Perfectly balanced texture and flavor is hard to find in healthy snacks

Here’s how sensory experts advise navigating the push-and-pull relationship of creating new products that strike the perfect blend of familiar and fun.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 13, 2024

3 Min Read
Trail mix.

At a Glance

  • Texture deeply influences flavor by dictating “flavor release.”
  • When creating a healthy version of a traditional snack, ask if the flavor or the texture is the primary appeal.
  • Healthy “mimics” might balance familiar flavors with new textures, or familiar textures with more exotic flavors.

Flavor, as the saying goes, is king. But does that mean texture is queen? Or is texture a whole other kingdom that is sometimes at war with, and sometimes an ally of, taste?

The answer, as you might expect, is often complicated. Here’s how taste and texture experts navigate this relationship, and how to put it into action in developing products that hit the sensory sweet spot.

Texture dictates when users experience flavor

Thinking of texture and flavor as two completely independent categories overlooks a crucial component of how our mouths experience flavor, explained Marcia Petit, sensory director at Tate & Lyle. And that component is time.

“Texture can really affect flavor release,” Petit stated. “So if something's harder, it takes longer to dissolve in your mouth, and it’s more difficult for the flavors in the product to release.”

This doesn’t mean product developers need to avoid harder textures, though. Petit said it’s simply a matter of making sure the experience matches the expectations. For example, a hard, crispy bar that also explodes with flavor might overwhelm or hide the textural appeal. But one that snaps and then slowly releases its flavor allows a consumer to appreciate both.

“It’s a very delicate balance between having the right texture and having the right flavor release from the food matrix,” Petit suggested. “It requires working closely with the customer to understand what’s important: What flavor do they want to hit first? What’s an OK time for that flavor to linger?”

Texture, in this approach, isn’t just a parallel to flavor. It’s a crucial contributor that gives flavor direction and duration. But mastering both simultaneously can feel like a never-ending challenge.

Ryan Dillman, a research scientist at Tate & Lyle, offered an example: “Often you’ll solve for one — like you found a great texture — but it’ll totally throw off your flavor based on the ingredients you're using, and vice versa. Especially if you're trying to make something healthier, where you're removing something or replacing a sweetener, it’s always a challenge.”

Balancing the familiar with the innovative

The dance between flavor and texture often becomes apparent when trying to make a healthy product that mimics a more traditional snack food. Dillman said his early conversations with brands often revolve around trying to ascertain which is a higher priority — texture or flavor?

“Are you trying to make sure your product tastes like a certain cheese, or a cookie?” he asked. “Or are you looking for a specific texture? Do you have information about what consumers like about that product? Which modality are you really trying to match that we know might increase — or decrease — liking?”

Knowing where the historical appeal of a product comes from can also inform where — and where not — to take risks.

“For something like a kale chip, you might want really similar textures to a chip, with that crunchy crisp. You want it to dissipate in your mouth really quickly,” Petit said. But knowing that this texture is going to be different and new, “You might want to still have a nod to really traditional, familiar flavors — maybe salt and vinegar kale chips.”

Conversely, if the texture of a product is more familiar, it can open the door for more provocative flavor choices.

“Let’s say you’re doing a probiotic, reduced salt potato chip,” she offered. “You might try something more exciting, like a sweet-and-spicy chili lime chip. Because you’re taking the chip that’s ‘normal,’ and then you’re elevating it with a new, indulgent flavor. You want a nice balance between something innovative and something familiar.”

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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