Flavour pairing with plant proteins: What’s best for your product?

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Plant proteins such as hemp, brown rice and pea have complex taste profiles that work best with tailor-made flavours. But it's not always obvious that sulphur pairs well with strawberry...which is why it helps to have a flavourist on board to explain.

Most food formulators know that whey protein works best with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavours. But what about some of the emerging plant proteins that manufacturers are beginning to experiment with? 

We caught up with flavour research scientist at UK-headquartered Synergy, Rosa Sullivan, who has been working with food manufacturers to fine-tune their product flavours.

"Each protein has own its own flavour profile and, rather than masking it, its about working with the flavour base," said Sullivan.

This may mean that your non-dairy, pea protein ice cream still says 'vanilla flavour' on pack - but it won't be the exact same vanilla flavour as the soy-based ice cream sitting next to it on the shelf. In order to create the right vanilla, food scientists need to experiment in flavour pairing.

“Flavour pairing is usually talked about by chefs trying to find innovative combinations in their restaurants or people pairing wine with food, but we’ve actually applied it to alternative proteins. Which foods out there will pair well with these bases according to a chemical analysis of what makes them taste the way they do?

“Some proteins have sulphurous notes which can be quite unpleasant but actually these are the same notes that contribute to an overripe fruit profile in nature, so that protein may lend itself well to a ripe strawberry or raspberry flavour.”

Synergy flavourists work to develop a flavour based on the notes which exist in the protein, ‘adding in’ the other notes required to make it taste like a strawberry.

It can be difficult to generalise about what kind of flavour pairings can be made, Sullivan explained, because each protein is different, even within the same type, such as pea.

A pea protein that has a lot of phenylacetic acid pairs well with coffee, cocoa, toffee and honey while high levels of 2-Pentylfuran would be better paired with cooked sugar, peanut or hazelnut.

Isovaleric acid is a good match with butter, nuts, honey, coffee, cocoa and banana, while 2-Octanone works well with butter, banana, cocoa and nuts. 

'Musty' notes tend to pair well with nutty flavours, she added.

The science

In order to determine the profile, Synergy uses a combination of both sensory and analytical science.

Groups of panelists, experienced in working with soy, hemp, brown rice and pea, first analyse the flavour notes in the protein base. Synergy scientists then use extraction technology to obtain the aroma of the protein itself, in essence capturing the flavour chemicals that make the protein taste the way it does.

They then run these chemicals through a gas chromatography mass spectrometer GC-MS which separates and identifies the components.

“It then becomes possible to then bridge the gap of what the flavour is and which flavour chemicals inherent to the food are causing these notes,Sullivan said.

Bridging this gap involves using gas chromatography-olfactometry (GCO) which allows the scientists to identify which of the volatiles actually contribute to the odour. By this stage, they have a good idea of the olfactory make-up of the protein in question and can begin pairing.

The final stage, of course, is manufacturing the flavours themselves which is done according to the product developer's demands, be it for natural or synthetic; conventional, non-GMO or organic; powder or liquid.

Synergy has been working specifically with hemp, pea, soy and brown rice but Sullivan said the sensory and analytical process could be used with any protein, from algae to insects.

Most of the supplier's work into plant protein is for the sports nutrition market, such as protein shakes and bars.

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