Playing natural flavor game
Suppliers are developing natural options that meet regulatory requirements and consumer perceptions.

KANSAS CITY — Seventy per cent of shoppers prefer to have “natural flavors” on ingredient statements, according to a recent consumer shopping and buying behavior study from Kemin Industries, Des Moines, Iowa. Half of shoppers who prefer natural flavors also said it makes the food sound more natural, and 33% said it sounds more nutritious.

“Across the entire food and beverage industry, labels are increasingly carrying the claim of ‘no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,’” said Siddhi Thakkar, associate director-beverages, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. “Consumers are actively avoiding these ingredients, and in response, formulators are increasingly seeking out natural flavors.

“We hear our customers routinely — almost without exception — asking for natural or organic-compliant flavors. Our roots are in natural vanilla, tea, coffee and cocoa extract, but in response to this demand for more natural flavors, we have dedicated flavorists continuing to expand our flavor library with new and innovative natural flavors.”

This is happening throughout the supply chain by flavorists. Consumers’ affinity for natural has companies growing their ingredient lines with creative flavor profiles and economic solutions to make natural flavors more affordable, consistent and higher quality.

The clean label trend has put pressure on food formulators to remove artificial flavors; however, when doing so, they often are challenged with delivering the same robust, stable flavors associated with artificial flavors. Suppliers are trying to create natural flavors — which require the use of naturally sourced raw materials — that are resistant to breaking down from high processing temperatures, exposure to air, and other storage and distribution elements.

Labeling natural flavors

On finished products, flavors are labeled as either natural or artificial. The labeling, however, is different — as well as highly regulated — at the industrial level so that the end user, the processor, knows the flavor source. If a flavor manufacturer calls the natural flavor “mandarin orange,” then the flavor must be 100% sourced from the name fruit. The manufacturer also may label the flavor “mandarin orange W.O.N.F.,” with the acronym standing for “with other natural flavors.” This suggests that not only are mandarin oranges part of the flavor, but so are other naturally derived flavors. This information is not communicated on the packaged food product ingredient statement.

If the food marketer chooses to describe the product by its flavor on the principle display panel, then it requires declaration. For example, strawberry-flavored gummies made with strawberry W.O.N.F. may be labeled “strawberry flavored with other natural flavors.” If it was described using a fanciful name, such as “strawberrylicious,” reference to W.O.N.F. is not required and natural flavors is simply listed on the ingredient statement.

“The application is not typically the limiting factor for natural flavors,” said Nick Lombardo, applications scientist — culinary, Flavorchem, Downers Grove, Ill. “The performance of natural flavors is going to depend largely on what type of natural flavor is requested.

“For instance, a natural banana flavor will inherently be a weak flavor because the flavorist is limited to using only ingredients derived from bananas, such as essences, distillates, purees or juices, which are lacking in banana aroma. However, if a ‘natural type’ or a ‘natural W.O.N.F.’ banana flavor is acceptable, then the impact will be much greater and comparable to artificial flavors because other natural flavor compounds can be used in conjunction with those derived from bananas.”

There are also some ingredients that are just not found abundantly in nature. To produce a natural bell pepper flavor a formulator must isolate 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine from bell peppers. This is the natural compound that provides authentic bell pepper flavor, which artificial pyrazine does as well.

“But this is simply cost-prohibitive,” Mr. Lombardo said. “A flavorist can get close by using similar natural green notes, but it can be tricky to achieve that signature sharp, peppery green pepper profile characteristic of pyrazine.”