The science behind flavouring non-dairy proteins for sports nutrition


The global sports nutrition market is expected to reach $40 billion by 2020 as consumers continue to understand more about the key role that nutrition plays in their increasingly active lifestyles

As the market expands, so too do the options on offer, with different formats, nutritional bases and flavour combinations becoming available to sport nutrition’s growing consumer base.

Although whey protein continues to be the leading base used in sports nutrition products, thanks to its many proven benefits and established reputation, some consumers are keen to try alternative protein sources for a variety of reasons.

As such, manufacturers are innovating with ingredients such as soya, hemp, pea protein and brown rice, all of which have their own unique flavour notes that can impact the final product.

Ensuring that these products deliver on both nutrition and taste can be a technical challenge. Drawing on our experience of working with sports nutrition developers around the world, we have used analytical and sensory science to achieve the ideal flavour when working with plant proteins.

Key challenges

Although protein offers many proven nutritional benefits, increasing the amount of protein in the diet is not always straightforward. Critically, the quality of the protein can determine whether it delivers the desired results and, for active consumers, whey is usually the go-to supplement.

This is thanks to a number of features, including its quality, digestibility, high leucine content, anti-inflammatory properties and high concentration of essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Whey has been supported by more than 50 years of research, with Synergy’s parent company, Carbery, playing a key role.

This deep understanding of whey has enabled us to lead the market in flavour creation for whey-based nutritional products.

From its beginnings as a supplement for hard core bodybuilders, who were not too discerning when it came to taste, ingredient science has enabled whey to be added to a wide array of products without making them unpalatable. However, flavouring whey-rich products is also a science and we have accumulated a significant amount of data, expertise and success that we can now transfer to flavouring alternative protein bases.

As the sports nutrition market continues to boom, a key driver for innovation is variety. As with anything that turns mainstream, consumers demand choice. Despite the fact that the science to support the nutritional benefits of some alternative proteins is only emerging, many consumers are confident in their beneficial effects.

As a growing number of consumers seek to boost their protein intake, alternative protein sources are gaining attention. As well as offering variety, they cater to vegans and those wanting to reduce their dairy intake … or who are lactose intolerant.

When creating sports nutrition products with alternative proteins, some developers might try to switch a whey protein to a vegetable protein and use the same flavour formulation, expecting the same high level of flavour performance. The flavours created work specifically with the inherent characteristics of whey, so that won’t necessarily generate the right result.

Owing to flavour differences between single ingredients from different suppliers, for example, and the complexity of many product formulations, a bespoke solution is nearly always required to produce an optimal tasting product. Developers are increasingly turning to Synergy for help — and our detailed and proven process is yielding consumer-winning results.

The flavour development process

When developing a high protein product with plant proteins, such as rice, soya, hemp, pumpkin seed or pea, it is important to understand the inherent flavour profile of the protein ingredient.

The first stage of this process is to employ sensory analysis in combination with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and gas chromatography olfactometry (GC-O). Foods may contain hundreds of volatile compounds, whereas only a fraction of these may represent key odorants.

Gas chromatography enables the separation of volatile compounds, such that each compound can be considered individually during olfactometry. Olfactometry involves the use of human assessors, who evaluate the aroma produced by each of the separated compounds — allowing flavour researchers to identify which of the many hundreds of volatile compounds present in a food sample represent the key odorants.

Once the key odorants have been identified, researchers use techniques such as flavour pairing to develop flavours to complement or accentuate the inherent taste of the protein ingredient.

The flavour pairing technique relies on the theory that foods that contain the same key odorants work well in combination. Therefore, once the key odorants in a protein ingredient have been identified, flavour pairing combinations that contain some of the same odorants can be selected.

For example, if a protein confers caramellic notes (via compounds such as phenylacetic acid) a caramel or honey flavour might pair effectively. Flavours that contain the same sensorial compounds generally work well together. In fact, you will find that many classic flavour and ingredient pairings have flavour and aroma compounds in common.

Figure 1: Sensory profiling of pea protein

Figure 1: Sensory profiling of pea protein

Analysis by a trained panel is used to identify the sensory characteristics of a protein. Sensory data used in conjunction with analytical data guides flavourists when developing tailored solutions for challenging novel food products. Figure 1 shows an example of results derived from sensory profiling pea protein.

During sensory profiling, the sample is scored by trained panellists in relation to various attributes that describe the flavour and texture of a product. Synergy’s sensory scientists have developed an extensive lexicon of profile descriptors to enable accurate and consistent profiling results. Sensory analysis is also used at the end of the flavour development process to evaluate flavour performance and ensure that a fully tailored solution has been achieved.

Successful solutions

There is a wide range of applications that we work on that contain plant protein. Within sports nutrition, bars, shakes and snacks are mainstream and we primarily rely on complementary flavour combinations. Below are some examples:

  • pea protein is perceived to confer green bean, savoury and cowy flavour notes; this means that flavour combinations such as coffee-caramel and banana-cinnamon work well
  • rice is perceived to confer cereal, cheesy, sulphurous notes, making flavours such as ripe fruits, cocoa/chocolate and nuts particularly well suited to it
  • soya confers beany, earthy, soapy, cereal notes, so sweet combinations such as toffee-apple, peaches and cream and strawberry cheesecake are preferred.

As well as being specifically created to work with the inherent flavour notes of the base proteins, the flavours mentioned above also help to broaden the appeal of sports nutrition products. For newly active consumers, being able to enjoy a nutritious snack that gives them their needed protein boost is fulfilling, and tasting good means that they’re more likely to stick to their regime and become loyal consumers.

In conclusion

As the sports nutrition market grows, consumers want more and more choice. Emerging non-dairy proteins require specific flavour solutions to ensure they deliver on both nutrition and taste.

At Synergy, we have drawn on our years of experience in flavouring whey protein to develop a fail-safe process that results in great tasting plant-based sports nutrition products. Although whey continues to dominate the market, we are looking ahead to future protein trends and look forward to the challenges of flavouring more diverse alternatives, such as fish and insect protein.