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The bittersweet challenge: improving taste naturally with vanillin

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

A natural solution to mask off-notes in nutrition products

The nutrition segment, consisting of specialized food products such as sports nutrition or wellness-oriented products, is rapidly growing. As consumers become more health-conscious, they want to find protein-rich foods that are at the same time low in fat and sugar, and as natural as possible.

As a result, snacks, beverages, biscuits or chocolates all increasingly employ plant-based proteins derived from soy, pea, hemp and seaweed. These provide essential amino acids to the human diet, and advantageously replace animal-based proteins whose availability and quality cannot be guaranteed in the future.

The only problem is that these proteins come with unpleasant off-notes and bitterness that manufacturers need to find a way to hide; in fact, it’s a key element to creating a successful nutrition product. Fortunately, a well-known molecule, vanillin, can be a precious ally here.

“Vanillin is a magical ingredient,” enthuses Caroline Calin, Technical Market Manager for Naturals at Solvay. “Most people think it’s just an aromatic ingredient, but it actually goes way beyond that. It can play different roles in a food application, such as boosting flavors, masking off-notes and providing a sweet taste. Vanillin is key to reach the balanced taste consumer are looking for.”

Vanillin is a magical ingredient. Most people think it’s just an aromatic ingredient, but it actually goes way beyond that. It can play different roles in a food application, such as boosting flavors, masking off-notes and providing a sweet taste.

Caroline Calin, Technical Marketing Manager Naturals, Aroma Performance

Nutrition products: A growing market, shifting expectations

Sugar certainly isn’t a suitable solution for this health-conscious market segment, and artificial ingredients such as flavorings are damageable to the ‘clean label’ element. Consumers pay closer attention to food labels than ever before, and clean labels have evolved from a trend into an expectation – for which customers are ready to pay extra. What’s more, consumers are no longer satisfied with just the health benefits of nutrition products: they are becoming more selective, seeking additional values that build a more complete nutritional experience.

One of the reasons the global market for sports nutrition products is growing so fast (it’s expected to hit $80.2 billion by 2028) is because the consumer base for these products is broadening. The traditional sports enthusiast has been joined by health-conscious individuals at different life stages, from aspirational millennials to an active senior generation, creating a wider Lifestyle Nutrition market that contributes to making plant-based proteins more popular.

Sporty young woman with protein at home-© Shutterstock   Solvay

Unfortunately, there is an additional difficulty here. Plant-based sources of proteins such as, pea, hemp, and seaweed have a unique taste and texture, which means they must all be addressed differently with an understanding of the complex interactions of each formulation. This requires technical knowledge, along with mastering the latest ingredient innovations and processing techniques. “Plant-based food products have been a niche segment for sports enthusiasts for a long time,” says Caroline. “But now that the trend has become more mainstream, product developers realize that consumers are not willing to compromise on texture or taste. In this fast-moving environment, brands need to get ahead of the curve with effective, natural ingredients that work at many different levels.”

Vanillin: One molecule, multiple capacities

There is one ingredient that fills all these criteria – the capacity to mask off-notes, meeting the clean label challenge by being fully natural, improving sensory experience and being healthy – and it happens to be an ingredient that has been well-known across the food industry for a very long time: vanillin.

Mainly known for its flavoring capacity, vanillin can also be used to mask off-notes and bitterness, and to decrease astringency in protein-enriched products. But that’s easier said than done. To find the most effective natural vanillin solution, many different aspects need to be addressed. Understanding how to maximize its functional and flavor capabilities also requires specialist knowledge. According to product type, the protein’s source, nature and dosage level, but also the complexity of the product’s formulation, the sensory effect of vanillin can vary greatly.

But how does it work, anyway? Vanillin can act as an inhibitor of several taste receptors activated by known bitter molecules – the vast majority of the essential amino acids our body needs are detected as bitter. What’s more, by increasing roundness, sweetness and mouthfeel (it removes watery or chalky sensations), vanillin can not only attenuate unpleasant sensory aspects, it also enhances the flavor of foods and beverages. “At Solvay, we have developed a natural alternative to our historical synthetic vanillin, based on a fermentation process but also a circular one, through the valorization of a byproduct from rice production,” explains Caroline. “Rhovanil® Natural, our natural vanillin, can fully answer the needs of our customers in the Food & Beverage market looking to develop healthy, sustainable and tasty food products.”

Read our whitepaper about the benefits of natural vanillin for nutrition production