Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sweetness Preference in Beverages

I grew up in Australia, where they generally don't have a "sweet tooth" to the extent they do in the US, which I suppose is why to this day eating maple pralines or some of the desserts they offer in restaurants feels to me like death by sugar injection. But of course when you're a flavor chemist the job is not to insist on your preferences but to understand everybody elses', and to make products accordingly.

When I first started making beverages many years ago, the standard regional preference seemed mostly related to latitude - the further south you went, the sweeter the product. The Canadians seemed to like remarkably acidic unbuffered products that didn't go down well (perhaps literally) even in the midwest, and at the same time they were drinking sweetened tea in the south that I recall we cynically used to call "brown lemonade" when we made it in Chicago.

They still prefer sweeter tea in the south, but I have noticed in the last few years a tremendous increase in interest in much less sweet products, particularly in certain regions of the country, and a whole lot of different niches for products everywhere based on the level of sweetness.

The difference is remarkable in soda/pop products if you compare the sweetness of a traditional product like Big Red (TM) with some of the more new age type products such as DRY soda (TM) or Talking Rain (R) from WA. They all have very enthusiastic customers whom I suspect would hate the alternative.

I don't think this is purely based on Calories and concerns with weight, since the use of artificial sweeteners is very widespread, and the sweetness is not necessarily less even if the Calories are. Perhaps these products came about because consumers were looking for lower Calorie all natural products and found the less sweet taste more acceptable. I suspect they will continue to buy these products in the future, rather than rushing to try to buy products sweetened with natural high intensity sweeteners (regardless of the enthusiasm by the promoters of stevioside).

From a flavor point of view the difference has become very significant, because flavors that are suitable for traditionally sweet products simply do not work in low sweetness products. The flavor has to do a whole lot more and provide a profile across the entire range, and even a sort of flavor sweetness of its own.

Lately we've had a lot of success in figuring out how to formulate flavors to match the relative sweetness levels, which we think is a useful talent for our customers. Perhaps this is something you can use in your own product development - or perhaps it's an opportunity to work out how to make a much less sweet version of your own products without the products tasting empty or disappointing.


There was a time when nectars were extremely popular. There used to be a US standard for nectars, which was 35 - 45% fruit puree sweetened with sugar or HFCS. The flavor was always great if you used a good puree, and the texture made the drinks rather filling and more interesting than typical juice drinks, especially for products like guava and mango.

Since the standard was dropped there have always been nectars available in stores of variable quality. They have always been strong in the "Hispanic" section in the supermarket as they are very traditional drinks in central and south America, but mainstream products have been rarer.

I believe it has been hard to compromise between price and quality - cheaper products are more competitive with juice drinks, but if the lower price is achieved by using poor quality puree and/or very little of it the product tends to be very disappointing.

However, since we're a flavor house and quite good at true-to-type fruit flavors, we've had some success in making nectar bases that are both competitive and have an excellent flavor, color and mouthfeel (texture). We are offering these products as 10:1 concentrate bases that reconstitute with HFCS or sugar to make 20% juice nectars. Presently we have formulae for mango, guava and peach nectar bases, but of course we can make a wide range of alternatives if there is some interest.

We'd be happy to send samples of these products and some pricing if you'd like to give them a try.

Horchata (again!)

At the risk of beating this horchata idea to death, I did come up with a new idea that I believe is unique. Horchata is based on rice extracted in water, of course, so the pH tends to be high and this makes the product difficult to package unless you do it aseptically. What I have devised is a new process to reduce the pH to below 4.0 (ideally around 3.7 - 3.9) without an acidic flavor. This means you can hot-fill the product and still have a classic horchata flavor.

The traditional drink still has a cinnamon and vanilla flavor, but we've also made a couple of fruit type varieties if anybody is interested - mango and prickly pear (tunas). We call the latter Oaxaca style although I understand Oaxaca is in the south of Mexico and fairly wet and tropical, so maybe that isn't great country for prickly pear cacti. Of course we could suggest a whole range of different flavors.

If you have an interest in making single strength hot-fill horchata we'd be happy to send you samples and a suggested formula. I don't believe such a product is currently on the market, at least in the US.