Plant proteins are notorious for tasting unpleasant. Here’s why solving the taste riddle isn’t so simple.
Plant-based protein ingredients-it’s no secret-have garnered a reputation for having an undesirable flavor. Consumers often report that plant-based proteins are bitter, or gritty, or taste “like dirt.”
Traditionally, plant-based protein products have been difficult to effectively flavor due to the physical and chemical changes that occur during a crop’s lifecycle. But new advances in flavoring are opening up opportunities in the plant-based protein market. Here are just a few of the flavor challenges that plant-based proteins pose-and some innovative solutions that brands have come up with.
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Consumer Preferences Limit Flavor Options
Consumers are very familiar with traditional protein flavors, and their longstanding consumer preference for meat protein has left plant protein formulators with a flavor challenge. Julie Mann, senior manager of global strategy and marketing for plant-based proteins at Ingredion (Westchester, IL), says that consumers’ lack of familiarity with plant protein flavor is hindering plant protein products.
“The typical consumer has a flavor preference and palate based on the foods and beverages they’ve consumed for many years,” Mann says. “As more plant-based products enter the market, it is likely the industry could experience increasing acceptability of the new flavor profiles.”
Mann says that food industry practices like washing, heat treatment, and fermentation must be evaluated in order to determine how they may produce off-notes. Other flavor-improvement tactics that manufacturers are pursuing involve crop varietal selection and deactivating unsaturated fatty acids.
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Plant Proteins Don’t Pair Well with Traditional Flavors
Complicating the question of consumer taste is the issue that plant proteins, by their very nature, are not amenable to masking by traditional flavors. Will McCormack, PhD, business development manager for nutrition at Synergy Flavors (Wauconda, IL), says that protein products’ traditional masking flavors-like chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry-don’t pair well with the earthy, astringent taste of plant-based proteins. McCormack notes, though, that formulators are making progress on this front.
Says McCormack: “Synergy Flavors has used a combination of sensory analysis and data science to identify the compounds that contribute to specific off-notes. We use this information to then pair flavors that mask these off-notes and enhance the positive attributes. This process allows for an experience more akin to that of consuming whey protein, where the flavor can shine instead of the base.”
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Complex Flavors Are More Effective
When it comes to masking the bitter taste of plant proteins, more is, indeed, more. Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer Insights Manager for Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY), says that regardless of the plant ingredient in question, complex flavors are more effective at masking the bitterness of plant products than simple flavors. Caputo says that every kind of plant protein requires a slightly different taste-improvement solution.
“Even if the desired end flavor is something as simple as chocolate or vanilla, we find that adding a layer of complexity helps to conceal the off-notes of the protein in question,” Caputo says. “We might deepen a chocolate flavor to make it more rich and fudgy, or we might use a specific blend of vanillas to achieve an especially aromatic profile.”
Caputo says that Virginia Dare is continually working to identify specific proteins and fatty acids that could cause off-flavors. Each offender, he says, is then given a particular set of taste descriptors to better determine how to mask the unpleasant taste.
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Natural Maskers Are Promising, but Challenging
As the plant protein industry continues its push into natural ingredients, more flavor formulators are looking for masking agents made from entirely natural products. But Cyndie Lipka, master flavorist for Prinova (Carol Stream, IL), says that innovation is key for brands that want to use natural ingredients.
“Natural masking agents are a blessing for label statements,” Lipka says. “They allow us to play in the natural products field. The challenge is there just isn’t much selection when it comes to natural masking agents. We’ve learned ways to overcome that issue and get by with naturals, but the selection is always restrictive.”
Lipka says that a flavorist’s work is typically easier when the flavor’s partial profile is a natural match with the product’s base notes. The more leeway flavorists have, she says, the better the end result.
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Product Format Complicates Flavor Selection
Mann says that the ease of flavor delivery is dependent on the final application. Some product formats, she says, may make it challenging for formulators to add natural flavors. While a liquid or colloidal system allows for relatively easy and even flavor distribution, other methods make flavoring more difficult.
“Thick batters and viscous doughs pose a larger challenge when mixing the flavor or masker into the matrix,” Mann explains. “There are also considerations around water solubility, oil solubility, and processing conditions. Excessive heat treatments can drive the flavor volatiles out of the product during processing.”
Another complicating factor? Shelf life. Flavors tend to change over time, Mann notes, which is why it’s important to understand the product’s expected shelf life and stability in order to pair it with the right flavors.
Mann also notes that innovation around existing and new technologies is making it possible to “clean” the flavor of plant proteins. This process, Mann says, can be multifaceted: “This may involve initiatives from the field plant proteins are grown and harvested from, to the fermentation and isolation processes utilized to create the finished ingredients.”
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Masking Agents, Flavor Processing to Advance
Caputo says that manufacturers are now gaining a better understanding of the variables involved in plant products’ undesirable taste. This, he says, is making it easier for manufacturers to create better flavors and masking agents in the future. With plant protein consumption on the rise, solving the flavor challenge will be critical for companies that want to stay competitive in the plant protein space.
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