Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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“It is the flavorist’s desire to make a flavor that becomes a distinctive characteristic attribute of the brand,” says Firmenich Food Technologist David Watson. Photo courtesy of firmenich. Today’s menu developers can benefit from flavor collaborations at the source

By Priscilla Martel

Flavor chemists are credited for such creations as cookie-dough vodka and bacon bubble gum, but the flavor industry supports foodservice in many more ways than developing the latest buzzworthy flavor creations. Working with in-house or consulting chefs, flavor companies help operators create consistent and craveable signature dishes. Flavor scientists have a knowledge base of what makes menu items craveable, and they study how flavors can help bolster the nutritional profile of an item by reducing such things as sugar or sodium. Their work ensures that the delicate taste of fresh herbs survives processing and reheating for service, and that strawberry ice cream can deliver that just-picked taste regardless of the season.

“There is a special synergy between flavorists and chefs that helps to create more authentic flavor profiles,” says Lauren Martey, product development chef at Philadelphia-based David Michael & Co., emphasizing the partnership potential of flavor collaborations between operator-chefs and flavor houses.

Flavors are created from essential oils, natural extracts, distillates and as many as 5,000 aroma and flavor molecules. They may be derived from plant materials or from processes such as the Maillard reaction and the browning of sugar. Flavor chemists, or flavorists, blend these elements “in an artistic way,” says food technologist David Watson of Firmenich, a flavor and fragrance company with U.S. headquarters in Princeton, N.J. A flavorist’s goal may be to duplicate a flavor from nature or create something entirely new. “It is the flavorist’s desire to make a flavor that becomes a distinctive characteristic attribute of the brand,” he notes.

Once the need for a specific flavor profile is identified, flavor houses employ a range of specialists to work on the tasty solution. Research chefs, flavor chemists, analysts and marketers collaborate. Joyce Friedberg, business development manager/savory, describes the flow at Firmenich. First, the company’s research chefs, known as TechnoChefs, create a culinary-inspired gold standard for a dish. “The TechnoChefs meet to discuss the key characterizing elements of the gold standard,” Friedberg explains. Then the chefs prepare the gold-standard dish, which the team tastes to create a “sensory map.” Separately, an analytical team uses proprietary tools to identify key compounds in the gold standard. Armed with this research, the flavorists work to create a flavor that captures the essence of the culinary gold standard. Then it is back to the test kitchen to sample the flavor in the actual application.

Firmenich TechnoChef Joe Scott stresses the importance of researching a restaurant’s products, capabilities and staffing as part of the flavor development process. “We focus on understanding operating procedures and proprietary equipment,” he says. This ensures that the flavor solution works within an operation’s limitations.

Typically, flavor companies work back and forth with foodservice manufacturers. One or the other will identify a flavor need, then refine it for a particular application. A flavor house like Philadelphia-based David Michael & Co. might develop a new beef gravy with a rich taste of a classic French stock or fond for a customer.  “We show the manufacturer how it can be done,” says Julie Snarski, manager of culinary and foodservice development. Then the manufacturer introduces the “blue sky” concept to its customer, in the hopes it will be adopted by the restaurant.

In some instances, usually with high-volume chains, flavor companies will collaborate with both the manufacturer and operator on a project. “We’ve seen the most success when we develop the relationship with both the operator and processor,” says Santa Stone, Firmenich’s senior sales manager/culinary. This may take the form of proactively developing new breakfast concepts based on proprietary trend research. “We want to get down to what it means for the flavor profile of the egg, for example,” she says of the concept development a flavor company may present an operator.

According to Rachel Zemser, independent food scientist and culinologist, quick-service chains may bring R&D chefs from flavor houses together with their foodservice suppliers to the chain’s R&D center for brainstorming. “This is a positive way for operators to generate new ideas working with their supplier culinologists and chefs,” she says.

Thanks to smart use of flavors, this savory crab cupcake with tomato-herb “frosting” is shellfish-allergen free. The hors d’oeuvre was created for David Michael & Co.’s annual Innovation Roadshow as an example of the range and applicability of flavor chemistry. Photo courtesy of david michael & co.
Delivering flavor as a solution to a challenge is the hallmark of the flavor industry. In fact, the history of many a flavor house is replete with tales of flavor innovation out of necessity. For example, David Michael & Co. originated in the late 1800s, but gained notoriety with the development of Oldtime Special Body & Age, “a few drops of which will make raw corn whiskey taste like a 10-year-old Bourbon in just a few hours” — a product in much demand upon the repeal of Prohibition.

Modern-day challenges are equally complex — for example, delivering on today’s bold flavor trends when a product has to be processed then refrigerated or frozen before reheating. Enter the flavor house, who can assist in the right flavor solution.

“There are certain things you just can’t mimic with IQF ingredients,” says Jim Reynolds, corporate chef/director of R&D at Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations in Chicago. Here is where flavors come in to “fortify” a formula, he says, such as when restoring a fresh-picked-herb flavor profile.

And when operators face inconsistencies with fresh products during challenging growing conditions and limited seasonality, flavors come to play. Nathan Schomers, product development chef at Eatem Foods Company, a flavor systems supplier in Vineland, N.J., cites the example of a strawberry ice cream. In season, fresh berries supplied from growers in close proximity to a production facility might be used, but when imported strawberries or a frozen purée must be used, a quality flavor “fills the gap of flavor nuances.” A flavor will provide a consistent product and stabilize the cost, Schomers points out.

A chain operator might ask its manufacturer to produce a product with flavor notes unobtainable in their manufacturing process. Rachel Zemser describes working on a custom salsa project with a fire-roasted flavor. “Since one cannot fire roast tomatoes in a tomato packing facility, I would have to source fire-roasted tomatoes and also source a fire-roasted flavor from a flavor company to recreate that flavor in the gold standard sample that the QSR customer sent to me.” A browned caramel note for a coffee beverage might pose the same challenge.

A manufacturer may partner with a flavor company to match a flavor. Jim Reynolds describes a project with the goal of matching a fresh macaroni and cheese to one that arrived frozen. For the flavor nuances he was not getting, he requested cheddar flavor profile samples from his suppliers. He specified ingredients designed to work in kettle-cooked applications. “In flavor volatility, temperature is a big factor,” he says. “I gave them my base formula, they made up formulas and tried it against the control until they came up with the right flavor profile.”

Firmenich’s Scott says there are flavor nuances one cannot capture in all food production processes. He cites slow-cooked flavors such as that from braising meat as difficult to obtain in a frozen food product. Flavors assist in delivering these nuances.  Meanwhile, Friedberg notes that the growing vegetarian population is putting a demand on “protein type flavors that do not contain protein.” Such flavors are technically challenging to produce. Flavors can also help address dietary issues such as adding nutty flavors without using nuts or creating a product such as kosher turkey bacon.

Like quality and consistency, cost stabilization is a big concern in the industry. For example, if a formula calls for a costly ingredient like saffron, a wise choice would be to find a flavor solution, says David Michael & Co.’s Martey. “You want to communicate that flavor without the expense.”

Sometimes it’s more cost-effective to reproduce the flavors of certain spices and other costly ingredients, while maintaining a pleasing
end result. Photo courtesy of firmenich. AMPLIFIED FLAVORS
Flavors are often categorized in relation to flavor profiles and applications: fruit flavors, savory flavors, dairy flavors or cheese flavors, for example. Or, the flavors are positioned by the roles they play in a dish.

Like perfume, a flavor can be unidentifiable — a novelty or fantasy flavor that creates a taste that consumers crave. Freshness is an important attribute that resonates strongly with consumers. “Certain flavor notes, such as that of just-baked bread or spices, can accentuate freshness,” says Firmenich’s Friedberg. Its line of “Farmer’s Basket” flavors replicates fresh herbs, spices and produce. There are also those she calls “yum flavors” — flavors with an appealing aroma as well as taste. “Flavors and aromas like caramel and brown sugar are a big driver in craveability of bakery products,” she says. These aromas can send a “homemade” cue, even if the item comes right out of the freezer.

Flavor houses develop cutting-edge flavor formulas to address a need in the industry, but also to inspire flavor innovation.

At Sensient Flavors, Craig “Skip” Julius, manager of culinary services, incorporates a “meaty bacon caramelized onion flavor” into a pickle. “It works really well,” he said of the on-trend item he made for the applications marketing team.

For its annual Innovation Roadshow last year, David Michael & Co. created a snake fruit flavor, which Snarski describes as a “tropical blend of tastes.” The flavor formula amplifies the sweet-citrusy snake fruit taste far beyond the flavor perception one would get from the real fruit in equivalent quantities.

Last year, Erlanger, Ky.-based WILD Flavors introduced a mixology-inspired mocktail flavor line with such profiles as gin and tonic, Dark & Stormy, horchata and pineapple-herbal mint. These flavors were designed to be used in various food and beverage applications. “We felt it was certainly a trend to take to the next level,” says Jessica Jones-Dille, associate director of marketing.

“Flavor houses all seem to offer a different core competency,” says consulting research chef Steven Petusevsky, whether it be spice, dairy or Asian flavors. Increasingly, he is able to find more clean-label products from his suppliers that boost flavor and extend the shelf life of the fresh refrigerated foods. When seeking a “clean” umami flavor for the development of a delicately flavored Asian soup, a flavor house was able to provide an additive-free flavor made from shiitake mushrooms.

“Flavor companies are where science meets craft,” he says, adding that the speed of the development of new flavor and product technologies makes it hard for the chef to keep up. And he is a firm supporter of the possibilities flavor companies bring to make sure the consumer is getting the best flavor experience possible.


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