Flavors combine the old with the new
Beverage companies are playing both sides of the fence in 2009, offering traditional comfort flavors and newer, more exotic fruit and floral flavors. In addition, beverage flavoring systems are becoming more complex with the increase in functional ingredients, the addition of multiple sweetening options, and even the use of no sweetener at all.
“If you analyze the flavors that are being used in beverages year over year, the top flavors tend to always be about the same,” says Walter Crawley at Kerry Ingredients & Flavours, Teterboro, N.J. “The citrus, the orange, the lemon, berry, raspberry … the very mainstream flavors. They seem to be very consistent year after year.”
Suzanne Niekrasz at Robertet Flavors, Piscataway, N.J., adds, “While flavors generating buzz tend to be those less familiar to consumers, there’s no doubt that traditional, comforting flavors continue to hold appeal. Lemonades and iced teas have been around since before all of us were born, so one would expect their popularity to be relatively stable.
“But one look at the beverage case shows how dynamic these traditional categories are, and how their use as a flavor profile, particularly when combined with an emerging flavor, breathes new life into very traditional categories. Many commentators point toward the recession as the cause of this quest for comfort food and drink, but in fact this trend predates the current economic crisis, and I believe it will outlive it.”
One example of the adage that “what’s old becomes new again” is the resurgence in pink lemonade, reports Robert Pinkerton at Rocket Products, Fenton, Mo. The retro flavor, however, has been updated by the request for natural colors to replace Red 40. Rocket Products has incorporated a red cabbage-based color to achieve the more modern lemonade profile.
“It produces a nice pink color,” he says.
That’s not to say newer flavors aren’t making their way into the marketplace, however. Some of the fastest-growing flavors include superfruits, tropical fruits and floral flavors.
Crawley points to acai, guava, aloe vera and jasmine as some of the more intriguing emerging flavors. Many of those flavors stem from the enhanced water or “spa water” phenomenon, he adds.
Anton Angelich at Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., agrees, saying floral flavors are one area where his company has seen increased interest among beverage-makers, particularly in enhanced waters. Rose, jasmine and lavender lend themselves particularly well to beverage systems, he says.
In addition, superfruit flavors continue to be popular for their perceived health connection, but also as flavors in their own right, says Erin O’Donnell at Philadelphia-based David Michael & Co.
“Some of the superfruit flavors that were being blended before, they’re being known on their own right now,” she says. “We’re starting to see them more by themselves rather than in a blend.”
Superfruits have become so popular that some previously unknown flavors are common fare these days, adds Robertet’s Niekrasz. “Pomegranate has been on the top of the short list of emerging flavors, with the result that in 2009, we can safely call pomegranate a mainstream adult flavor profile in the beverage category,” she says.
Finding the right profile
U.S. consumers may be more comfortable with superfruit flavors, but beverage-makers still must keep the American flavor palate in mind when formulating products.
“The key thing that manufacturers have to keep in mind with any type of flavor that you introduce is it has to have an acceptable U.S. mainstream profile,” Kerry’s Crawley says. “So, in other words, not too polarizing.
“If you think about a polarizing flavor, say grapefruit, people love it or people hate it,” he adds. “There’s not too many people in between. I see grapefruit starting to be used more as background notes in citrus blends, for example, so you can get some of the nuances of grapefruit without taking it to the polarizing stage of a full-on grapefruit.”
In addition, varietal flavors such as blood orange, mandarin and tangerine are adding an exotic element to beverages while keeping safely within consumers’ comfort zones. Varietal flavors are similar enough to traditional profiles that they are readily accepted by consumers, but different enough to make a product stand out in the marketplace.
“Many times these profiles won’t even appear on a product label, but they are invaluable in helping to differentiate flavor profiles in a crowded market,” Niekrasz says.
The sweet stuff
Lightly sweetened or non-sweetened spa waters are one of the growing beverage trends that require careful use of flavors.
Less sweetener makes it more difficult to deliver a high-impact flavor, say John Wilson and Frank Del Corso at Allen Flavors, Edison, N.J. Beverages that are on the extreme low-calorie side are best suited to lighter, more subtle flavors such as white tea, they say.
Stacey Hawley at Flavor Producers, Valencia, Calif., adds that blending the right flavors can help make up for the lack of sugar.
“Flavors play an important roll when the base contains less sweetener,” she says. “It is essential to utilize flavors that are custom formulated and contribute a desired profile from beginning, middle to end.”
“Often what is lost when the sugar is removed is mouthfeel,” she adds. “Sugar helps to round out flavors. So once again it becomes important to customize the flavors so that they are well rounded.”
Certain flavors actually can enhance the perception of sweetness, while others can taste flat without the appropriate sweetener level. Flavors that have an inherent sweet profile such as strawberry, peach or pear are more easily incorporated into a low-sweetener product than acidic flavors such as citrus. The acidic profile that gives a citrus fruit its characteristic flavor also requires more sweetener to balance out the acid.
“When you have a flavor profile that requires astringency or acidity, then you naturally need more sweetness,” Kerry’s Crawley says. “Stay with the sweet-type profiles.”
Virginia Dare’s Angelich says spa waters lend themselves to flavors that are more aromatic than flavorful in some ways. Floral flavors fit the bill particularly well in that area.
“One of the most active areas for us are floral flavors,” he says. “That really ties in very well with that because so much of that is aromatic. It’s kind of exciting and [has] a lot of natural connotations for the consumer.”
Spa-type flavors also are showing up in the new category of relaxation beverages. Some relaxation drinks have a similar profile to energy drinks, with citrus and berry flavors, says Philip Barone at California Custom Fruits and Flavors, Irwindale, Calif. Others take a lighter approach in both flavor and calories.
“Spa-type profiles like cucumber with citrus also are in demand for calming beverages,” he says. “These beverages tend to be lower in calories per serving since they are designed to be consumed during a less active time of the day.”
As stevia-based Reb-A makes its way into beverages, product formulators also will be forced to figure out how to mask its off-notes with flavors or flavor maskers. According to flavor experts, stevia has both a metallic front note and a bitter, licorice-like aftertaste.
Companies such as Allen Flavors, Virginia Dare and David Michael say they have found almost any flavor can be used with Reb-A, but a masking flavor or sweetness enhancer often is required.
“The key to working with things like that is masking agents,” Virginia Dare’s Angelich says. “That’s something as a company we’ve been doing for a long time. It’s a very delicate balance where you don’t want the masking flavor to impart a flavor itself, and yet you want to curtail the lingering effects of some of the forms of stevia … it’s all a matter of balance.”
Blending the newly approved sweetener also can be beneficial to the flavor profile of the product.
“The best use for this natural sweetener is in combination with low levels of sugar,” California Custom Fruits and Flavors’ Barone says. “There is a natural synergy that takes place.”
In addition to getting the ideal flavor/sweetener blend, Barone suggests beverage companies begin to rethink their use of sweet flavors altogether.
“Beverage developers need to be careful not to over-sweeten their products,” he says. “Companies should seek to put out less sweet, more naturally tasting beverages. If we train consumers to like less sweet beverages, perhaps this will decrease their craving for sugar and promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Kerry’s Crawley echoes that sentiment, particularly in the area of flavored waters. “They are trying to make water a beverage with the degree of sweetness they have in it, vs. letting water be water,” he says. “So to deliver a strawberry-flavored water, instead of putting a hint of sweetness in there to carry the flavor of strawberry, which could then be just water, they’ve gone to the point of trying to make water a beverage. I’m starting to see a slow change in that in the market. It’s happening very slowly, but I think it will speed up over the next couple years.”
Despite the interest in alternative sweeteners, some companies have made the return to sugar in 2009.
Rocket Products’ Pinkerton says sugar is the best flavor choice for the lemonade products his company specializes in. Many of his customers who tried other sweeteners have migrated back to sugar.
“Granulated sugar is always the best sugar for lemonade â€” that still stands,” he says.
Like Hawley, he points out: “The sugar is what gives you your mouthfeel for many liquid or beverage products. Of course, when you decrease that, you do have to put in some kind of filler to take the place of that mouthfeel. In our product, we were able to decrease it to a certain point, I think 33.3 percent less sugar. At that point, the taste was still good. When you went any further, the taste wasn’t quite as good as with a normal drink.”
Beverage and ingredient companies have honed some of their flavor balancing and masking skills on fortified beverages.
“These ingredients boast antioxidants and other health benefits, but many times the flavor must be updated for today’s palate or completely masked, which can be challenging,” says Allen Flavors’ Wilson.
“Marketers are delivering many different ‘good-for-you’ compounds or phytonutrients in beverages today than ever before,” adds Del Corso. “The beverages we are creating are much more complex than even five years ago. In the past, marketers included just a small amount of certain botanicals, amino acids or other nutraceuticals in beverages, just to show them on the label. Now we’re seeing more customers that want higher and more efficacious doses of these ingredients to substantiate health claims and effects.”
The increasingly popular category of protein drinks is another segment that requires skillful flavor blending, as does the emerging category of satiety-related beverages, which often include protein and fiber. Both ingredients can throw off the taste of a beverage, but certain flavors can mask their effect.
“Proteins can have a certain bitterness to them,” Angelich says. “A lot of your protein beverages and smoothies are dairy- and soy-derived so you work with masking systems that simulate dairy notes, which makes it kind of milkier or creamier, vanilla-like â€” things that the consumer is very used to and expecting from those products.”
Most flavor experts agree that beverage companies are making few of their flavor decisions based on cost, despite the economy this year. Crawley says he has seen beverage companies continue to seek natural WONF (with other natural flavors) ingredients because they allow for a natural profile while still keeping costs relatively lower.
“But I’ve seen less requests come in for the organic,” he says. “Organic over the natural can be another 25 percent in cost.”
Angelich says companies are seeking solutions to overcome ingredient shortages. “During the past year, there has been a shortage of lemon ingredients and no one wants to go beyond their current cost of goods,” he says. “So companies like ours are challenged with coming up with lemon extenders that can overcome price increases of lemon oil ingredients.”
Flavor Producers’ Hawley adds: “Certain ingredients are expensive and/or difficult to source, such as some fruit concentrates. Specialty flavors allow manufacturers to be less dependent on these ingredients.”
Rocket Products’ Pinkerton says most of his customers understand the short-term savings of cutting flavor costs can be overshadowed by the potential loss of consumers if product quality suffers.
“Even though the economy is bad, if it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to buy it,” he says. “They’re going to look for different options.”
In some ways, flavors actually can be a benefit for beverage companies in a down economy, allowing them to expand their product portfolios at a lower cost, David Michael’s O’Donnell points out.
“The neat thing about using flavors to save in that way is that you can extend your brand with new flavors,” she says. “[Consumers] already know your brand, it’s already established. It’s another way to extend your brand without having to create a whole slew of costs that go along with it.”
Beverage companies strive to find the most intriguing flavors that will keep their products new and exciting. But oftentimes, consumers aren’t as fast to catch on to the newest superfruit, herbal or floral flavor. A number of beverage-makers are using flavor strip technology for a mass market approach to flavor sampling.
The partnership between David Michael & Co. and First Flavor, both Philadelphia-based companies, has taken what started as breath-freshening technology and turned it into an interactive promotional tool.
“Some products are difficult to sample, especially alcoholic beverages,” explains Skip Rosskam, president at David Michael, which creates the flavors for First Flavor’s Peel ‘n Taste strips. The company has several flavor chemists who specialize in the technology, which requires the replication of well-known flavors, including alcohol flavors without the use of alcohol.
“We have to not only develop the flavor, but when you’re trying to create a sense of sensation that the alcohol gives you â€” most alcohol products have a small discernable burn to them â€” we’re able to use our sensates technology to give a little burn,” he says. “We’re able to not just replicate the flavor of the product, but also a little of the sensation.”
First Flavor has worked with companies such as Welch’s, Campbell Soup Co., Sunny Delight, Finlandia Vodka and Skyy Spirits, who have used the strips in venues as wide-ranging as advertising spreads in People magazine, direct mail promotions and retail displays. Old Orchard Brands, for example, created a flavorful product coupon by incorporating the strips onto a retail coupon that allowed consumers to taste the product and then take the coupon to the store to buy it at a discount. CBS even commissioned the companies to create a mojito-flavored strip based on a fictional rum brand featured in the short-lived television series “Cane.”
Rosskam says the Peel ‘n Taste strips are less of a money-maker for the ingredient company than a chance to interact with CPG brand managers and reinforce the company’s desire to be on the cutting edge of flavor innovation.
“No matter how many millions of these little flavor strips get produced, there’s very little flavor that goes into it as far as quantity,” he says. “It’s not about us being able to supply the flavor. It’s more in line with reinforcing our business model and our brand image ... It gives us a chance to take a different position and work with different people.”