bunch of cinnamon sticks

An Introduction to Using Flavors in Food & Drinks

This is a guest post by a fellow food scientist with ample experience in various categories of new product development: Nathan Silva. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.

What flavor is Mountain Dew? How does someone make a milkshake taste like carrot cake? And how does my protein powder taste like fruit loops?

Flavors are what make all of your favorite beverages taste so unique and delicious. You probably eat or drink them on a daily basis without even knowing! Flavors are a complex ingredient in the food world. This post provides you with the basics on flavors and how you could use them in your own creations!

What are flavors?

Flavors are molecular compounds that, when put together, provide you with a flavor profile. Think of it like a puzzle: each flavor compound is a puzzle piece. When the puzzle is complete, you get the profile of a banana, for example. Each puzzle piece provides a specific characteristic of the flavor, which can also be used in other puzzles.

Some flavor profiles are known to have a “backbone” of a small number of compounds. When these “backbone” compounds are put together, they trigger the distinction of the flavor profile without needing hundreds of different compounds. Take for instance a cherry flavor profile: Benzaldehyde is a defining flavor compound that, on its own, can drive a cherry flavor without the use of other compounds. These flavor “backbones” are regularly used by flavor chemists as the baseline compounds in common flavor profiles.

cherry chocolate pie
The backbone of a cherry flavour is benzaldehyde that can make something taste like these real cherries.

Flavor chemists

Flavor chemistry is what we define as the creation of flavors. The people who work in this field, called flavor chemists, are the masterminds behind all of the flavors that you find in processed food products. Flavor chemistry is an extremely complex field, being creative and scientific at the same time. Creative in the sense that, much like a chef, they utilize many different ingredients to come to a finished product. Scientific in the sense that they understand the use of flavor compounds, how they come together to build a profile, and the intricacies of possible interactions (beneficial or not) between different flavor compounds. Becoming a flavor chemist takes years of both education and training, making it a highly lucrative career.

Flavor compounds are either extracted (natural) or created (artificial). These compounds are the building blocks that are at a flavor chemist’s disposal when creating a flavor. Using these building blocks, the flavor chemist creates a flavor that takes into account everything from the requested profile, to the application, to the regulatory requirements. And if their job wasn’t hard enough, there could be hundreds of flavor compounds that make up something as simple as milk!

What makes up a finished flavor?

So these flavor compounds have to go into something, such as your soda or milk shake, right? This is where a solvent (sometimes referred to a carrier) comes in. These are relatively neutral-tasting ingredients that dilute the flavor compounds to a reasonable concentration. These can either be liquid or dry, dependent on the application. Some common solvents are:

  • Propylene Glycol
  • Water
  • Ethyl Alcohol
  • Glycerin
  • Maltodextrin (for powdered flavors)

There are many different qualities that go into choosing the appropriate solvent. These include: what the flavor compounds are most soluble in, what the end application is, and the restrictions set forth by the customer. In the case of powdered flavors, the flavor compounds can either be ‘plated’ on a solvent (like maltodextrin), spray dried, or encapsulated. Topics such as stability and cost go into this decision. Flavor chemists are tasked with the duty of picking the most appropriate solvent.

Outside of solvents, there are other common ingredients that can be added to a finished flavor. These can include preservatives to extend the shelf life of a flavor, other ingredients that contribute flavor (think cocoa powder for a chocolate flavor), and stabilizers to ensure that the flavor stays stable over it’s shelf life.

What are the different kinds of flavors?

Flavors are defined by two main characteristics: origin of the flavour compounds & flavor profile.

Origin – Natural types vs. artificial

We’ll start with the most basic distinction: what kind of flavor compounds were used to make this flavor?

There are four key distinctions when it comes to the labeling of a flavor. Let’s use a strawberry as an example:

  • Natural – all flavor compounds come from strawberries
  • Natural with other natural flavors (WONF) – some flavor compounds come from strawberries, with the rest coming from other natural sources
  • Natural Type – all flavor compounds come from natural sources that are not strawberries
  • Artificial – all flavor compounds are lab created and do not come from a natural source

Now I know the term “natural flavor” has caught a lot of slack in the news in recent times. Without letting opinion get into the conversation, you can trust that a product containing “natural flavors” is ONLY able to contain flavor compounds that come from natural sources. Although they are not required to tell you what those natural flavors are, you can trust that there is nothing artificial about them.

Flavor profile

The other defining characteristic is flavor profile. These can range from extremely simple to very complex. Think of the growing market of plant-based dairy products. The goal of most of these products is to taste like their dairy-based counterparts, without the use of any dairy! This is where a flavor chemist comes in. They are able to distinguish the defining characteristics of the dairy products, and find flavor compounds from non-dairy sources that can match those characteristics. Through the building of the complete profile, you get a flavor that contains no dairy-based compounds that tastes exactly like the dairy product!

Common flavor profile categories
  1. Fruits
  2. Vegetables
  3. Dairy
    • Can include cultured products like yogurt and cheese
  4. Savory
    • Can include everything from herbs to meat 
  5. Spices
  6. Sweet
    • Can include chocolate, vanilla, coffee, and all variations of each
  7. Maskers, Modifiers, & Modulators
    • These do not have a particular profile on their own, but rather are used to enhance other profiles. E.g. bitter maskers that block the bitter taste receptors for a short amount of time. Or Stevia maskers that help to diminish the lingering aftertaste commonly experienced by consumers
    • They are commonly used in products that advertise “low sodium” or “no added sugar”. Some can mimic the experience of fat (creaminess; coating of the mouth) when there is no fat in a product

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but can at the very least show you how extensive any one company’s flavor library can become!

home made yogurt in jars
Yes there are flavours that taste like yogurt.

How do you evaluate flavors?

First thing’s first, taste and acceptance is subjective. What you like, the next person may not. Ensure that the end goal is always top of mind, and try to train yourself to taste for the goal rather than preference. I know that this is very hard, but practice makes perfect!

I always suggest evaluating any flavors in the end product. Many people suggest first screening flavors in water to get a general understanding of the profile. However, in my experience, evaluating the flavor in the end product allows all for a more complete evaluation and allows you to find the best flavor much quicker. Ensuring that you are taking into account the other flavor profiles in the end product helps greatly.

There are four characteristics that you should be looking for to fully evaluate a flavor:

  1. Aroma – how does the flavor smell? Is it providing the notes that you are looking for?
  2. Top/Front Note – this is what you initially taste. What is this profile? Is it too strong, too weak? Any off notes?
  3. Mid Note – this is the majority of the taste. Is it the same as the top note, or has it changed? Is the intensity appropriate? Any off notes?
  4. End Note – this is the last thing that you taste. Does it leave you with a pleasant experience? Are there any lingering flavors? Or does the flavor finish too quickly?

To test a flavor, first ensure that you have a ‘Control’ of whatever you are tasting. This should be your base product, without any flavors in it. This will help you distinguish between what characteristics are inherent in your product, and which the flavor is providing. Then begin setting up the flavors that you are evaluating. Flavor houses typically provide a beginning usage rate for each flavor, I would recommend starting there. As you’re evaluating each flavor, make sure that you regularly taste the ‘Control’ as this will help you reset your palette. Take notes of each flavor and adjust the level as needed to reach your end goal. Remember, flavor application (just like flavor pairing) is a skill on it’s own so try not to get frustrated. You will get better at it with experience!

How to find and work with a flavor house that best suits your needs?

So now you know what flavors are, what types are available, how to use and evaluate them, but how do you actually get them? There are hundreds of flavor companies in the United States alone of varying sizes. Some specialize in certain types of flavors, while others do a bit of everything. Sometimes referred to as “flavor houses,” these companies specialize in the production of flavors, typically for both the fragrance and food industries. To help narrow down the amount of flavor companies to contact, try asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What kind of product(s) are you going to use the flavors in?
    • Most companies specialize in a few different categories, so find one that meets your specific needs!
  2. What form (powdered or liquid) do you need the flavors in?
    • Some companies produce one or the other exclusively.
  3. What profiles are you looking for?
    • There are companies that specialize in profiles like vanilla or dairy.
  4. Are there any restrictions that you want your flavor to meet?
    • Think Organic, Kosher, Halal…
  5. What qualities would your ideal flavor company possess?
    • Things like price, responsiveness, lead times, or minimum order quantities, which  vary from company to company

With the answers to these questions, you can fully define your needs to each interested company. As you begin reaching out to companies and the conversation progresses, make sure that you reference this list to ensure that you find the right fit for you and your company. As with any ingredient, finding the right suppliers is vital to success!

freshly harvested carrots, crinky and wobbly
Looking for some carrot flavour for your milkshake?

Creating a carrot cake milk shake

So let’s circle back to one of the products that I mentioned at the beginning of the article: how do you get a milk shake to taste like carrot cake? The answer to that is flavors. Let’s breakdown some of the basic flavor characteristics of a carrot cake:

  • Root vegetables (Carrot)
  • Warming spices (Cinnamon, maybe a little molasses or maple syrup, nutmeg, cardamom)
  • Tangy dairy (cream cheese frosting)
  • Cake (Flour, sugar, some brown flavors)

You can approach this one of two ways: either use a flavor for each defining characteristic and find the right levels yourself, or ask a flavor house/chemist to build a flavor containing each defining characteristic for you. The flavor chemist would then go and taste a carrot cake, making note of which flavors are more prominent and which are more background notes. They will then use the building blocks of flavor compounds to bring the experience of a carrot cake into a bottle of flavor. Either way, through the use of flavors you can make a standard milk shake taste like just about anything!

This was a guest post by a fellow food scientist with ample experience in various categories of new product development: Nathan Silva. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn. He also wrote an step-by-step guide to help you scale up your product.

References and other notes

Edlong, An introduction to flavour labeling: part 1, link

FEMA, All about flavours, link

Givaudan, Imagine having 4,000 flavours on the tip of your tongue, 2014, link

Harvard University, The Flavor Rundown: Natural vs. Artificial flavors, Sep21, 2015, link

Perfumer’s apprentice, An introduction to flavor chemistry, link

What Mike Nose, Flavor delivery, March-12, 2017, link ; to learn more about the different solvents

Regulatory

Just like every other food product on the market, flavors have to comply with a set of regulations set forth by the government. The most important  regulation is that all components used in a flavor must be considered generally recognized as safe aka “GRAS”  by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is handled by the Flavor & Extract Manufacturer’s Association (FEMA)  group.

Flavors also need to comply with the regulations of any additional certifications, dependent on the end product that they are used in. These include things like Kosher, Halal, Organic, and non-GMO certifications. Since these certifications vary by country, we won’t get into those too much here.

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