Fake dairy is creating flavor challenges for food science

A pint of Oatly brand ice cream is arranged for a photograph in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tastes change. It’s a mantra applied to most consumer-facing industries. But what if your industry is actual taste — flavor — and your consumers are looking for new kinds of products but do not, conversely, want the taste of the product to change at all?

This is a challenge that sometimes faces chemists like Mike Zampino at International Flavors and Fragrances, with a near-$40 billion market capitalization, one of the world’s largest public companies dedicated to figuring out how things taste and smell, before selling that expertise and products to clients across the food and beverage industry. 

Last year, increased demand for flavoring helped propel the overall North America market past a $9 billion value, according to market research firm IMARC group. The equivalent global figure is several times that multiple, with other major players including DuPont, Givaudan, and Archer Daniels Midland. 

Alternative dairy’s growing flavor profile

Baked goods, confectionary, energy drinks, smoothies, ice-cream and desserts all require flavoring, and have propelled the U.S. flavor market.

But over the past decade, another significant growth driver has been the demand for dairy alternatives, evidenced by the recent Oatly IPO valuation of $10 billion, lab-grown dairy breakthroughs in areas like ice cream from firms like Perfect Day, and even Impossible Foods’ possible foray into this space. Market research firm Mordor Intelligence forecasts the dairy alternative market is growing roughly 10% year on year, and will be worth $8.2 billion annually by 2024. 

The accelerated expansion of dairy alternatives has sometimes made life complicated for Zampino’s scientific colleagues as they work to meet client requirements under the guidance of expert flavorists like Zampino, known to some in the industry as “golden tongues.”

For instance, when a grocery business wants to introduce a new vanilla-flavored almond milk ice cream, but asks that it taste like traditional dairy milk vanilla ice cream, “There are quite a few challenges in that,” Zampino said, “and not all of them are doable.” 

Vanilla is one of the best-loved and most recognizable flavors in the United States, used in thousands of everyday products such as chocolate, cookies, and ice cream. But on a molecular level it is also complex, with more than 400 constituent parts, and because it is subject to stringent regulations, it is produced with great care.

“It’s the only flavor in the U.S. that has a very specific standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations,” said Zampino, delineating the raw ingredients and proportions that must be followed to create legally-sanctioned vanilla extract.

Retailers like Whole Foods maintain long lists of ingredients that cannot be used in their in-store products, and at times these lists can limit the palette available for flavorists to use. That is because certain consumers, particularly in a younger demographic, have in recent years been looking to purchase brands that exemplify their values, such as sustainability and healthier ingredients.

In a recent report it shared with CNBC, Mordor Intelligence cited “increasing health concerns among American consumers regarding artificial/synthetic flavors” as a reason for natural flavors, like vanilla, to take a greater share in the U.S. market. 

This means that the team at IFF will first seek to understand a client’s parameters for a product, whether, for instance, it needs to be kosher, or animal-free. They will then take delivery via courier at their plant in South Brunswick, New Jersey, of the product’s “base” — in the case of an ice cream, this is essentially an unflavored shake. 

An application laboratory will host the main sample, while down the hallway in a flavor creation lab a flavorist will work to get the right composition of a crafted flavor with a series of smaller sub-samples. Once the flavorist feels ready, they will share frozen samples with several groups; experts who know how to apply or bind that flavor to a physical product, consumers who can provide their unvarnished reactions, and executives who may be involved in marketing or commercializing the end product. 

Source: International Flavors and Fragrances

Flavorists talk in the language of notes, throwing in references to dried fruit or whiskey when describing a given vanilla’s analogies, and after years of experimentation, Zampino says his colleagues have started to identify which blends of vanilla extract may work best as an almond accompaniment. But he says for newer products beyond dairy that might serve as protein sources, like algae or pumpkin, that remains a work in progress — but a potentially lucrative one.  

“Plant milks are tough for us to flavor,” he acknowledges, calling some bases “uncooperative.”

The proteins that make them nutritionally beneficial often taste very different to preconceived notions of “milkiness,” and can sometimes swamp the required flavor, such as vanilla, by absorbing or deactivating the relevant vanilla molecules. He explains how one such molecule, called vanillin, will give off no flavor if it has bonded with a sugar molecule to form vanillin glycoside. 

Flavorists are often working with challenges to which consumers are oblivious. In different parts of the world, the same product will naturally vary. So strawberries from California will taste distinct from those grown in France, the U.K. or Japan. As a consequence, strawberry flavors must also be tailored to those specific markets, Zampino said.

“We have to figure what works, and doesn’t work,” Zampino said, describing an iterative process to find the right combinations that will allow the vanilla flavor to shine through — whether in a pea, almond, soy, oat or any other dairy alternative. For ice cream, that challenge is magnified as flavor perceptions can shift with temperature changes.  

A 30-year veteran of IFF, Zampino recently helped New York’s Museum of Ice Cream set up its vanilla experience room. He’s also travelled to Madagascar, where due to a quirk of French colonial history, the bulk of the world’s vanilla, first discovered by the Aztecs, is now produced, and where procurement teams from firms like his must collaborate with remote producers to guarantee quality control.

Vanilla plants take around three years to mature sufficiently to the point where they produce “beans,” which are really a fruit. They must be pollinated during a very brief time window by hand, and though the beans will grow to full size within weeks, they require many more months to mature on the vine, before being cured and conditioned in a time- and labor-intensive process to ensure they attain the right moisture level. 

“Not all vanilla is created equal. There are a lot of factors that can affect the profile,” Zampino said, including heat, temperature and time. “As with any natural project product, there’s a great range in flavor profile that you can coax out of it, if you pay attention.”