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Product developers tackle natural flavors and colors

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Food technology is enabling the development of plant-based ingredients that offer vibrant hues and rich tastes with a coveted health halo.

Historically, the first flavorants and colorants added to foods were derived from plants. Consumer preference for more healthful foods and beverages has redirected the market full circle, back to these plant-based ingredients to replace the “artificial” alternatives that came into vogue in the last century from advances in synthetic chemistry manufacturing methods.

If they are retained through source extraction and production, pigments and flavors of plant-derived nutraceuticals may offer food brands a “health halo,” in addition to enhanced consumer perception of cleaner and safer ingredients. Bright colorful hues suggest food freshness and nutritional vitality to consumers. Additionally, color intensity implies flavor intensity which is a desirable attribute for products competing for consumer attention in a crowded marketplace.

People like eating buttery-flavored bakery products, but not the caloric baggage or formulation cost of butter. Dairy fermentation technologies offer authentic dairy notes with almost five times the flavor impact of real grade AA butter. The label can simply declare “butter (cream, salt)” with a significant reduction in the overall dairy spend and calories. Yeast fermentation coupled with extraction technologies and culinary ability can boost saltiness with umami flavors in applications that do not need to rely on salt for safety but for taste. The label declaration of “natural flavoring” or “yeast extract” appeals to consumers.

A challenge confronting product developers is consumer interest in vibrant blues, rich purples, bright greens and deep browns in foods. These may be achieved by combining two or more pigment sources, but are also time- and labor-intensive and only marginally effective due to inherent variations in the color consistency of the plant sources.

The next stage of food color innovation depends on finding new and safe plant-based pigments while fostering sustainable cultivation methods. Further, the industry must develop clean extraction techniques for harvesting natural colorants on a cost-effective scale without disrupting the agricultural infrastructure.

Opportunities for natural flavors and colors

Common food colors like caramels and whites are in the development pipeline for a natural makeover to alleviate concerns about 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) and titanium dioxide, which are currently used for these colors, respectively. Natural alternatives are brown pigments sourced from wheat, apples and upcycled grains. Calcium carbonate does not match the intense whiteness of titanium dioxide, so product developers are testing rice starch functionality.

Fermentation, a traditional way to create flavor-rich ingredients, is being elevated to “precision fermentation” by using microbes as “cell factories” to build specific flavor compounds and overcome the shortcomings of conventional, resource-intensive, raw materials in flavor manufacturing and the harsh processes like solvent extraction and chemical synthesis. The resulting cleaner, natural and planet-positive flavors are also high-quality, scalable and consistent with customizable harmony of taste and smell—but with significantly smaller environmental footprints.

Flavor compounds, regardless of their origins, are chemical compounds. Human sensory capabilities surpass ultra-sensitive, precision analytical methods used to detect and interpret flavors. Synthetically produced linalool, ubiquitously used to flavor food and beverage formulations, often confuses the palate because chemical processes indiscriminately produce two different enantiomers (forms) of linalool. One form has tea and lavender notes and the other has woody orange notes.

Nature only produces one form or the other without blurring flavors. Reliance on plants for flavor production is resource-extensive and not sustainable, especially with global climate change, seasonality and geopolitical concerns. Chemical synthesis can be detrimental to the environment. Precision fermentation can lower the carbon, water and land footprints significantly and still produce natural, sustainable and clean flavor components.

The “A vibrant alternative: Advances in natural color & flavor” digital magazine contains the full version of this article, along with related content. Click the link to access it.

Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., CFS, is principal of Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm she founded in 2000. Her focus is assisting progressive companies with strategic industry competitive intelligence, innovative new product/technology development and rapid commercialization of honestly healthful foods and food ingredients. She is a frequent author and speaker in the food and beverage sector.

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