The Great Spice Detective
By Maria Pilar Clark
Ingredient suppliers have their magnifying glasses trained on the elusive and ever-evolving tastes of consumers.
Teams of crick-necked scientists have dedicated endless hours of study to the health benefits encased in the foods we eat, but there aren’t exactly volumes upon dusty volumes devoted to the accoutrements that are on our food.
Ingredient developers are training their magnifying glasses a la Sherlock Holmes on the mysterious world of seasonings, taking cues from consumer clues, and ushering in a new epoch of gourmet flavors and taste-enhancers for the snack food industry.
History of the Mystery
Spices and seasonings have played a significant role in the development of world civilizations. They’ve captivated our noses and tastebuds with scents and tastes that in ancient times were coveted and costly, to the point that wars were waged, new lands were discovered, and vast fortunes were cached and squandered, all in the name of fragrant bits of leaves and plants.
Fortunately for us, today’s seasoning supplies are plentiful, inspiring us to be spice-seeking gumshoes, unlocking the secrets of these bountiful flavor enhancers. Ingredient developers also are helping consumers solve the mystery, inventing and testing new flavor combinations for the snack food industry.
As Holmes once said, “What one man can invent, another can discover.”
Cynthia Sasaki, senior research manager for Kerry Ingredients – Kerry Savory Ingredients, agrees, saying, “Seasonings can be considered the ‘icing on the cake’ because they complete the flavor profile. Seasonings can make a good product into a great product by the right combinations of spices, herbs and other complimentary ingredients.”
Kent, Wash.-based Kerry Ingredients — part of Kerry Group plc, a major international food ingredients and consumer foods corporation — houses business unit Kerry Savory Ingredients, which produces seasoning blends for various channels of the food industry.
Elaine Tecklenburg, Spicetec marketing director, adds that ingredients can play various roles in unraveling the mystery behind great taste.
“Seasonings can be used to provide the bold characterizing flavor of the finished product or play second fiddle and provide a milder underlying supporting flavor,” she explains.
Spicetec — part of Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods’ ingredient business portfolio — is a custom developer and manufacturer of savory flavors and seasoning blends serving both processed food manufacturers and foodservice companies. “The key to successful development and the area where Spicetec excels is in combining savory flavors with the right spice blends in just the right balance to deliver the desired profile,” Tecklenburg says.
Before ingredient developers can emerge victorious with their new seasoning combinations brandished high, they must put the powers of extra-keen observation to work, gathering flavor facts and carefully profiling what it is consumers want and expect from their savory snacks.
The conclusion? “Sugar and spice and everything nice” is being shelved as hot, bold and spicy kicks off a new chapter in consumer preferences.
This finding is far from perplexing for ingredient developers, now that consumers have developed more sophisticated palates and cultivated their tastes for more exotic, ethnic and robust flavors.
According to Sasaki, hot trends include Southwest, hot and spicy, Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Philippines), authentic Hispanic cuisine (regional cuisine), Mediterranean and Indian.
“We … see the trend of bold, hot and spicy as exhibited by the interest in wasabi and other chile pepper blends,” she says. “Seasonings can make an everyday product exciting, bold and memorable.”
Dianne Pallanich, industrial sales specialist for Lenexa, Kan.-based Williams Ingredients — a customized bulk seasoning company — also notes that consumers like to spice it up.
“Island cuisine [that] includes Cuban and South American, sweet heat, lesser known citrus fruits and their leaves, chocolate chile combos [with] chile used as a dessert ingredient, coffee as an ingredient or as a rub, white tea, and Habañero [peppers are popular],” she says.
According to Pallanich, “more heat,” “unique wood-smoked flavors” and “more tang” are the key elements involved in turning a bland product into a bold one.
“The key to a successful flavor profile using seasonings is it must be well balanced and not overpowering, yet still be distinguishable,” she adds.
Tecklenburg also believes that consumers’ culinary interest is piqued by more ethnic flavors.
“As far as ethnic preferences, Latin remains hot, and requests for Manchego and Cotija cheeses in seasoning blends, along with specialty peppers, are not uncommon,” she explains. “We are also noticing growing interest in Southern Mediterranean and North African seasonings. Asia remains a region of interest, with the shift being towards seasoning flavor profiles reflecting Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.”
Overall, consumers are embracing a bolder world, experimenting with more new flavors than in the past, prompting many snack producers to roll out limited time offers that spark impulse sales.
“Consumers are asking for ‘global flavors’ — places they have visited [and] recipes they have seen on food TV [networks]” Pallanich says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baltic [or] Russian cuisine make an entrance next. …”
Flavor profiles fit for a Czar (or Czarina) could lend a mysteriously exotic twist to savory snacks, although the key to introducing such striking global flavors will be maintaining a sense of balance.
Ingredient developers echo Holmes, who once said, “We can but try.”
Holmes understood the benefits of balance, especially when combining whodunit observation skills with skillful fact-gathering to pin salty characters to a crime scene. Ingredient developers also are seasoned veterans of the sleuth balancing act, pursuing their number one nemesis: bland snack food products.
As such, they are delving into “layering” flavors, where the consumer is able to perceive more than one seasoning at a time. And although the notion is not new, Tecklenburg notes that layering “is achieved by providing the proper combination of the right flavor ingredients and spice combinations for the specific application.”
For example, a good sour cream and onion seasoning is one that allows the consumer to recognize both flavors as distinctive notes perceived in unison, and not just as sour cream separated from onion.
“This layering is important for many seasonings,” Tecklenburg says. “Pepperoni pizza seasoning is another example. The pepperoni flavor must be perceived at the same time as the spice of the pizza. Balancing flavors is made more difficult when the base you are working with has a fairly strong and distinctive flavor of its own and you are trying to use a more delicate seasoning flavor profile.”
Just as consumers are complex, snacks are becoming more multidimensional in terms of seasonings and flavors.
“Layering does add complexity to a product because it will provide a full flavor sensation,” says Sasaki. “For example, you may have the initial impact of a very flavorful cheese, which can flow into a spice blend of cumin and chile, and finish with a mild heat sensation.”
Pallanich notes that the most important aspect in developing great flavor profiles is ultimately keeping the consumer interested in the product.
“By keeping the seasoning ‘in balance,’ you raise a certain amount of curiosity within the consumers’ tastebuds that keeps them craving … more,” she adds.
Even standard flavors such as cheese are being revitalized in a move to recharge consumers’ tastebuds.
Commercial Creamery Co, a third-generation family business, is focused on the spray drying and blending of dairy powders, seasonings, dairy flavors and unique shelf-stable cheese pieces.
“Thanks to international restaurants such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, numerous children and young adults have grown up eating cheeseburgers and pizza,” notes Megan Boell, Commercial Creamery’s vice president of sales and marketing. “This has allowed cheese seasonings to be one of the hottest seasoning choices worldwide.”
Further, the Spokane, Wash.-based company has discovered a growing demand for seasonings that are both bold and cheesy as BBQ flavors are revisited and revived in order to pique consumers’ palates.
“We have BBQ seasonings paired with different cheeses to hit both realms of those markets,” Boell says. “We also manufacture several specialty cheese seasonings, such as Asiago, Gorgonzola, Feta … [and more], for the gourmet spin on snacks.”
In addition, Boell notes that current trends point toward combining cheesy and hot, such as white Cheddar with Habanero peppers, or other cheese flavors with jalapeño, cayenne, black pepper, red pepper and more.
Some limited-time offerings become part of a company’s permanent product portfolio if they turn into an outstanding product with consumers. That happened to Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay, when it turned up the flavor volume with its Doritos Black Pepper Jack tortilla chips. Introduced in 2004, the product offered amped-up spices, high-decibel cheese flavor and lots of crunch for a bold flavor experience. To get consumers crunching and munching even more in 2006, Frito-Lay plans to re-launch its Doritos line with a fresh batch of flavors, new labeling and pumped up advertising campaigns.
Without balance, snacks can be perceived as having too much or too little seasoning, or being inconsistent in their flavor profiles and delivery from snack to snack — all big no-no’s when catering to choosy consumers.
“When building any type of flavor profile, a foundation must be constructed,” Pallanich explains. “This provides depth to whatever you’re building. There are certain ingredients that are instrumental to building a foundation. The next step is to build the walls on top of the foundation that represent the dominant flavor you’re trying to deliver … [and] the final piece is to put a roof on — that’s where your specific top notes deliver.”
In today’s flavor-obsessed society, variety truly is the spice of life. No longer are conservative dashes of this or sprinkles of that en vogue, as consumers seek out products that are spicy, pungent and deserving of at least two or three extra-strong mints after eating them.
Ingredient developers are at the ready, closely observing taste trends to create flavors so captivating and obvious that even Holmes would say, it’s simply “elementary, my dear Watson.” SF&WB
“There are many kinds of BBQ seasonings on the market,” says Cynthia Sasaki, senior research manager for Kerry Ingredients. “Some spins to an old classic include adding alcoholic flavor profiles, such as Bourbon or Whiskey, or adding different types of peppers, such as Ancho or Chipotle. Also, different kinds of smokes, such as mesquite or hickory, can change the impact.”
Specialty foods company Thanasi Foods has experienced ongoing success with its line of Jim Beam Soaked products, including award-winning Original and Barbeque Kentucky Bourbon Soaked Sunflower Seeds and Beef Jerky. The Boulder, Colo.-based company recently expanded its line to cater further to consumer requests, and in January introduced new Jim Beam Peppered Beef Jerky, Jim Beam Barbeque Beef Jerky and Jim Beam Jalapeño Sunflower Seeds.
Bold flavors also are creeping into the cracker aisle. Cheez-It Fiesta Crackers, introduced in October by Battle Creek, Mi.-based Kellogg Co., offer consumers bold cheesy flavors with an ethnic South-of-the-Border twist. The triangular snack crackers are made with a touch of stone-ground corn and infused with a robust, slightly spicy, cheesy flavor. Both varieties — Cheddar Nacho and Cheesy Taco — are available nationwide and come in a 14-oz. box that retails for $3.95.
I’ll Drink to That!
Other snack food companies have discovered ways to develop a number of flavorful savory snacks that heat-seeking, spice-savoring consumer demand.
For instance, Kettle Foods, the Salem, Ore.-based producer of all-natural salty snacks, went directly to its biggest critics and fans — its consumers — for spice advice with its second annual People’s Choice campaign. The company’s chief flavor architect, Carolyn Richards, narrowed flavors down to five choices and consumers are invited to vote on those choices online at www.straightupflavor.com
through March 31. The winning flavor, revealed in April, will be available to consumers nationwide in July at a retail price of $1.99 for a 5-oz. bag.
This year’s nominees are inspired by a Happy Hour-style menu and include unique flavor combinations such as Spicy Mary, Dirty Martini, Creamy Caesar, Tuscan Three Cheese and Buffalo Blue Cheese.
Kettle Foods has found that by combining trendy and sometimes unexpected flavors, such as spicy tomato, ginger, green onion, aged goat cheese, tangy roasted red pepper and celery notes, makes for a winning, distinctive product that reflects current consumer interest in even broader, more sophisticated tastes when compared to last year’s flavor winners: Cheddar Beer and Spicy Thai.
New Labeling Options for EsSence Shortenings
EsSence brand non-hydrogenated shortening blends are highly functional fat systems designed to be trans-free and relatively low in saturated fat. They are intended for use in bakery, margarine and other food applications where the level of trans and saturated fat is of concern. EsSence shortenings are composed of a liquid oil, such as Canola, blended with a hardstock component chosen from a select group of functionally acceptable oils.
AarhusKarlshamn (AAK) also offers an alternative labeling option for EsSence customers. Based on an opinion letter issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), EsSence shortenings now may be listed on the ingredient statement as follows: “Blend of ______ oil and interesterified triglycerides,” with the name of the appropriate liquid oil inserted.
For example, “Blend of Canola oil and interesterified triglycerides,” would be an appropriate label declaration. Customers who wish to continue using the conventional ingredient statement may still do so: [e.g. vegetable shortening (Canola oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.)].
According to AAK, in a September 2005 letter from the FDA to the company regarding appropriate names for EsSence shortenings, the FDA stated, “… we believe that the names of the source oils are not necessary to adequately describe the interesterification product.”
The agency’s opinion is predicated on its view that interesterification is “a chemical process whereby the resulting product is chemically distinct from the two oils used as the starting substances.” The FDA has held this position consistently since 2004, and its opinion regarding the alternative labeling of EsSence shortenings is consistent with other names the agency has permitted for oil-derived substances where the name of the source oil is omitted.
However, the FDA’s opinion is specific to AAK and is restricted to the EsSence line of shortenings, which meet the specific criteria established by the agency. In no way should the agency’s opinion be interpreted broadly. 1-973-344-1300.
Flexible, Versatile Corn
By Maria Pilar Clark
J.R. Short operates three plants in Kankakee, Ill. that can produce a wide variety of corn ingredients, specialty ingredients and extruded snack pellets to meet customer demand.
In addition to its branded Sunlite line, the company offers value-added, functional grain-based ingredients from corn. It also can produce heat-stabilized bran and germ from both corn and wheat. Moreover, it can provide pre-gel white and yellow flakes for bakery products, batter and bread mixes and for the confection and snack food industries.
“Our ingredients could be the primary ingredients in the formulation or they could be part of the formulation. In either case, they provide specific functional properties in [our] products,” says Kumaresh Chakraborty, vice president of marketing, sales and business development.
Moreover, J.R. Short’s ingredients help bakers and snack manufacturers meet changing consumer needs by satisfying the demand for great-tasting, nutritious food products at low prices.
“[Our ingredients] help bakers in many ways … [they] increase water absorption and extend shelf life of the baked goods. The heat-stabilized ingredients, such as bran, eliminate enzyme interference, add aroma, and increase total dietary fiber content in the baked goods,” Chakraborty says.
In addition, the company uses selected varieties of corn to produce corn meal that is then used in the manufacturing of extruded snack pellets. These ingredients help snack producers create low-density and high-expansion snack products that contain high levels of total-dietary fiber and protein, Chakraborty explains.
The company also produces ingredients that are enzyme inactive, provide high-water absorption or offer heat stability, controlled viscosity, and longer shelf life to the finished goods.
“We at J.R. Short are committed to provide our customers innovative product [and] ingredient ideas. Also, we make continuous improvements in the existing products,” Chakraborty adds. 1-800-457-3547.