News | April 26, 1999

Savory Characters - Part One

From Food Product Design Magazine

By: Joan Murray, R. D. and Lynn A. Kuntz

Table of Contents
Savor the word
You say umami
I could enhance all night
It's the cheesiest

Let's face it, we don't eat food just for its nutrients, or we'd all be eating seaweed - or at least the McLean Deluxe - on a regular basis. Consumer survey after consumer survey cites sensory reasons for choosing foods. Furthermore, these studies also say that if the consumer doesn't like the taste, then he won't buy it and he certainly won't eat it. For many products, the term used to describe good-tasting foods is "savory." But what exactly is a savory flavor and how exactly do we incorporate it into food product design?

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Savor the word

Webster's dictionary defines savory as "pleasing to the taste or smell; salty or piquant (agreeably pungent or stimulating to the taste - pleasantly sharp or biting)." The term is often used to describe specific food flavorings. Meat is "cooked to perfection in its own mouth-watering savory juices," say the ads and menu descriptors. Soup is often described as savory. The term is also used to describe snack foods such as potato chips. Even vegetables are described as savory. Terms like brothy, bouillon-like, chickeny, beefy and mouthful or umami are terms that often come up when describing savory foods, says Benjamin Jones, technical affairs manager, Gist-brocades International, B.V., King of Prussia, PA.

Flavor specialists say the concept of savory is evolving, as more and more cuisines are added into the American consciousness. As a result, savory must constantly be redefined. Others say savory means foods seasoned with onions, garlic or similar seasoning ingredients that have a sharp quality. Onions, for example, may be thought of as savory because of what they are paired with, says Paul Breslin, Ph.D., scientist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia. Onions often are paired with meats and other protein foods.

One common usage of savory, according to Breslin, is "fuller bodied and more spiced." Often, foods described as savory have a taste that is brothy or meaty, he explains. Saltiness combined with free amino acids is reminiscent of brothy or meaty foods.

The food industry tends to categorize non-sweet foods as savory. "Savory flavors are determined by the end application," says Jerome Lombardo, savory business unit manager, Dragoco, Inc., Totowa, NJ. "Savory applications include soups, sauces, salad dressings and some snack products."

Snack foods, theorizes Breslin, fit the definition of savory. These foods are often salty, high in fat, and seasoned with herbs and spices associated with meats. Barbecue potato chips, for instance, are often seasoned with the same spices and flavors as barbecued ribs. "In snack foods," says Bob Brown, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition, Frito Lay, Inc., Plano, TX, "savory is anything that is non-sweet. Savory snacks are all-encompassing. The term brings more foods into the category, including beef jerky."

The term "savory" in relationship to snack foods is used by the FDA to distinguish non-sweet snack foods from sweet ones such as cakes, cookies, pies and candy. Sweet is not typically associated with savory, but salty is. Savory snacks tend to have a bite to them because of the salt irritation in the oral cavity. The definition of savory, concludes Breslin, may actually be cultural. The word means different things to different people, depending on context - where they live, who they are working with, their exposure to meaty and brothy foods, and various herbs and spices.

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You say umami

Savory can go beyond the traditional taste of salt and flavor of spices. In taste panels, relates Breslin, when participants are asked to identify the other taste, besides salty, in a mixture of MSG and 5'-ribonucleotides, they identify the other flavor as brothy or meaty. What these panelists have identified is umami.

"There is a convergence of the term savory and umami," says Breslin. "I use the term savory and umami interchangeably. Umami is defined as the taste sensation when sampling a mixture of sodium glutamate with some kind of 5'-nucleotide (such as inosinate and guanylic acid). Umami is widely regarded as a quality of taste, like salt, sweet and bitter. It is a prototypical descriptor of broth.

"Umami is a relatively new term," continues Breslin. The term came into being in the early 1900s as a result of Professor Kikunae Ikeda's work in Japan with seaweed and kelp. It wasn't until 1979, however, that many taste and flavor researchers recognized umami as a basic taste.

Mushrooms, cheese and meat represent the umami flavor, according to Breslin. They are also high in free glutamates. Pizza, he points out, has many free glutamates from tomatoes, cheese and toppings such as mushrooms and pepperoni, and thus is high in umami.

MSG, ribonucleotides and combinations of the two are frequently used in Asian cooking as flavoring agents to create umami. The combination increases potency of the other flavors. The actual taste of the combination is so subtle, it can easily be overpowered by the other flavor sensations it enhances. Its subtlety and enhancing properties are the reason umami has been so difficult to identify.

Flavor Fears

  The use of MSG in foods has created a controversy of sorts - some individuals have complained about an MSG Symptom Complex, also known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Reported symptoms include numbness, throbbing sensations, difficulty breathing, headache, nausea, hives and vomiting. These individuals claim they are allergic to MSG, but not to foods naturally high in glutamate.
  Experts are skeptical. A true food allergy, says Robert Wood, M.D., pediatric allergist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, has two components - symptoms such as hives and breathing difficulties, and an immune-system response. The hyperactive immune system response is detected by skin tests. To date, no study has confirmed that MSG causes an allergic response.
  In addition to a true allergy, some people might exhibit a phenomenon known as a sensitivity. A person with a food or chemical sensitivity will exhibit some of the same symptoms, primarily respiratory, as someone with a food allergy. However, the sensitive individual will not exhibit the immune response. To date, evidence confirming the cause/effect relationship between MSG and sensitivity symptoms is less than overwhelming. In fact, in the 1980s, scientists discovered that glutamate has an important biological function as a nerve impulse transmitter in the brain and other parts of the body.
  In 1994, the FDA received a citizen's petition asking for mandatory labeling for manufactured or processed foods that contain MSG or related substances such as soy fermentations, autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein. The petition asked that the amount of free glutamate be listed on the label along with a warning. A 1995 report from FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) put the safety concerns into perspective, says FDA spokesman Emil Corwin. The report reaffirmed the FDA's belief that MSG and related substances are safe for most people when eaten at customary levels.
  The Truth in Labeling Campaign filed a lawsuit in 1995, challenging the FDA's position on MSG labeling, relates Martin Hahn, secretary, International Hydrolyzed Protein Council, Washington, D.C. The suit charged that the FDA's position was arbitrary and capricious. The legal action was dismissed in 1998, with the federal court upholding the FDA's position.
  While the lawsuit was winding its way through the judicial system, the FDA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The 1996 missive sought information on significant sources of free glutamates in foods. It also asked whether or not special labeling should be required. Although the FDA has not formally withdrawn its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, few expect the agency to require MSG labeling any time in the near future.
  "Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, the FDA is required to ensure labeling is truthful and not misleading," says Felicia Satchell of the FDA's Office of Food Labeling. "Labeling information must not mislead consumers. The law does not give the FDA authority to label purely on the basis of consumer right-to-know." In some cases, she continues, additional information on the label may be needed, on a material fact basis, where there is a significant health issue, or scientific concerns.
  "The science does not support labeling of MSG," relates Hahn, "nor has a public health issue been identified." Still, some markets require products without MSG or specific glutamate-containing ingredients, so it's wise to be aware of whether they have specific restrictions before taking advantage of these ingredients' savory benefits. Many of these "tend to be the manufacturers looking for a smaller niche market," says Bob Kaminski, director of new products, Wixon Fontarome, St. Francis, WI. "They're looking for a point of differentiation, like no artificial flavors or by offering nutritional benefits or products with a 'cleaner' ingredient line."
  Of a potentially bigger concern to both food manufacturers and the public are the true allergenicity issues, especially those that crop up as frequent culprits: shellfish, milk, fish, soy, wheat, peanuts, eggs and tree nuts. Most allergic reactions to these foods are not life-threatening, but a small percentage of allergic individuals can have severe reactions. True food allergies affects less than 2% of the population, according to the International Food Information Council.
  To prevent the inadvertent consumption of these products, many flavor companies have taken to labeling flavors derived from these natural substances so that the manufacturers are aware of their presence.
  "An important consideration on the formulating side is to avoid the use of allergens in cases where you wouldn't expect them," says Jerome Lombardo, savory business unit manager, Dragoco, Inc., Totowa, NJ. "If you develop an egg flavor, you might expect egg in the product, but you would not expect peanut."

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I could enhance all night

Flavor enhancement is something that evolved naturally in classic cooking. "When you build a recipe, you usually start with a meat or vegetable base and it may be topped with herbs and spices," says Lombardo. "Then often a chef will add something that bridges the gap; for example, tomato, mushroom or cheese. When you look at the ingredients I mentioned, you'll notice that they all have a significant glutamate content."

In addition to naturally occurring glutamates in foods, manufactured sources of MSG and glutamates include fermentations of soy, autolyzed yeast, yeast extracts and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP). These depend on various processes to obtain a more-concentrated form of flavor-enhancing material. They come in dry forms or higher-moisture types such as pastes.

Because of the protein content, many of these products can be hygroscopic, especially HVP. Sometimes flow agents or an oil coating are required to facilitate handling. "When you use these in blends," says Ruth Kaan, product development manager, SpiceTec, Ltd., Carol Stream, IL, "you have to be careful and add anti-caking agents like silicon dioxide; but they're always added in small amounts. These are considered process aids so the customer doesn't have to list them on the finished product."

One of the best-known, and inexpensive, flavor enhancers is MSG, or monosodium glutamate. (Most consumers commonly refer to any glutamic acid salt as MSG or glutamate.) The free form of glutamate intensifies savory flavors and also harmonizes salty and sour tastes, especially in meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. It doesn't have much effect on sweet foods, which may be due to the relatively low protein content of sweets. In low concentrations, when paired with sweeteners or subliminal concentrations of some extracts, MSG can impart a buttery flavor and mouthfeel.

Flavor enhancement also occurs from 5'-ribonucleotides such as 5'-inosine monophosphate and 5'-guanosine monophosphate. These often appear in combination with MSG to create a synergistic flavor-enhancing, or umami, effect. They are particularly effective in meat broths, says Lombardo, "where they balance and round out flavors. Adding MSG to a chicken product will not change the chicken character, but it will intensify the flavor profile."

One of the biggest problems caused by the use of hygroscopic ingredients, says Barry Eddy, SpiceTec's director of product development, is lumping. This hinders even dispersion in, or on, a product or when filling a package. Another method for keeping products free-flowing is agglomeration. This process allows the ingredient to dissolve more quickly and thoroughly. It also has another advantage over oil in the finished product, says Jones. "With an oil-coating, you can get an oil slick or a cloudy product, whereas with the agglomerated product, it's perfectly clear."

Yeast extracts result from yeast autolysis, mainly of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (bakers yeast). Brewer's yeast can be used, but tends to produce a harsher, more bitter flavor. Yeast cell walls are centrifuged away and the remaining material is concentrated. The manufacturer can vary the conditions to favor certain reactions. This gives different products. "We have yeast extracts where we favor the formation of free glutamate and we have others where we favor the formation of 5'-nucleotides," Jones explains. "If you use yeast extracts, you should have a library. Some are more meaty, which works well in chicken and beef systems, and some are more brothy, where you just want that background rather than a meat note." Combining yeast extracts that are high in glutamates with those high in the nucleotides gives a synergistic effect.

"We've moved well beyond merely flavor enhancement, and are using yeast extracts as part of flavor mixtures and reaction flavors and so forth," says Jones. "They're no longer acting as just an MSG carrier. They do other things as well." He notes the process causes formation of short peptides, which, though not well-defined, possess flavors of their own.

One flavor-enhancing product, based on fermented soy flour and marketed as Soyarome; by Gist-brocades, has the unique ability to enhance dairy flavors. "It contains no MSG and no 5'-ribonucleotides," Jones says. One application is to combine it with other dairy ingredients and enhancers to intensify cheese flavor in crackers. It modifies the flavor of spices; in particular it lifts the flavor of capsicum.

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It's the cheesiest

Whether cheese is considered savory or umami, it nevertheless remains a favorite flavor among consumers. It appears in side dishes like potatoes, pasta and rice. It also adds interest, and in some cases, has a starring role in soups, sauces, and meat and poultry dishes.

Various forms of cheese can flavor products. Higher-moisture natural and processed cheeses and cheese sauces are often used in home and foodservice kitchens. However, they are not found as often in industrial applications as the flavoring medium due to a number of processing, cost and handling issues. In general, higher-moisture cheeses mean refrigeration, plus paying a premium for water. Very high-moisture cheeses like ricotta run upwards of 55%; high-moisture varieties like mozzarella fall in the 45% to 55% range; medium-moisture products like Cheddar range from 34% to 45%; and low-moisture cheeses like parmesan run about 13% to 34%.

Food processors often turn to products designed especially for flavoring purposes. These include enzyme-modified cheese, powdered cheese and natural and artificial cheese flavors.

Enzyme-modified cheese (EMC) manufacture uses lipases and proteases along with fermentation to produce a cheese with a highly concentrated flavor - as much as 10 to 20 times the level of natural cheese. The resulting product can be sold as a paste or spray-dried with a carrier, such as whey, to create a lower-moisture powder. The resulting flavor depends on the enzymes and the processing conditions. In general, the flavor results from the enzymes converting protein to peptides and amino acids, and fat into short-chain fatty acids.

Cheese powders traditionally were made by spray-drying natural cheese that had been mixed into a slurry, usually along with a carrier and emulsifying salts. Today, cheese powders might contain a variety of ingredients, including cheese (usually something that for some reason didn't make it on the market as "real" cheese), EMC, flavorings, and a wide range of carriers, such as whey, flour, maltodextrins and nonfat dry milk. The powders typically have a moisture range of 4% to 6% and can contain anywhere from 5% or less to about 95% cheese solids. The cost reflects the level of cheese they contain.

Cheese flavors are used in applications where cheese doesn't normally function well or when cost is an issue. Since they do not contribute solids or protein - at least not to a significant extent - they do not change the product's texture or appearance.

Cheese flavors can also be enhanced. For example, a blend of yeast extract has the ability to boost cheese flavors according to Jones. "One of the yeast extracts has a distinct bitter note to it," he says. "If you use it at a low concentration, just that touch of bitterness comes across as a sharp cheddar. Too much and you get too much bitterness and it may be perceived as unpleasant." MSG and the ribonucleotides can also lift cheese impact and lower flavor costs, he notes.

Click here to read Savory Characters - Part Two.

• Photo: Reckitt and Colman

© 1999 by Weeks Publishing Company

Used with permission from Food Product Design Magazine

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