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The Gold Standard: Creating Consumer-Preferred Flavors for Plant-Based Products


Even the harshest of food critics can be transformed by a dish that offers the full sensory experience; aroma, taste, texture, mouthfeel and body and even recollection of beautiful memories. Such is the case in a move clip from Pixar’s “Ratatouille”, an animated film by Pixar, set in a Paris restaurant, whose title refers to the French dish ratatouille which is served at the end of the clip. It was shown at the NAFFS 105th Annual Convention by speaker Ken Kraut, chief global flavorist, savory, for ADM. “While flavorists cannot guarantee a consumer will be ‘taken back’ to a memorable moment the dish congers, they can and should aim to hit all of the buttons a consumer is seeking,” he said.

Kraut said he believes replicating animal proteins to create a good food experience is the ultimate goal. He calls this full replication of the animal proteins humans crave the “gold standard” to be attained. He emphasized the power of the food experience and referenced “Ratatouille” to illustrate the power of the full sensory experience on human food consumption.

Kraut works in support of a global market. His task of helping clients create the perfect product from base to added flavors needs to meet the needs and expectations of alternative-protein consumers all over the world. He said research has shown that 52% of Americans and more around the world are identifying themselves as “flexitarian”, indicating a desire to either eat less animal proteins, eat more plant-based proteins or both.

Knowing this makes the need to perfect the replication of animal protein in the form of alternative proteins a challenging goal for anyone in new product development. The aim is “to build an experience for each customer,” he said. “It’s not just about the aroma or the flavor itself… it’s the whole system that delivers the final result.”

While the market is definitely there, polls are showing consumers, particularly those in America, Germany and Great Britain, are much more interested in the taste of a plant-based food item than the nutrition. Flavor and functionality are both important but finding the right balance is Kraut’s life’s work.

He spoke about new, exciting formats in plant-based seafood, whole-muscle formats, convenience formats and next-gen technology. He emphasized the importance of a clean label, since consumers want to recognize the ingredients in their food. He said some plant-based proteins need added protein, fiber and other nutrients to make it more appealing. “But the authentic sensory experience is the single-most-important attribute in plant-based products,” Kraut said. “If this isn’t addressed, none of the above matters.”

This is what Kraut called “Sensory Synergy” and he described it as creating taste that works with texture.

For Kraut’s savory team at ADM, the gold standard to which he refers is an authentic alternative animal protein. The expected aroma, look, feel, chew, texture and yes—the king of it all, taste, is a process. Alternative proteins are plentiful in the market today. Kraut works with pea, soy, oat, quinoa and potato proteins in trying to create enjoyable food products without the real animal protein to help make it delicious and satisfying. But the ultimate goal is the same: authentic taste. And for Kraut, the aspects of taste, mouthfeel experience, sweetness perception, salt levels, flavor masking and flavor perception are all interconnected.

Even a non-flavorist recognizes the unpleasant tastes and limitations of some of these alternative proteins, Kraut said. “Does it start out earthy and green like the pea proteins? Does it carry a beany, oxidized taste like soy? Is it oxidized and nutty like rice? Grainy, cereal-tasting and sometimes bitter like oat? Or grainy and bitter like quinoa? Each of these very obvious unpleasant features presents a different set of flavoring challenges which need to be masked or mitigated to make it seem more like authentic animal fat.”

Some involve fat oxidation (aldehydes, ketones, fatty acids) or can be solvent, rancid, green or beany. In some cases, the protein breaks down (peptides and sulfur).

There’s more that impacts the eating experience, more work to be done to these alternatives in the aim to mimic animal fat and taste and chew. That’s where the science begins, Kraut said.

When faced with development of a new product, Kraut heads “back to the kitchen,” he said, to start the innovation process, beginning with an analysis of the target food. He works with savory culinary teams to establish the blueprint and determine the process needed for the protein at hand. The solution will always be “multi-sensorial” and it’s imperative to look at the rest of the road and even end result for this protein: “Will it be fried? baked? Will it be sold already partially cooked so it just has to be heated, potentially in a microwave, by the consumer? Every step ahead for this new product is vital to the development,” he said.

Kraut said he couldn’t emphasize it enough that it’s a process. “You get your foundation, your blueprint and you use it as a starting point. It’s a place from which to build. A set of experiments ensues. New molecules are added, amino acid percentages tinkered with to see what happens until you get the right combination. It’s like CSI for flavor—so cool!”

While building this solution, the challenge is formulating for function and flavor. Kraut said one must “expertly apply masking, enhancements and formula alterations.” He said one has to consider which savory flavors can be added to the specific alternative protein. “Take a shot, see what happens and then always, always test it back against your gold standard,” Kraut said, noting this process involves organoleptic and analytical standpoints. “It’s an extensive process,” he said. “Product developers, food scientists and the analytic team all have to work together; it’s synchronicity.”

Whether it’s chicken, beef, fish or vegetables he’s working on, these cross-functional teams use this same process for each product. Again he cautioned, “where you are headed changes the formula. One flavor does not fit all,” Kraut said. “The inherent off-notes for each alternative protein are different from the beginning and then how they are going to be mitigated or masked will also depend on what the final resulting product is planned to be,” he said.

Kraut works with the culinary team to build this solution once they have laid out all the factors. “Every flavorist thinks their flavor is the best, right?” he asked. “So we have to put ourselves in check.” Kraut says they “double and triple-check their resulting product” for taste, aroma, mouthfeel, chew, body and appearance against the gold standard of real animal protein. The testing is with the internal sensory team first, then consumer testing and finally, customer trials.

He spoke of soy in particular, carrying peptides and poly peptides that are going to be quite bitter. For example, glycine can generate sulfur compositions. This requires a different set of masking to compensate. He said his team worries about what’s being developed in the product but also how it is affecting the flavor.

To solve key taste challenges, Kraut laid out ways to formulate meat and dairy alternatives. When mitigating the off-tastes of any protein source, Kraut said the need to control the off-aromatics is paramount. Modulation happens by protein binding with flavor molecules to replicate the real animal protein and meat taste. To replicate umami, for example, richness and juiciness for a more authentic meat-like taste experience will be required.

Flavor and taste modulation solutions are both specific to the protein segment, the base and the flavor type. To illustrate his point, Kraut shared three samples with the audience. The sampling of pea milk helped to illustrate all the things about flavor and taste modulation that Kraut had covered. He offered the control first—plain pea milk. He said the ingredients included Pro-Fam ® 580 Pea Protein, Fibersol-2 ®, stabilizer blend, Novalipid TM Sunflower Oil and vitamin and mineral blend. It’s plain and unmasked, with the vegetable off-notes he spoke of that have been the challenge of his career. When he asked the audience to sample the second milk his hope, he said, was that they would instantly recognize the improved taste. The pea milk is still plain but with the masking of Natural Pea Improver Flv and the Natural Taste Modified Flv the taste was much more pleasant. And if that wasn’t enough of an improvement, the third sample added Natural Chocolate Flavor WONF, showing another significant improvement using flavor.

Kraut said he felt fortunate to have the access to his scientists, who give his team clean proteins to start with. The team goes from there, with less to mitigate or mask. The compounds can include bitter, umami, kukumi (which he said is hard to narrow to a simple definition) and go out in new products hitting the shelves.

Flavor perception in the final product is something of special importance to Kraut. He gave some examples of how perception can be powerful over reality. Vinegar on fries, he offered, enhances the perception of a salty taste without added salt. Certain cheeses, such as parmesan, he added, can give a salty perception. “We know that salt is a flavor enhancer but paying attention to the perceived flavors can also be valuable.”

“Flavor base can do amazing things,” said Kraut as he returned to the French cuisine analogy. He let it be known that in his mind mirepoix is “quite possibly the best flavor enhancer of all time.” Pronounced “meer-pwah” in French, mirepoix is a flavor base made from diced vegetables (onion, carrots and celery)—usually with butter, oil or other fat—for a long time on low heat without coloring or browning, as further cooking, often with the addition of tomato purée, creates a darkened brown mixture called pinçage. Kraut gave kudos to whomever invented this ubiquitous recipe starter, saying it’s used universally today. It may not be a coincidence that mirepoix is often found as a flavor base in some of the best versions of Ratatouille.

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