The Future of Flavor Kelly Hensel | December 2017, Volume 71, No.12

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Mining the Chemical Universe for Potential Flavors
Ensuring that Coca-Cola Zero Sugar tastes like the regular, full-sugar version or that a protein bar tastes delicious despite the fact that it is packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals are the kinds of challenges that product formulators regularly face. Scientists are hard at work finding new tools that allow product developers to make consumers’ favorite products more healthful without sacrificing flavor. FlavorHealth is one such company; its sole mission is to “create natural flavor solutions that enable healthier foods and beverages without compromising taste.” It does this by discovering natural compounds in three key areas—sugar reduction, sodium reduction, and bitter balancing.

Traditionally, this process might involve the time-consuming and painstaking task of taking compounds, adding them to a solution, and tasting them to see if they have the desired effect. FlavorHealth has turned that process on its head with Chromovert—a technology platform that the company’s parent organization, Chromocell, uses to identify naturally occurring cells that have the ability to produce unmodified taste receptors as they exist on the human tongue, in vitro. The process results in cells expressing receptors that are not changed from the native receptors that you would expect to find on your tongue. This means they aren’t tagged or chemically modified or truncated.

Based on this technology, the company has developed automated high-throughput screening assays that identify the compounds that have potential to promote or inhibit specific tastes. This allows the scientists to “look at hundreds of thousands of potential flavors and give us really early on a thumbs up or thumbs down about whether or not there would be a modulation of taste from that particular flavor,” explains Ryan Loy, assistant principal scientist at Chromocell. From there, the identified flavor compounds are put through a follow-up safety assessment and evaluated by a group of tasters.

As you can imagine, the whole process produces tons of data, and that allows the scientists to “constantly learn and refine the data and the analytical tools that we are using to look at the data,” says Loy. So, let’s say the scientists discover 10 compounds that have the potential to promote saltiness in the assays. In the taste-testing phase, the tasters find that two make the product taste saltier, six produce an off-taste, and two didn’t seem to have any effect. The scientists can examine why the first two had the impact they were looking for and then refine the analytics. This means that the scientists can conduct screens more effectively on new molecules that haven’t been looked at yet, but also potentially identify new flavors by looking at existing data as they learn more and see what applications a flavor works in or doesn’t work in. A decade’s worth of data and refinement has resulted in sophisticated algorithms that allow FlavorHealth to find novel, promising taste modulators.

“It’s a great way to look at the universe of potential flavors in a high-throughput way that is very targeted on that one taste perception area. We get the breadth of information that would be really challenging to get from a typical approach,” says Loy. With food manufacturers feeling the pressure to reduce sodium and sugar and, at the same time, increase healthful ingredients like protein, technology that assists in the discovery of novel compounds to maintain sweetness and saltiness and decrease bitterness will be vital.

 

Kelly Hensel is senior digital editor of Food Technology magazine (khensel@ift.org).

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