Six steps to craft winning flavours for your products [GUIDE]

Six steps to craft winning flavours for your products [GUIDE]

Posted: Wed 5th Jun 2024

Choosing the right flavours for your product can be challenging, especially if you are using ingredients that bring complex tastes, flavours and aftertaste, such as stevia, CBD, vitamins, minerals and plant-based proteins.

The urgency to shorten product development timelines and quickly launch products often leads to the selection of flavours before developing the base. In many cases, these flavours are chosen by the marketing team rather than the R&D teams.

The problem with this method is that flavours are selected based on popular choices (e.g. vanilla, chocolate, strawberry) that are well-known and liked by so many people. However, these flavours may not necessarily be the right fit for the product you are developing.

This leads to a time-consuming process of trying countless flavours from different flavour suppliers, contractors or co-manufacturers, often resulting in unsatisfactory outcomes, such as weak flavour intensity or incorrect flavour profiles. It's easy to mistakenly attribute these issues to the flavour house or the flavour itself, which can leave you feeling frustrated and stuck. Does this sound familiar?

Here's how the EPICSI Taste Engine process approaches projects to ensure the success of your product's flavours. While it may require more time upfront, it will ultimately save you a whole lot more in the long run.

Step 1: Flavour research

Flavour market research

You have likely already conducted market research to understand existing products, competitors, gaps in the market and the viability of your product.

The flavour market research, as the name suggests, focuses on the flavours currently present in your product category. The purpose of this research is to gain inspiration and assess existing flavours.

By adding your unique twist, you can align the flavours with your brand and target consumers. To stand out, you may want to offer something completely different from your competitors.

Take a thorough look at your target consumers to understand their food and drink preferences, the restaurants, takeaways and street food they frequent, as well as their hobbies and the social media platforms they engage with. The more comprehensive your understanding of your target consumers, the more effectively you can select flavours that align with their preferences.

To conduct your research, make sure to include various types of shops and markets. Some should belong to your category, while others should be outside of it, e.g. grocery retailers, farm shops, artisans (bakeries, coffee shops, chocolatiers), e-commerce, homemade products created by you or someone on your team. Remember to incorporate premium, medium-range and own-label products.

Flavour market research serves as a starting point to later on select the flavours that will suit your product and target consumers.

Food culture and consumer perception research

  • Food culture

It is vital to consider the culinary culture, familiarity and traditions of the country where you plan to launch your product. For example, some countries are more willing to try new flavours or have unique flavour combinations that may not be commonly found elsewhere.

For instance, in Colombia and Ecuador, people enjoy adding cheese to their coffee or hot chocolate. In China, teas, such as black tea, matcha or oolong are often topped with cream cheese. In Mexico, certain mole recipes incorporate dark chocolate. Furthermore, Japan offers a wide variety of experimental flavours for Kit Kat, ranging from matcha and sake to sweet potato, wasabi and red beans.

What is important to remember is that flavours are more likely to succeed if they can be associated with existing combinations of flavours or products.

  • Consumer perception and expectation

Another often overlooked aspect is recreating consumer perception and expectation of the chosen flavours. For example, if you're working on an apple pie recipe and want to experiment with different apple flavourings to enhance its fruitiness, consider the desired flavour profile.

Traditional apple pie fillings typically have cooked notes, brown notes (like brown sugar), stewed apple notes and may also include spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Therefore, incorporating a fresh green apple flavouring or a confectionery one may not work well since the brain may struggle to understand why such notes are present when they shouldn't be.

That's why understanding consumer flavour perception and expectation is crucial for the flavours to succeed.

A more effective method is to directly ask consumers in surveys or focus groups, or conduct internal tastings and have them articulate their expectations regarding the flavours you aim to recreate.

Flavour trends

The objective is to attract customers by offering unique products to differentiate from competitors.

The tip is to use the "classic with a twist" approach by combining an intriguing, exotic or surprising flavour with a well-known and established flavour. For example, chocolate and avocado or rose and geranium.

To find inspiration and stay updated on current trends, you can explore various sources, such as social media platforms like TikTok, blogs, flavour houses’ websites, online magazines and market research companies that offer trend reports. Some of these resources are even available for free. Some examples:

With the completion of flavour research, you will have an idea of the core, well-known flavours and combinations in the country you plan to launch your product.

Additionally, take note of current and future popular flavours that can add a unique twist and help you stand out. Furthermore, it is essential to have an understanding of the perceptions and expectations consumers have towards these flavours.

Step 2: Formulating the base

Internal or subcontracted product development

Before incorporating any flavourings into a recipe, food or drink, it is crucial to consider the ingredients and their quantities, as well as the impact they will have on the intensity and profile of the flavour.

Each flavouring is made up of numerous aroma compounds, each with its own unique physical and chemical properties. These properties determine how well the aroma compounds interact with the ingredients in the food/beverage matrix, such as water, alcohol, fat, protein and carbohydrates.

For instance, aroma compounds that are lipophilic tend to bind with fat molecules in the matrix, while hydrophilic compounds are drawn to water molecules.

This interaction plays a role in how easily these compounds reach our olfactory receptors when we smell or consume a product. In some cases, the bond between the aroma compounds and the matrix’s ingredients is so strong that the compounds never reach our olfactory receptors; they remain trapped in the matrix.

Having a solid understanding of reformulation, especially concerning cost-reduction or non-HFSS legislation, is essential for achieving the right balance in your recipe. Fat, sugar and salt are well-known flavour enhancers, but using too little or too much of these ingredients can diminish flavour intensity and alter the overall flavour profile.

Decision tree

A decision tree is a tool that meticulously maps out every factor, including potential ingredient interactions, process degradation, packaging, storage, and distribution, which can positively or negatively impact the stability and therefore, the flavour delivery of your product.

To make informed decisions, extensive research is necessary to gain a comprehensive understanding of your current or future product. It is important to evaluate the cost and taste implications of each choice.

Although this may require an initial time investment, it will ultimately save time and prevent wasted efforts later in the project.

For instance, a low pH can adversely affect the stability of beverages by accelerating degradation processes, altering flavourings and significantly reducing shelf life. Citrus flavourings are particularly sensitive to these changes due to their strong dependence on pH.

Additionally, heat treatments, ranging from pasteurisation to UHT processing, can significantly reduce flavour intensity in the final product due to the high volatility of the aroma compounds.

Using a decision tree is the perfect opportunity to reconsider your approach to flavours and rethink your strategy. View it as an investment. Taking the time to do this step at the beginning of your product journey will save time and avoid problems in the future.

Step 3: Flavour selection

Profiling and flavour pairing

While classic flavours like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and lemon are commonly used, they may not always be suitable for products that contain vitamins, minerals, vegan proteins, CBD or adaptogens such as ashwagandha. These ingredients can potentially create undesirable tastes.

Once you have developed the base and mapped out potential factors that will impact flavour delivery, understanding its flavours and taste profile through scrutinous tasting(s) is crucial to be able to select appropriate flavours from your previous research.

To help with flavour selection, comprehensive tools like flavour pairing not only enhance creativity but also help narrow down the list of suitable flavours for your products. They also facilitate discussions within your organisation and with suppliers when choosing flavours for your project.

For example, when pairing biscuits, which have cooked, brown and wheaty notes, it's not ideal to pair them with a fresh, green, juicy strawberry. Instead, a jammy strawberry could complement the biscuit better. Similarly, adding a brown flavour like honey or caramel to an acidic beverage may not be suitable. In such cases, a fresh, juicy, and zesty lemon would likely work better.

The goal is not to alienate your customers but to offer something unique compared to competitors while saving time during product development.

Flavour mapping

Just like we wouldn't hire home contractors to construct our house without providing specific requirements, such as surface area, room configuration and window and door placement, we shouldn't approach flavour suppliers, contractors and co-manufacturers in the same manner.

Once you have chosen the flavour(s) that will complement your product's base, it is crucial to take ownership of the flavour profile you want for your product within your organisation instead of relying solely on flavour suppliers, contractors or co-manufacturers.

After all, would you let someone build your house without your input? Flavours deserve the same level of attention and consideration.

That’s why tools such as flavour mapping can be a game-changer, as this method allows you to define codes and characteristics of a category/product/flavour, identify the best flavour directions and components to apply to your products, establish benchmark products and create a comprehensive brief for flavour supplier(s), contractors and/or co-manufacturer.

For improved collaboration and co-creation, it may be advantageous to involve your main flavour supplier, contractors or co-manufacturer in your flavour mapping session. Alternatively, you can share the results of your session with them at a later time.

Step 4: Brief

When collaborating with flavour suppliers, contractors, or co-manufacturers, it is crucial to involve them early in your project to leverage their insights effectively.

It is recommended to engage them during the flavour selection process as this will assist in guiding you and minimising wasted time and resources by ensuring compatibility between your chosen flavours and your product.

Once you receive their initial guidance and reach the end of the flavour selection step, make sure to provide them with a comprehensive brief.

This brief should contain extensive information about your product and the selected flavours, such as research findings, target consumers, project deadlines, cost in use, product and flavour specifications.

Additionally, include any other inquiries you may have. By following these steps meticulously, you can mitigate errors and the need for future adjustments.

Step 5: Tasting

For each tasting, both internal and external, always offer two to three variations of each flavour profile. For instance, when developing a strawberry-flavoured beverage, include one option with creamy notes, another with green/fresh notes and a third with jammy and floral notes.

During the tasting, always add your benchmark products for reference, relying on actual products rather than memory, which can be easily influenced by biases, time and the opinions of others.

Stay objective and consider that the product is not designed for you but for your target consumers. Avoid using subjective statements like "I don't like it" or "I like it." Instead, concentrate on describing the product experience, such as whether it is balanced, juicy, creamy or floral. Keep in mind that genetics, culture and environment can make us sensitive to certain taste and aroma compounds.

To form a complete picture of the tastes and flavours, start with your overall impression (e.g. balanced/unbalanced, low-high intensity) and then focus on primary descriptors for basic tastes, flavours, and aftertaste, e.g. apple, herbs, long-lasting. Next, explore each descriptor in greater detail e.g. green and floral apple, woody rosemary, long sulphurous aftertaste. Repeat the product tasting multiple times if necessary.

Utilise tools like a flavour lexicon to harmonise sensory language within your organisation, reducing the influence of cultural barriers, experience and background. This tool also improves communication with flavour suppliers, contractors and co-manufacturers and helps you better identify and articulate your sensory perceptions, particularly for the challenging senses of taste and smell.

Promote fairness, inclusivity and respect by ensuring all perspectives are heard and taken into consideration during tastings. Seek a diverse range of opinions and evaluations and create a positive and collaborative environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas. This will help create a balanced and accurate evaluation of the product.

Always refer to your objectives and ask appropriate questions to confirm if the product truly meets your criteria, such as flavour profile, intensity, balance, and distinctiveness. Ensure your evaluation is consistent, objective and accurate.

Step 6:  Validate

Consumer testing may not always be necessary given the pre-work involved in this method.

However, it is important that flavour validation is NOT solely based on one person's decision.

Rather, it should be conscientious and guided by defined criteria that align with the target consumer. The product should meet a set of flavour requirements developed through the flavour process, addressing questions such as:

  • Does the flavour align with the consumer's expectations for that particular flavour and taste (e.g., does it taste like fresh orange)?

  • Does the flavour match the selected profile (e.g., juicy, slightly floral, zesty orange)?

  • Does the flavour align with the given brief (e.g. creating a functional orange cereal bar without any bitterness)?

Keep in mind that internal testers, including the R&D team, marketing team and sensory panel, may not always represent the target consumers.

Final thoughts

Choosing flavours for your product requires careful consideration and sticking to a structured process. Follow these steps to ensure that the flavours you select align with your target consumer’s preferences and effectively enhance their overall product experience.

Remember that tastes and flavours are subjective and ever-evolving, so it is important to stay updated on current trends and consumers’ expectations and continually experiment with new flavour combinations.

By doing so, you can maintain a competitive edge in the market and cater to the ever-changing consumer preferences.

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