a lock. The fitting of the key represents the molecule reception while the opening of the lock is the taste sensation. The technology does not allow the unlocking of the taste experience. Therefore, the taster cannot experience undesirable and unpleasant tastes.

“This technology provides an improved flavor profile by physically blocking the bitter receptors on the tongue to allow a cleaner profile of the product. It works in conjunction with other flavor components, producing flavor profiles that can be tailored to solve specific off-flavor issues,” Ms. Smothers said. “For example, when combined with citrus or vanilla flavors, omega-3 fatty acid off flavors disappear in select applications.” The ingredient is declared on ingredient legends as simply “natural flavor.”

Another way to ensure that off flavors associated with value-added nutrition stay subdued is to include them in a delivery system that controls undesirable flavor release. “Our flavor particulates can serve as delivery systems for unique ingredients such as omega-3s, fiber, superfruits, proteins and more,” Mr. Roesken said. “They provide a combination of cost efficiency, ease of use with no required refrigeration, extended shelf stability and, most importantly, the desired flavor profile in the finished baked product.”

All the market research in the world can tell us that consumers want healthier, better-for-you foods. But in the end, if the flavors are not right, they won’t eat it.