News | April 26, 1999

Savory Characters - Part Two

From Food Product Design Magazine

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

Click here to read Savory Characters - Part One

Table of Contents
Getting a savory reaction
Spicing it up
Serving up savory
Surfing savory trends

Getting a savory reaction

An increasingly important class of savory flavors comes from thermal reactions, mainly the Maillard reaction. These are known in the industry as reaction, or process, flavors. Most lay-folks recognize them as the flavors that develop during cooking.

Maillard, or non-enzymatic, browning results when heat is applied to a combination of reducing sugars, such as D-glucose, and the amino acids that form protein. The complex series of reactions results in a collection of compounds such as furans, pyrazines and thiazoles. These and many others generate the flavors of roasting, baking, frying and the like, as well as a dark color. The end result depends on the materials used, the heating conditions, and factors such as pH and moisture.

"The International Organization of Flavor Industry guidelines are a minimum of 180ºC for 15 minutes," says Benjamin Jones, technical affairs manager, Gist-brocades International, B.V., King of Prussia, PA. "You can go longer than that if you wish - it's a matter of what kind of profile you want. If you drive the time and temperature up, you get more roast notes and it's harsher. As you pick and choose the amino acids and reducing sugars you use, it changes the entire profile. It (the actual end product) is not well-defined. Simply put, if you are dealing with one sugar and one amino acid, it's reasonably well-understood. You might get to two sugars or two amino acids, but as soon as you step beyond that or bring in a non-defined proteinaceous material - yeast extract, meat extract, an HVP - then all bets are off. It's more of an art form than a strictly defined reaction."

Another thermally induced flavor comes from caramelization. This happens when carbohydrates are heated without the presence of nitrogen-containing amino acids. Slight acidity and the presence of certain salts promote caramelization of sucrose and reducing sugars.

Most reaction flavors are heat-stable and hold up well under high-heat processes such as retorting, a characteristic that will become more important as more foods are prepared away from home and traditional foodservice facilities. An added bonus - processors have greater control of the flavor development than when generating the reactions themselves, with greater flavor consistency throughout the product.

These flavors are sometimes offered as stand-alone flavors - a bottled grill note for example - or are worked into specific savory vegetable or meat flavors. "We're making roasted, cooked and saut├łed flavors," says Jerome Lombardo, savory business unit manager, Dragoco, Inc., Totowa, NJ, "but in combination with other flavors. We find that seems to be more authentic. We try to use processing that is similar to the way the products are cooked in a kitchen." He also notes that the substrate affects the end flavor.

"Most people can distinguish between a smoke and a grill flavor - for example a grilled flavor typically has a little smoky note to it and almost a rancid-oil-type note," says Lombardo. "From a chemical point of view, there are a lot of aldehydes in a grilled flavor."

Although this process is ideal for flavors generated by cooking, flavor chemists still face the hurdle of exactly duplicating each and every cooking method. Rotisserie chicken, for example, provides a challenge, says Jones. "Rotisserie is hard to hit. One of the problems is that it's a dry heat and when you're creating reaction flavors, you're operating in a liquid system. Trying to mimic what's happening in a liquid system is difficult." Because of the varying conditions, the compounds that result in the end differ due to the complexity of the reactions. And when the compounds differ, so do the flavors they generate.

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Spicing it up

It's difficult not to think of spices when considering savory foods. The spectrum of ingredients encompasses not only true spices, but also plants known as herbs and some that actually fall into the category of foods, most notably onion and garlic. Though the ingredients seem quite different, they share two characteristics: they originate from plants, and more importantly, they transport the flavor of food from bland to exciting.

Spices contain many volatiles that give them their distinctive flavors and aromas, from the thymol in thyme to the cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon.While some of these compounds may give a characterizing flavor, most spice flavors are generated by a complex series of major and minor constituents.

While many tend to think in terms of the dried forms found in tiny little bottles on a spice rack, many more options exist. Obviously, fresh spices or herbs can be found, although economics and logistics usually limit their use to the kitchen, not the processing plant.

"Herbs are the most sensitive to any processing," notes Bob Kaminski, director of new products, Wixon Fontarome, St. Francis, WI. "They tend to oxidize quicker. The next best thing would be frozen, then freeze-dried. Frozen has problems in terms of handling and storage and a higher price. These will have subtle flavor differences primarily from oxidation, but they still keep some green notes."

Dry spices are more convenient for many processors to use. Removing moisture increases shelf life, due to reduction of water activity, enzyme activity and other chemical reactions. The flavors differ due to the loss of fresh volatiles, but they still provide visual particulates, signaling the flavor's presence. The spices might come whole or in leaf form, as a coarsely ground version, or as a finely ground powder. They might also be toasted or otherwise treated to modify the flavor.

"The form really depends on the application," says Ruth Kaan, product development manager, SpiceTec, Ltd., Carol Stream, IL. "If you are looking for visual appeal on a meat glaze, you might use whole spices or large particulates." For extra flavor, ground spices give more of an impact. This is because their small particle size increases the surface area exposed which releases a higher level of the volatiles, says Eddy. "Grinding does begin the process where the volatiles are released," he says. "And they can go off pretty quickly - it doesn't take a lot of heat. The minimum of grinding, handling or whatever helps you keep the flavor in." Proper storage keeps these volatiles in the product instead of the air.

Like all other natural food sources, fresh, frozen and dried spices can vary based on their source and the climatic conditions encountered during growing. They also might harbor microorganisms that can adversely affect product shelf life or create other unsavory effects. Irradiation is approved for spices to reduce microbial load, or ethylene oxide may be used. Other techniques may be substituted. For example, SpiceTec uses a steam sterilization process that lowers the high microbial content while maintaining the fresh volatiles, according to Kaan.

However, spices also have advantages according to Kaminski - visual appeal and a consumer-friendly label. "People understand what celery seed is whereas they might not understand an extract," he says.

Extracts provide most of the flavor of the source ingredient, but in a more consistent, easy-to-handle form. Steam distillation is the most common form of extraction, resulting in products generally called oils or extracts. Solvent extraction is also performed, giving oleoresins. The more-costly supercritical extraction is also infrequently used to produce extracts.

"Oleoresins are typically oil-soluble," says Barry Eddy, SpiceTec's director of product development. "You can use emulsifiers like polysorbate 80 to mix them with water. We call these water-dispersible since they don't actually dissolve." Oleoresins typically have a fuller flavor and often retain some measure of color. At this point, the flavor is fairly stable to volatile loss. "In an oil or oleoresin, you've got it (the flavor) captured much longer than you would in a ground spice," he says.

In addition to consistency, extracts are valuable in applications where visible particulates are undesirable, like a white sauce.

"In certain products in the meat industry, oleoresins disperse more readily in the emulsions so you don't end up with hot spots in the product," says Kaminski. "In marinades, the extracts are an advantage because they give a much quicker flavor absorption. Meat processors also often inject their marinades and you need to solubilize the spices to do that, so extracts would be used in that application."

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Serving up savory

Picking a particular flavor or form of the flavor for a savory application depends heavily on the product application, particularly the types of processes it encounters. Because so many flavor components are volatile, heat treatments can drive them off. Even non-volatile flavors can change.

"Cooking can alter the flavor and the base considerably," cautions Lombardo. "And these changes aren't always consistent. Whether in a restaurant or a home, cooking is not as strictly controlled as in a manufacturing process, so the finished product will have a lot of differences. It is important to match the flavor to the product."

Lombardo considers three general categories of applications when screening savory flavors: an unprocessed matrix, a processed matrix and meat products. "We find that flavors that work in one area don't always work across all three segments."

Some of the toughest challenges come with products that have moisture driven off rapidly, such as microwaved or fried foods. "The superheated steam is very effective at stripping out volatile odors, and the high heat on the surface causes browning and other flavor changes," Lombardo says. For a cooked product, "if the flavor doesn't fit the application properly, you get an unbalanced flavor or you can get too much browning or caramelization of the flavor."

Extrusion and low-moisture baking can also be tough on flavor, reports Kaminski. Therefore most manufacturers use topically applied flavors. "There's a couple reasons for that," he says. "Certainly the loss factor is the primary one. But the consumer is also looking for an instant sensation and if you're using a topical flavor, you get a faster release."

For flavors that undergo harsh processes, many companies offer encapsulated forms to provide some measure of protection. The flavors at risk are encased in a protective carbohydrate or fat matrix designed to release upon moisture contact or when the coating reaches a certain temperature. Spray-dried flavors often fall into this category, because the flavor is embedded in a carrier matrix that offers some protection.

Flavor companies can also work with less-volatile or less-labile forms of flavors when they know a particular application poses heat-based challenges. Yeast extracts are one flavoring agent that typically holds up well in higher-heat applications, although retorting can pose some problems. "In an application where you get a real heavy heat load," says Jones, "it can drive reactions between yeast extracts and components within the food matrix."

A product's pH can also affect savory flavors. A prime example is a sauce formulated with a low pH to enhance shelf life. Because of the acidity, the flavor might be out of character for a cream sauce or a home-style meat gravy. Some flavor companies offer products that might ameliorate the effects, but they warn that the problem doesn't completely go away, since the acidity is still there. "There's no magic bullet," says Lombardo.

The ingredients may also affect the product. Since many savory products are starch-based, developers also need to be aware that starch has an unfortunate effect on flavors - it typically decreases their intensity, requiring the addition of more flavors. "Even something as simple as increasing noodles," Jones warns. "Not only does the starch slough off, but the noodles themselves absorb flavor as they go through the cook process."

And as many product designers have experienced over the last decade of no- and low-fat frenzy, the presence or lack of fat will also affect flavor perception since it enhances flavor delivery. "Because fat is a good carrier of flavor, when you go to a reduced-fat item, you often need more spices and flavors," says Kaan. "You can see that in the switch from fried to glazed meats." Most fried breadings have little distinguishing flavor other than fried fat, Eddy points out. "Rubs and marinades are used now to deliver much more flavor to a piece of meat."

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Surfing savory trends

Authenticity is today's flavor hot button. Consumers want the duplicate of foods from certain cuisines, or flavors that result from particular cooking processes.

"Savory is growing as people are exposed to new seasonings," says Dicki Lulay, vice president of business development for Chicago-based Heller Seasonings & Ingredients, Inc. "They want a combination of savory flavors. People are looking for new combinations."

The range of hot, trendy flavors is diverse - from Brazilian, Cuban and Jamaican to Haitian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Mongolian, Cantonese and Szechwan, not to mention Sicilian and Tuscan. Almost all of these cuisines have a savory profile.

The consuming public wants authentic flavors. Often, they have traveled to the various regions of the world and are familiar with how those foods should taste. They have eaten these foods and like them. That's what they want when they order an item from a specific area of the world. "Consumers are getting upset if the food isn't 'authentic,' " maintains Lulay. "When they go into a restaurant offering an item from a specific region, they want it to taste like it came from there. If the food is billed as Sicilian, it better have the flavors of southern Italy. If Tuscan flavors are mixed into the dish, the item will be rejected."

This trend extends not only to entrees, but to a wide variety of foods. Breads, for example, become more lively with herbs and savory seasonings. Herbs are in breads as an ingredient, not as a garnish or afterthought. Notes Lulay, "The consumer doesn't want an 'herbed bread.' They want to know exactly what herb."

Another area is snack foods. "In the snack market, we are seeing increasing ethnic flavors," Kaminski observes, "especially toward the spicier profiles - Mexican, southwestern. These tend to be higher-flavored, spicier products."

However, snacks might also be one area where it's permissible to tweak the authenticity of flavors, since it might be difficult or impossible to exactly duplicate, say, an authentic Italian potato chip. In that case, "I think you pick the highlight notes out of the flavor profile - what really simulates that flavor in a snack application," says Kaan. "And you would work with extracts and colors to get the appearance."

Savory flavors are making side dishes more exciting. Increasingly, more and more foodservice operators are adding herbs, spices and flavors to French fries and mashed potatoes. Some foodservice operators are adding savory flavors to other vegetables too - cinnamon with cooked carrots, for example, or garlic in green beans almondine.

Even salads are impacted. In the past, most restaurants took a salad, such as a Caesar salad, and added grilled shrimp or chicken. Now, these operators are starting out with a savory protein such as chicken, and adding the salad around it. As a result, the flavors are different.

Savory is also moving into new, non-traditional areas of the menu. One major new area is breakfast. For example, "We're moving away from fruits in cream cheeses," says Lulay. "In its place - savory cream cheeses." A major benefit of the new flavored cream cheese is that it can be used in another meal, such as lunch, to create a more interesting sandwich.

Marinades are another way to achieve savory flavor. For example, chimichurri, a Brazilian flavoring system, is created out of a blend of oils, vinegar, parsley and garlic. Marinades come in many forms - dry or liquid - and a wealth of flavors, says Kaminski. "We're seeing more sophisticated flavor combinations: green peppercorn, Bernaise, honey-Dijon, etc."

Both ethnic and mainstream savory flavors shine in this category, according to Kaminski. "People don't have as much time to prepare an entree as in the past," he says. "You're seeing more marinated meats, both fresh and frozen. It gives consumers more variety. It also provides a value-added benefit to the seller. Plus it gives a way to provide a meat product that is more tender, since we're seeing a lot of meats that are less marbled and, as a consequence, are a little drier and tougher."

Infused oils and vinegars add a dimension in cooking - a layering effect of the herbs and spices. When using infused oil or vinegar, herbs and spices are not added as early in the process. They can be introduced closer to the end, thereby intensifying the layers of flavor and increasing the dish's overall flavor.

Another way to add dimension is by using a blend of seasonings. One particular seasoning blend, states Lulay, has a wonderful profile. It invokes flavors consumers attach to the West and is used extensively on steaks. The actual flavor profile is from Nepal. Yet, if it were called Nepalese, it wouldn't sell. It sells extremely well if called a Cowboy Steak on the menu, relates Lulay.

There is a great deal of combining savory with sweet. Popular combinations include apple, tropical fruits, honey or maple with savory. For example, says Lulay, some thought the developers were off-the-wall when they came up with a spiced apple chicken sausage. The sausage contains something kids like - apple flavor. The product is also appealing to adults, because of the healthy perception of chicken. Foodservice operators and consumers need to see the particular product, in this case the spiced apple sausage, linked to the whole meal. The entire plate presentation is important, Lulay emphasizes. Once they see the context, they are more willing to adopt the product, because it isn't as far-fetched as originally thought.

Kaan points out that many savory/sweet combinations are actually quite traditional. For example, ham with a honey glaze, or meat and fruit combinations, and even "hoisin sauce, a combination of savory soy-based flavors with notes of plum."

Most of the trends coming from restaurants have trickled down to the processed-foods arena. This presents a few difficulties. "Most chefs use fresh ingredients," says Kaan. "You try to come as close as you can - and I think we can come very close to recreating what the chefs do. There are flavor-identical ingredients that can provide some of the fresh notes from ingredients like basil and oregano and really boost the flavor."

Using flavors can allow formulation of more-exotic dishes without sourcing large quantities of the actual ingredient. "Portabello mushrooms, for instance, have been popularized by the restaurant industry, but no one was making industrial/commercial sources available," points out Kaminski. "So manufacturers are looking to supplement the products with flavors. This has given the flavor industry the opportunity to simulate those products. But at the same time, when we have to go natural, we might run into many of the same sourcing problems. But in the last few months, people are addressing this. We are getting sources of raw materials and we are able to offer products that we haven't in the past; for instance, natural sun-dried tomato in oil- and water-soluble forms."

As the United States becomes more ethnically diverse, so will the food. Another major demographic shift that will have considerable impact on flavorings of food is the aging of the population. Senior citizens now prefer blander foods. The preference for blander foods may have a great deal to do with normal physiological changes. The elderly have fewer smell and taste receptors, explains Susan Schiffman, professor at Duke University in Durham, NC. Pleasurable sensation receptors decrease, while those associated with bitter, sour, and pepper remain intact. In the future, the preference for blander foods may change, Lulay predicts. Tomorrow's seniors will have a more sophisticated palate, and will still be interested in ethnic foods.

But whether targeting an aging population, or appealing to the general public, the challenge for the food industry in the future will be to develop flavor profiles that enhance the pleasurable sensations and heighten the sharper, more savory flavors.

• Photo: Reckitt and Colman

© 1999 by Weeks Publishing Company

Used with permission from Food Product Design Magazine

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