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The science of drink flavours

June 20, 2023

The science of drink flavours

Flavour – the distinctive taste of a food or drink.

How a product tastes is usually the primary driver for consumers choosing their food and drink. It’s flavourings that are actually responsible for many of the flavours we enjoy.

These not only give the all-important flavour, but help to ensure food and drink manufacturers are developing safe, allergen-free, and cost-effective products. How flavours for drinks are formulated and produced is underpinned by a combination of scientific knowledge, creative flair, and adherence to safety regulations.

Learn more about how drink flavours are developed:

How do we experience flavour?

Flavour is predominantly experienced through our senses of smell and taste. Smell is the main driver, through the numerous different aromas our noses are able to detect. Taste is then experienced through the more limited flavours our tongues detect – sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, or umami (savoury).

But flavour is a multi-sensory experience, also influenced by our senses of touch, sight and hearing. So texture, colour and sound can also impact how we experience produce and its taste – the crunch of fruit or veg tells us it’s fresh, for example. And nerves in our mouth and throat anticipate and influence our experience of flavour too, through our ‘trigeminal sense’ – such as the cooling we experience from menthol in mint.

Understanding how we experience flavour gives a better understanding of how flavours used in drink manufacturing are developed.

What is flavouring?

Flavourings are products or components added to food or drinks to impart or modify odour and/or taste. These can be either an edible extract or a chemical compound.

Chemical compounds are ‘volatile aroma compounds’, meaning they release molecules of an aroma to make flavour recognisable. Extracts come from botanical ingredients like flowers or fruit peels and have elements or molecules extracted, such as through distilling, to offer a certain flavour.

Most drink flavours are chemically equivalent to the natural product but are synthetically developed, rather than naturally extracted.

Why do drink manufacturers use flavourings?

Drink flavourings are typically used for their taste benefits – giving drinkers the instantly recognisable flavour they crave.

There can also be wider consumer and business benefits to using drink flavourings too. For consumers, flavourings can create a healthier product, reducing sugar in a drink without compromising on taste, or even make drinks accessible to all, by removing potential allergens from produce. And for producers, flavourings can create cost savings and easier processes, requiring fewer ingredients to be purchased and managed.

How are drink flavourings created?

Drink flavourings are created by highly trained chemists known as flavourists.

For compound flavourings, molecules are bonded together with carbon, hydrogen and other elements. These are the same molecular structure as naturally derived flavours.  For extract flavourings, methods like cold pressing, distilling or percolation extract flavour from the roots, berries, flesh or peels of botanicals.

Flavourists will identify the many layers of a flavour – banana is ripe, sweet and slightly spicy with a distinctive texture, while grape is sweet but slightly acidic, for example. Banana flavour is recreated using isoamyl acetate, which has a distinctive scent. Grape flavour is created using methyl anthranilate, which naturally occurs in black Concord grapes.

Flavourists need to be both scientific and creative, combining extensive knowledge of chemistry and the palette with a flair for creating recognisable and distinctive flavours. They also need to be clear on what their client wants to achieve, understanding the flavour required, how it will be used, and any extra needs, such as the delivery of a low-fat or all-natural recipe.

Flavourists must also work within all the associated regulations, surrounding safety, application, and labelling.

What different types of flavourings are used in the drinks industry?

There are thousands of naturally occurring flavours, found in fruits, florals and foods. From these, a few thousand flavourings are used in food and drink.

Some of the most common food and drink flavourings are:

  • Benzaldehyde – This chemical, derived from stoned fruits, gives an almond aroma and almond taste to drinks and forms the base of the cherry flavourings commonly used in carbonated soft drinks.
  • Cinnamaldehyde – Found in the bark of cinnamon, camphor and cassia trees, this is used to add cinnamon flavours.
  • Diacetyl – Naturally derived from fermentation, this gives a buttery taste and smooth feel to the product. Small amounts are added to many alcoholic drinks to improve their texture while higher volumes give chardonnay its distinct flavour or offer a hint of butterscotch to beers like IPAs.
  • Limonene – As its name suggests, this oily chemical compound is found in the peels of citrus fruits and can add orange flavours to products.
  • Vanillin – This vanilla bean flavoured compound is often used to flavour sodas, wines and spirits as well as chocolate, ice cream and baked goods. This a good example of a compound which is much simpler and more cost-effective to produce synthetically, than extract naturally.

How should drink flavourings be labelled?

Drink flavourings must be formulated, labelled and used in accordance with UK and EU regulations. The labelling of flavourings is particularly important, so as not to mislead consumers nor risk exposure to allergens or potentially toxic levels of substances.

For transparency to consumers, a product can only be labelled ‘natural’ where the flavouring component is exclusively naturally derived. However, it can be labelled ‘natural orange flavours’ if at least 95% of the flavouring has been naturally derived from the named source; in this case, orange. This can be used for either a specific source ingredient (orange) or a broader food category (citrus).

With more than 85 years experience of developing and manufacturing drinks and drink flavours, our experts can guide you through the complexities and opportunities of drinks development. Get in touch for advice on your next project.

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