Keeping up with consumers’ growing demand for delicious, natural, authentically flavored snack foods can pose challenges even for the most seasoned product developer. Unlike their chemical counterparts, which can be derived from all manner of chemical processes, clean-label and natural flavors are mainly captured from their parent spices, herbs, seeds, fruits or vegetables, and the processes are limited to those that will extract the essence naturally—expressing (by squeezing out essential oils); steeping in alcohol, water or oil; and distilling. All of these processes have definite impacts on your end result.

With the wide variety of clean-label flavor ingredients on the market, it can be difficult to know which ingredients will work best in your snack or bakery application. As a first installment of this new regular column focusing on clean label, here is a primer to guide you through the process of selecting the right flavor system for your product.

Extracts. Flavor extracts are typically alcohol-derived and work well in most applications. They’re water-soluble, which allows for easy incorporation in processing and true, clean flavors. However, because they are alcohol-based, most extracts will lose potency once heated. Pairing an extract with another flavoring component like an oleoresin ensures that you keep top, middle and finishing notes throughout baking or frying.

Essential oils & oleoresins. Essential oils and oleoresins are oil-based, typically extracted through distillation or expression. They pick up where extracts leave off in heated applications and can add the backbone to flavor systems in baked goods. Naturally derived oils and oleoresins pack a lot of flavor. However, overuse can lead to bitter and off flavors in finished products.

Emulsions. Emulsions are flavor extracts suspended in water, typically with a gum or starch. Water imparts no flavor of its own and does not evaporate as rapidly as alcohol when exposed to heat. The result is a more-sustained flavor that will not “bake-out” as readily as alcohol-based extracts. Because of this, emulsions are excellent choices for baking applications and most confections. However, the high water content makes them a poor choice to flavor chocolate and hard candy, where controlled water activity is crucial.

Flavor enhancers. When standalone options fail to deliver, natural flavor enhancers step in to provide a needed boost to clean-label flavors. High in natural glutamates, flavor enhancers typically partner with other flavor compounds to increase the sensation of umami. Created through a natural fermentation process, yeast extracts fit this bill nicely. Robustly flavored yeast extracts are good sources to enhance and round-out flavors in reduced-sodium snack products like crackers, pretzels, nuts and chips.

Flavor maskers. As we’ve seen a rise in demand for better-for-you and healthful foods, there’s also a need for flavorings that can hide or alter off notes, bitterness, astringency and sour flavors commonly associated with natural high-intensity sweeteners—like stevia and monk fruit—or vegetable or legume ingredients, like pea and soy protein. This is particularly true in the bar category, where we are seeing a rise in lower-salt and reduced-sugar products along with incorporation of new and different protein sources. While flavor-masking ingredients typically don’t contribute flavor of their own, they can alter existing flavor profiles by changing flavor attributes by intensifying specific flavors, hiding bitter or off-notes, or changing the duration of flavor perception.

In product development, flavor is king. However, navigating the flavor landscape can be tricky, especially when developing clean-label products. Partnering with your flavor vendor to find solutions unique to your product and experimenting with flavor innovation as new techniques and strategies develop can give you a leg up on the bench. When using flavors, start with the desired result in mind and consider using various flavoring products to build layers and achieve the high-impact flavor results consumers demand.