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Rebalancing Flavor in Reduced-Calorie Beverages
By Kimberly Decker
July 10, 2009 - Article

It seems that Americans have finally accepted the fact that calories do count—even when they come from beverages. Our collective revelation has hit as our grab-and-go lifestyles have begun replacing the knife and fork with the straw, and the confluence of booming beverage consumption with caloric concern has shined a spotlight on reduced-calorie beverages. Beverage manufacturers have responded by reexamining their product lines for calorie-reduction opportunities. But, as any beverage developer knows, draining a drink’s excess calories is only the first step in the reformulation process—one that throws just about everything else we crave about a beverage out of whack. But, with the right flavors, alternative sweeteners and functional tricks, you can give even calorie-conscious consumers a reason to raise a glass to your formulation.

The sugar standard

The beverage medium leaves scant space for hiding flavor imbalances. This is doubly so in reduced-calorie formulas. By cutting sugar and fat—the main source of beverage calories—we not only dramatically alter taste, but expose background flavors, upset sweet-acid balance, hamper flavor delivery and release, modify mouthfeel, and shift flavor intensity and duration, as well. All of which “leaves major challenges for the developer in rebalancing these characteristics,” according to a statement from the FONA International Beverage Technical Team, Geneva, IL.

Experts agree that much of the difficulty stems from matching the palatability and functionality of sugar, the classic beverage sweetener. “Sugar is the standard by which we measure all other sweeteners,” says Ron Deis, Ph.D., vice president, applications research & technical services, Corn Products U.S., Westchester, IL. “Whenever a new sweetener is introduced, its unique characteristics are measured against sucrose at various sucrose equivalencies, and product development is shaped around reaching at least parity with a full-sugar product.” But all sweeteners are not created equal. Each has its own taste profle, flavor and mouthfeel “fingerprint,” and to the extent that consumers have grown accustomed to any one, much of the reformulation task involves replicating it.

“Sugar is very clean tasting, with a rapid onset, no off tastes, and limited lingering sweetness,” says Greg Horn, senior director, sweetener technology, Wild Flavors, Inc., Erlanger, KY. “Sucrose also adds mouthfeel to beverages because it can structure water and provide body to the beverage.”

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), on the other hand, has its own profile. “HFCS has a quicker sweetness onset and subsides faster than sucrose, allowing delicate flavors to come through,” says Andrea Belford, food applications laboratory manager, Corn Products U.S.

The flavor of honey, which often appears in “natural” beverages, can vary by quality and flower source, adding an even more-complex flavor “which can either augment or contradict the existing flavor profile, depending on what the flavor-type of the beverage is,” Horn says. Add the changes that sugar undergoes courtesy of Maillard browning and caramelization reactions, and it’s a potent tool for building a beverage’s personality.

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