Industry experts revolutionize energy beverage formulations with innovative ingredients, techniques

Energy drink formulators must balance the functional benefits of ingredients like caffeine with creating a pleasant taste using techniques like masking and taste bud modulation, according to industry experts.

Kimberly Decker, Contributing writer

April 30, 2024

5 Min Read
energy drinks

At a Glance

  • Energy drinks contain functional ingredients like caffeine that can often have unpleasant tastes.
  • Formulators use various techniques to mask bitterness and achieve a desired taste, including using sweeteners.
  • Finding the right balance between functionality, taste requires careful formulation and consideration of factors like cost.

If only balancing it all didn’t require a bit of magic in its own right. Alas, given the complexities of energy beverage formulations, it usually does.

 “Like every category, energy drinks present challenges and opportunities in equal measure,” Gregory Peel, VP of beverages, taste and beyond at dsm-firmenich, said. “But I would say energy-focused beverages differ from conventional offerings in how they have to balance functionality with sensory considerations.”

Hero ingredients like caffeine, taurine, vitamins, botanicals and amino acids contribute notoriously unpleasant, bitter and medicinal profiles. And while formulators might’ve once bombarded those off-notes with heavy duty synthetic flavors and a liberal dose of sugar, “It’s not that simple in the current market,” according to Peel.

Recreate the original

“Consumers are very conscious of sugar levels and now opt for low-sugar or alternative sweetener options,” Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager at Virginia Dare Extract Co., said. But even natural sweeteners “taste different, oftentimes with a lingering, high-intensity flavor” — meaning that sugar reduction can “drastically change how our taste buds experience a drink.”

That’s why Caputo’s team aims to recreate the “full-sugar experience” as best as possible. “This is a custom process for each beverage,” he explained. “But overall, we modulate and mask bitter notes or control the harsh, lingering flavor of alternative sweeteners. Ultimately, we trick the taste buds into interpreting flavors differently using clean-label ingredients.”

Knowing that salt enhances sweetness, for instance, they might boost a beverage’s sweet side by increasing the perception of saltiness “without adding salt,” according to Caputo. Considering that Virginia Dare began masking flavors in pharmaceutical applications in the 1950s, “Functional beverages are a breeze” by comparison, he said. “These are familiar concerns to flavorists.”

Sweeten, but modify 

At Cargill, they take a “sweeten, but modify” approach to smooth out an energy drink’s rough edges. By combining Cargill’s EverSweet stevia sweetener and ClearFlo natural flavor in one flavor-modifying package, the company “offers exceptional performance in these types of functional beverages,” according to Smaro Kokkinidou, principal food scientist lead at Cargill.

The ingredient duo gets to work by providing a “great sweetness foundation” thanks to its “more sugar-like sweetness profile with less sweetness linger,” she said. Meanwhile, its flavor-modifying capacity masks the bitter, metallic off-notes characteristic of vitamins, caffeine and other common functional additions.

The combination also improves mouthfeel, addresses solubility and dissolution and enhances characterizing flavors. “Formulating with EverSweet and ClearFlo brings out more desirable and refreshing, bright citrus notes or fresh berry flavors,” Kokkinidou said. Also, labeling simply as “stevia sweetener and natural flavor,” it’s unlikely to ruffle any feathers.

components of energy drinks


While masking flavors have long been workhorses in energy beverage formulations, Thom King, CEO and chief food scientist at Icon Foods, acknowledged that they have their drawbacks.

“A masking agent literally acts on the taste bud receptors so as not to perceive bitterness or astringency,” he explained. “But the risk you run in using a masking agent is that it’ll mute flavors you don’t want muted.”

When that happens, formulators need to use more of those flavors, which, King noted “aren’t cheap and can be among the most expensive compounds going into your product,” especially when they’re natural. “If you’re masking the flavors you want and using more as a result, you’ll increase your cost of goods sold,” he said.

Positive modulation 

Enter positive allosteric modulators (PAMs), small compounds that can enhance sweet receptor activity and sweetness perception. Flavorists can harness PAMs — like the protein thaumatin — to dial up other compounds’ sweet notes without adding much taste of their own, according to King.

“Positive allosteric modulators aren’t masking agents,” he said. “The beauty of using one like thaumatin is that it extends the sweet technical effect through those extremely bitter off-notes without masking the flavor you want.”

The steviol glycosides in Reb (Rebaudioside) M also function as PAMs and standalone sweeteners, King added. “If there’s any need to mask off-notes and bitterness from compounds like vitamin B or adaptogenic herbs, Reb M stevia, in combination with a thaumatin-type protein-based sweetener, will cover those notes and offer a clean, neutral sweet flavor,” he explained.

 Adding a soluble tapioca fiber further potentiates the sweet experience “by extending it across the palate,” per King. No wonder Icon’s ThauSweet DRM ingredient blends all three.

Titration equation

Armed with ingredients like ThauSweet, the Icon team can follow client goals toward a target energy beverage profile. “We’ll start with a base formula and then add acidulants, sweeteners and fibers, titrating up or down until we find what the customer is looking for,” King said.

“Sometimes it’s not as much about increasing or decreasing levels as it’s about using a combination, combining acidulants like malic acid with citric acid, or, if you want mild acidity, tartaric acid,” he explained. “It’s stacking your acids and titrating them to a point that carries your flavors. The same goes for sweeteners and fibers.”

As for managing mouthfeel, his theory is that it “has everything to do with fiber.” Soluble tapioca fiber and inulin create “a mild gelling effect in beverages” that King and his team also factor into the equation, “stacking different fibers until you find what carries the sweeteners, acidulants and flavors from the tip of the tongue to the back of the throat.” Also, “the amount depends on the desired mouthfeel,” he said.

Clearly, putting it all together takes experience — and energy. Fortunately for the category’s growing audience, industry experts have plenty of both.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing writer

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected].

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