Finding the Right Flavor Solution for Your Plant-based Beverage

by | May 10, 2021

Strolling through the local supermarket, you may notice something different about the dairy section, specifically in beverages. More consumers are taking notes from a character named Jack and trading in the cow for beans (or nuts). Almonds, soybeans, cashews, and even oats are finding their way into shopping carts and refrigerators as milk alternatives. According to Mintel, 52% of adults in the U.S. buy more plant-based milk because they believe it is a healthier alternative with more appealing nutritional qualities. These qualities can range from being allergen-free to delivering vitamins and minerals for a plant-based lifestyle. While dairy isn’t at risk of moving on to greener pastures anytime soon, the demand for plant-based alternatives in beverages is expanding the dairy aisle.

Before Planting the Seeds, Know The Development Challenges

A recent consumer study from FlavorSum showed that plant-based beverages have opportunity to improve flavor profiles. While many milk alternative launches achieve in-market success, development often has challenges. Some roadblocks that can slow plant-based beverage creation include:

  • Achieving flavor delivery that echoes traditional dairy
  • Relying on higher sugar content to mask bitter notes which turns away health-conscious consumers
  • Processing cautions with plant bases that could carry residues not found in raw milk

Considering these potential obstacles will help you create guidelines and assess your risk tolerance before you start the product development process.

Fear Not, Sweet Solutions are Possible

Before the seeds of doubt start to sink in, don’t lose hope in those magic beans (or nuts) just yet. Science is here to help. A flavorful, delicious plant-based product requires time, effort, and a partner who understands how to bring your flavor vision to the shelf. That’s why we sat down with FlavorSum experts Rebecca Davis and Sandra Wilson-Eamer to discuss the opportunities for creating flavorful plant-based beverages that meet consumer expectations.

All About the Base

“Each base has a unique off-note to consider,” Flavor Scientist Rebecca Davis explained.  “We consider the base as we develop flavors. It’s best to approach each project by first recognizing the properties of the base. There’s no one-size-fits all solution because maskers can drastically change the flavor profile. We also keep customer objectives in mind. If functionality such as more protein is a product goal, that can affect the flavor formulation.”

“Any plant-based beverage or frozen dessert will have off-notes,” said Technical Manager and Certified Flavorist, Sandra Wilson Eamer. “So the base you select may require a flavor or modifying ingredient to mask those elements of an unappealing taste or mouthfeel.”  

The Impact of Sweetness Enhancement and Masking

The sweetness enhancers or protein maskers you add to help the plant-based product’s flavor delivery and create a milk-like experience could add complexity and time to the development process. 

Relying on sugar alternatives makes formulation more difficult,” Rebecca detailed. “These claimed healthier options, which were historically used for allergen control, are sometimes higher in calories which is a consumer dissatisfier. Now the movement toward allergen-free and healthier alternatives creates more challenges as we formulate for good taste.”

While it is possible for plant-based beverages to be lower in calories, they still need sweetness to balance off-notes. This can contribute more calories unless using sweeteners such as stevia. Delivering a great taste requires specific ingredients that still have the potential to raise concerns among consumers who are more label-conscious.

Sandra elaborated, “Ingredients used in plant-based products such as sweeteners, stabilizers, polysorbate 80, HFCS, and xanthan gum don’t have consumer-friendly trade names. Gums in particular have off-putting sounding names, but many in the market can help stabilize a plant base –and there are natural options available from natural sources. It’s about identifying the source. For example, carrageenan gum comes from red seaweed, while xanthan gum is produced from bacterial fermentation that can be naturally found on vegetables from the Brasica family such as cabbage!

Other natural ingredients that allay consumer questions and could be solutions for plant-based beverages include purees and concentrates. These options often have flavor-enhancing properties and contain natural sweetness to help with formulation.

“Maskers and modifiers can be used as tactics to aid in balancing the plant base product’s off-notes,” Rebecca described. “The base will drive any flavor additive, whether it be actual flavor, juice, puree, sweetness, etc.”

The flavor notes inherent in the plant base will influence the puree or flavor decision. Here are some suggested fruit purees or flavor profiles that could pair well with several popular bases:

plant based tables

Rebecca and Sandra suggested avoiding clashing profiles (bitter/tart flavors) and consider the impact of maskers and flavor usage rate on the final product. The development process should include time to identify the modifiers/enhancers that could contribute most effectively to the overall flavor.

Staying Flexible When Choosing the Base for Your Audience

We asked Sandra and Rebecca if there are certain plant bases that creators should turn to more than others to develop beverages. The answer is not clear-cut. As mentioned earlier, plant-based beverages should reflect your targeted goals, such as:

  • Allergen-free
  • Sustainable
  • Low Calorie
  • Lower Carbs

Companies should also weigh the operational aspects of creating plant-based products including:

  • Cost parameters for the project
  • Ingredient supply-chain stability
  • Regulatory restrictions in both the U.S. and Canada

Almond milk is now a standard in most retail outlets; U.S. sales had an uptick of +13% in 2020, as the popularity of this nutty, low-calorie dairy-free milk continues to grow. It acts as a flavorful alternative for customers with soy allergies or lactose intolerance, checking off some of product objectives listed above.

While almond milk remains the most popular and widely available option for plant-based milk across North America, allergy concerns contributed to the rise of many other “milks” like soy and rice milk. Oat milk also addresses these concerns by being allergy-free and has claimed the #2 spot after almond milk, gaining significant traction in North America. In addition to being less water-intensive to grow, oats also save up to 73% in carbon dioxide emissions, leading to sustainable solutions.

Increasing consumer interest in health-focused and sustainable foods and beverages is driving manufacturers to pioneer more plant-based products. People also crave a sense of discovery when they purchase and consume these new products, leading producers to broaden their flavor assortments. By formulating to bring out the best of your base and having a flavor partner to help navigate development hurdles, you’ll boost the success of your next plant-based beverage.

To discover your next innovative flavor solution with plant-based beverages, contact our team today!

About Sandra Wilson-Eamer, Technical Manager

Sandra has been part of the FlavorSum team for 17 years. As Technical Manager, Sandra is responsible for R&D, Applications, Quality Assurance & Regulatory. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree from Trent University, and is a Certified Flavorist with the Society of Flavour Chemists.

About Rebecca Davis, Flavor Scientist

Rebecca has been creating delicious food and beverage tastes for more than 10 years. She has deep experience with sweet flavors as well as savory flavor training, and a focus on beverage applications that includes developing TTB-approved flavors for alcohols. Her undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Master of Science in Organic Chemistry from Northern Kentucky University.

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