Consumers are hungry for healthier products. As a result, plant-based/animal-free, nutritionally fortified, and no/low/reduced sugar, sodium, or fat products have become mainstream. Yet with taste being the number one reason consumers purchase a product and taste also being the number one challenge food developers encounter, the need to overcome taste as a challenge and make it a differentiator is bigger than ever. How can food manufacturers overcome taste challenges? One way is through using dairy-free dairy flavors to mask off-notes from new unique protein sources, functional ingredients, and processing conditions.
“Even though manufacturers have used substitutes and fortified ingredients in foods for decades, there’s a new demand that heightens the need for successful masking,” said Julie Drainville, Sensory Manager for Edlong. “Consumers are looking for added protein or added fiber. So, you find a great complete protein source, but it might not have the taste the consumers want. That’s where masking comes into play.”
“Masking brings the product into a more palatable position by neutralizing or repositioning the notes into the correct order,” explained Anne Marie Butler, Global Director, Innovation and Commercial Development for Edlong. Masking differs from flavoring, which intentionally brings new notes into the mix. “When we mask, we’re trying not to add additional notes. But many masking flavors on the market have a very sweet or vanilla capacity to them, distorting the profile,” she explained. “We focus on how to mask an off-note, without adding any characterizing flavors like cheesiness or notes that aren’t suitable in an application.”
New Possibilities Bring More Options
In addition to adding protein, food manufacturers are looking at different sources for that protein. Soy used to be the standard plant protein, but now, other options are available, such as pea protein, mung bean, almonds, oats, and more. While these options open new possibilities for developing products, it can also be a challenge to determine which proteins should be added and when — and how those additions will affect the product’s taste both during and after processing.”
The plant world is full of different types of proteins. Some of them taste better than others, and some have different nutritional aspects,” Drainville stated. “A manufacturer making an alternative milk from a plant product might add a small amount of protein to the beverage, and it might not have any off-notes,” she explained. “However, to have the same amount of protein naturally found in milk, the amount of additional protein needed could create an off-note.
The Great Balancing Act
“Those off-notes could taste oily, fishy, or vegetative,” said Laura Enriquez, Edlong Master Scientist for Strategic Applications. She noted that a simple formula for a plant-based mozzarella cheese might include pea protein, potato starch, coloring, fat, and water. These ingredients can make the base taste bitter, beany, or astringent. “If you imagine your eating experience, you put a piece of cheese in your mouth and start chewing. The first thing you perceive may be bitterness. Then you may get to starchiness. And, at the end, you could get some beany character.” Enriquez shared that in addition to the flavor, the texture could also be an issue. It could be creamy and smooth but lack body: “Masking flavors can help with notes that are perceived to improve mouthfeel and taste, from upfront, in the middle, or at the end.”
“Pea proteins, which are popular in beverages, can taste metallic, earthy, sulfuric, or even like cardboard at different points during consumption,” added Drainville. “We have to design our masking flavors to extend throughout the whole eating or drinking experience to mask those notes.”
“Another consideration in masking is making sure that you don’t enhance other notes too much or create new notes that change the profile or balance,” Butler added. “With many of our projects, a manufacturer will say ‘we’ve added proteins, and they’ve thrown everything out of whack!’” In addition to the protein off-notes, they may also interact with other notes in the application. “Other subtleties are happening,” she continued, “so you have to be aware of what you’re trying to achieve.”
It’s also possible to mask flavors too much. “I bought a protein-fortified shake recently. It was supposed to be chocolate flavored, but they had done such a job of masking the protein that I couldn’t taste the chocolate in it either,” said Butler. It’s not enough that food has the nutrition and no bad taste — it also needs to have the desired flavors coming through. “That’s where Edlong brings real knowledge, rooted in expertise and experience, about the balance of how to mask and bring flavors together,” she explained.
When You Need to Mask Off-notes, The Application Matters
“How an ingredient tastes — and its masking needs — depends on the product application,” Enriquez said. She cited as an example that vitamins can have a very strong taste, particularly when added with other ingredients, like proteins, that you might see in many plant-based milks. The challenge is to mask the off-notes and maintain the overall profile and mouthfeel consumers expect. Manufacturing or the consumers’ preparation— like when a powder shake mix is hydrated using water versus milk versus a plant-based milk— can also affect the impression of a product. All these possibilities must be tested to ensure consistency.
All Good Things Take Time: The Winding Path to Mask Off-Notes
“A primary challenge of masking is the time it takes to determine if the product achieved the intended flavor profile,” said Enriquez, explaining that can take a week or two for the masking process to reveal how a plant-based product truly tastes. As a result, food scientists must create multiple iterations of samples and adjust them, then wait and taste test them again. It’s not a process that can be rushed.
So, when food manufacturers want to mask off-notes and get a product to market as quickly as possible, it is crucial to work with a flavor partner that has the experience and expertise to accelerate the developmental timeline without cutting corners.
Want to learn more about using dairy-free flavors for masking in plant-based products? Make sure to read our full Masking Playbook!
Ready to see how our masking solutions can improve your next product launch? Contact our team of global R&D experts today!