As more consumers look at beverages as more than just a vehicle for sustenance and hydration, but also as a utility to perform daily tasks, new product development is taking on binary roles. “Consumer demand for functional beverages is growing at least in part because there is dual value of refreshment and fortification,” says Casey McCormick, director of product development at Sweegen, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “This surge has opened opportunities for new products and brands to produce fortified beverages with a ‘health halo,’ yet a feeling of indulgence or satisfaction.”
However, McCormick explains that these dual-purpose beverages can complicate taste profiles.
“Functional ingredients in beverages can be tricky as they can impact the consumer experience with bad aftertastes and flavor offnotes,” he says. “The good news is the timing for advancements in masking ingredients has come to fruition. Application technology is coming together with ingredient development to drive beverage pipelines enabled by new taste modulation technologies like bitter blockers and flavor enhancements. Taste modulation, coupled with innovations in new generation stevia, is making the perfect environment for functional beverages that win with consumers.”
Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager at Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., also details the complexities that emerge when developing functional beverage profiles.
“Functional beverages contain a range of natural functional ingredients that may impart off-flavors and texture such as acidity, aftertaste, astringency, bitterness, chalkiness and metallic notes,” Caputo says. “Ingredients that contribute offnotes include vitamins, minerals, plant- and animal-based proteins, dairy and dairy alternative analogs, amino acids, fatty acids, and high-intensity sweeteners like stevia.
“Taste perception and flavor preferences are subjective and vary from consumer to consumer,” he continues. “Bitter taste, for example, is a positive attribute to some consumers regardless of the product, while others find it appealing only in specific items like coffee. Some find any bitterness completely unappealing.”
Because of these challenges, Caputo notes that the company works with its partners to supply masking solutions that support dual-purpose beverage formulations.
“Virginia Dare delivers preferred taste to our customers — and quite often, a custom masking system is part of how we do that,” he says. “Our natural masking systems are product- and application-specific, designed to selectively block off-taste, unappealing mouthfeel, and unfavorable qualities while highlighting favorable taste characteristics.”
Heather Young, account manager at Mother Murphy’s Flavors, Greensboro, N.C., adds that the type of functional ingredients that beverage formulators are using also is evolving, which further highlights a need for masking solutions.
“Plant-based proteins are a huge trend right now as consumers are looking for more sustainable protein sources,” she says. “While these protein sources check the box of ‘sustainable’ and ‘better-for-you’ they can be difficult to work with considering the offnotes that some contain. Bitter blockers and masking agents play a big role in ensuring these are palatable and acceptable to consumers.”
Dawn Riviere, technical sales manager at Flavor Dynamics Inc., South Plainfield, N.J., echoes similar sentiments. “The addition of functional ingredients such as terpenes, proteins, vitamins in beverages has created an increased demand for masking agents to help to tone down the bitter or offnotes,” she says
Yet, functional trends is not the only craze influencing new product development. Part of the macro health-and-wellness trend has been consumers’ disposition to added sugars.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six in 10 adults in the United States have a chronic disease, while four in 10 adults have two or more. Given statistics like these, ingredient suppliers note this is helping to shape consumer beverage choices.
“Chronic health conditions are a driving force behind the consumer movement away from sugar, driving innovation and change for beverage brands that have traditionally relied on sugar,” Virginia Dare’s Caputo explains. “Natural and zero-calorie sweeteners are often one of the first tools beverage formulators employ to help them achieve the goal of reducing sugar content, but they often come paired with an off-flavor or other taste challenge that requires a custom taste solution.”
Mother Murphy’s Young also highlights the impact sugar reduction is playing in beverage formulations.
“Consumers are beginning to understand the link between diet and overall health and wellness,” she says. “Sugar reduction plays a key role in overall health. Unfortunately, natural high-intensity sweeteners can sometimes have offnotes that consumers don’t like. Providing a solution to this is critical when it comes to consumer acceptance and overall appeal of a sugar-reduced item.”
Given this, experts note the value that masking agents are supplying to beverage formulators.
“Sugar reduction formulations have caused an increase in masking agent interest,” Flavor Dynamics’ Riviere says. “The replacement of sugar with other sweeteners can cause additional challenges. The bitterness of straight stevia can be counteracted with a good masking agent.”
Sweegen’s McCormick details how advancements from ingredient suppliers are helping to improve the presence of offnotes that plagued initial stevia entrants.
“The new generation rebaudiosides found in trace amounts in the stevia leaf continue to win on taste with consumers versus the old generation, but it’s not enough to just replace sugar in food and beverages,” he says. “The combination of new rebaudiosides coupled with the latest taste modulation technologies enables a step function change in the quality of the sensory experience for consumers.”
Jackson Pillow, marketing communications and digital marketing lead of sugar reduction for Pure Circle by Ingredion, Chicago, details how the company has prioritized advancements within stevia ingredients.
“With PureCircle by Ingredion’s next-generation stevia ingredients, masking is no longer as big of a need as it once was with early generation stevia,” he says. “We have a broad portfolio of stevia solutions to solve sugar reduction challenges, including a portfolio of stevia flavor modifiers. These ingredients have synergies in certain applications like dairy, plant proteins, alcohol and others which can mask or enhance flavor profiles depending on the formulator’s preferences.”
As ingredient suppliers have fine-tuned their portfolios, experts note that the time is right for developing functional, sugar-reduced beverages.
“Now more than ever is a great time to explore creating functional beverages,” Sweegen’s McCormick says. “Today’s new generation stevia sweeteners like Reb M are so clean tasting, the need for masking solutions is minimized. The product lines that are growing the fastest have greatly reduced sugar. But it’s essential to consider the impacts of all the ingredients in the formula and how a product will be positioned in the marketplace. What positioning and claims will you have on the package? Ensuring that the taste modulators you incorporate into your product enable your product positioning is important.
“Sweegen can help brands tackle off-tastes while adopting a more natural position,” he continues. “Our Taste Modulation portfolio is non-GMO, clean-label, kosher/halal and is available in liquid or powder formats.”
With functional, sugar-reduced formulations commanding a larger share of the beverage market, the utilization of masking solutions are providing beverage-makers with a “triangle offense” for the future of beverage development.
“The overall trend of moving toward healthier products that are closer to nature will only accelerate, and likely those attributes will evolve from being unique selling features to more standard features that all products will be required to have as a baseline,” McCormick says. “In parallel, we can foresee consumers seeking new and unprecedented flavors in beverages with functional attributes to energize or transport moods.
“There will likely be broad adoption of products made from novel nature-based technologies,” he continues. “They will answer important needs for humanity, but create completely new challenges about how to bridge the sensory gap between taste and benefits. With that said, there will be more opportunities for companies like Sweegen to mask off-tastes and deliver healthier and great-tasting products.”
Flavor Dynamics’ Riviere highlights the evolution of protein sources as playing a growing factor in the future of masking ingredients.
“As meat and milk alternatives continue to develop, new protein sources could come with undesirable notes as the pea protein has,” she says. “Even ingredients used to counteract a textural challenge could give offnotes requiring masking.”
Mother Murphy’s Young also shines a light on the role that protein will have in the years to come. “As consumers continue to seek sustainably sourced proteins and other nutrient dense foods for overall health and wellness, there will always be a need for solutions to reduce offnotes and make these ingredients palatable and acceptable,” she says. “Therefore, bitter blockers and masking agents will certainly be a major player in the years to come.”
Although these trends are placing a need for masking solutions, Virginia Dare’s Caputo highlights the varying options when working with masking ingredients.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for taste masking, so the best solutions come from collaborating with market experts,” he says. “At Virginia Dare, all of our taste improvement systems are application specific. A single formulation does not fit all, and likely includes a combination of off-taste masking, flavor profile enhancement, and sweetness enhancement. We identify each of our customers’ unique taste objectives or challenges, collaborate to develop a comprehensive solution, and tailor our natural taste improvement ingredients to deliver preferred taste.”