Some researchers argue that unpleasant taste may be an acceptable trade-off for gaining the benefit perceived.1,2 Others suggest consumers may identify poor taste as an indicator of the health benefits to be gained.3 On the other hand, recent reports provide scientific data showing that taste is of primary importance to ordinary consumers as well as athletes and people interested in healthy eating.4-6
In today’s dietary supplement industry, flavor can no longer be an afterthought. It is often one of the top factors affecting purchase decisions, if not the top consideration. It is even more important for influencing continued use or compliance of products. If taste and other sensory attributes are unsatisfactory, then the product may ultimately fail.
Taste expectations may vary depending on the product benefit. Higher sensory expectations are placed on products delivering preventive health benefits. Because benefits of preventive health products are typically realized long after consumption, consumers place a higher premium on good taste. If the product doesn’t taste great and the benefit is not immediate, consumers are less likely to continue use of the product. Thus, preventive health products need to be formulated with greater attention to sensory standards, perhaps even to the degree given to conventional food or beverage products.
On the other hand, if a product effectively addresses an acute health issue, consumers may be more forgiving for less than optimal taste. Nutritional shakes and other products have been used for a long time among people with acute and chronic conditions. These people often need nutritional supplementation of their ordinary diet because their condition elevates needs or reduces appetite. Therapies such as chemo and radiation therapy interfere with taste perception by destroying taste buds and causing nausea. Likewise, head trauma can destroy taste buds. Aging itself is associated with reduced ability to perceive flavor. Flavor considerations may differ significantly depending on the consumer.
Consumers’ taste expectations for products targeting performance and related athletic benefits are often less rigid. Serious bodybuilders may find the off-notes of amino acids more acceptable while the weekend warrior’s expectations align more with those of other mainstream consumers.
Compared to 30 years ago, today’s consumers demand good taste. Influencing factors include ethnic diversity, rise of the “food elite,” desire for organic and specialized products (e.g., gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free), and changes in attitudes.7-9
Demographic-specific factors also influence taste expectations. For instance, members of the millennial generation are adventurous seekers of new tastes. They often favor bolder, spicier flavors compared to older generations. Millennials likely have more exotic palates due to their exposure to global cuisines as well as their broader access to information about trends in foods and beverages. The baby boomer palate differs from millennials in that boomers tend to look for fresh, familiar products.
Here’s an illustrative example of the importance of taste for a specific demographic population. When Abbott Nutrition’s Ensure Nutrition Shake expanded from the institutional market into retail distribution, retail product managers routinely pressured the company’s Flavor and Sensory Technology Department to develop new novel and improved flavors to attract new users and maintain long-term customers.
Patients in hospitals and nursing homes did not have much influence on selection of nutritional products. In the retail setting, taste was so important that exhaustive sensory research was conducted to identify the most desirable aspects of the single vanilla flavor. After extensive consumer testing, for the U.S. market, the marshmallow vanilla flavor of a leading fast food chain’s vanilla milkshake was found to be preferred. The flavor and sensory technologists commenced to duplicate that flavor for the nutritional supplement.
The Challenge of Achieving Good Taste
Dietary supplement and functional food formulators and developers often have special challenges in the quest for good taste. The products may contain strong-tasting ingredients such as fish oil, bitter tastes introduced by botanical compounds, or off-flavors from isolated nutrients that are hard to work with.
On the other hand, the importance of flavor is also extremely important because it can help mask these unpleasant tastes. For instance, an antioxidant supplement with fruit-based functional ingredients in a beverage format may benefit from a fruitier taste, as other ingredients may serve to mask any inherent bitter or other unwanted tastes.
It is important to keep in mind, when we talk about “taste,” we actually mean “flavor.” Taste is a component of flavor. Gustation refers to the sense of taste. Humans can sense only five tastes, although recent molecular biology research suggests there may be more.10 People sense sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (savory/meaty) on taste buds. The ability to taste these components remains robust throughout life. Taste buds exist on the tongue, soft palate, epiglottis, cheek, and esophagus. They are not taste-specific.
Each of the 9,000 taste buds can sense all the tastes. Taste buds located on certain parts of the tongue are taste specific. That is, some taste buds sense sweet while others sense bitter. However, this concept has been proven to be untrue.
If we can only sense five tastes, how is it that we can taste chocolate, fresh peaches, or a sizzling steak? Eighty percent of the flavors we perceive result from olfaction, which refers to the sense of smell. The sense of smell allows us to enjoy tens of thousands of flavors. Odor molecules entering the nose and mouth as part of food travel retro-nasally, stimulating smell receptors. The brain recognizes the smells as flavor. Because flavor perception appears to come from the mouth, we call it taste rather than retro-nasal olfaction. This explains the waning ability of older adults to perceive flavor. While the sense of taste remains strong throughout life, olfaction declines and with it the ability to “taste” and enjoy the flavors of food.
In conclusion, for long-term product success, flavor should be integrated into the overall product concept and marketing narrative and included as a critical component of any new product research and development.
- Fahey JW, Stephenson KK, Talay P. Glucosinolates, myrosinase, and isothio-cyanates: three reasons for eating brassica vegetables. In: Shibamoto, T, Terao, J and Osawa, T, editors. Functional foods for disease prevention I. Fruits, vegetables, and teas, vol. 1, ACS Symposium Series 702, Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society. 1998; p 16-22.
- Fahey JW, Zhang Y, Talay P. Broccoli sprouts: an exceptionally rich source of inducers of enzymes that protect against chemical carcinogens. Proc Natl Acad Sci (USA).1998; 94:10367-72.
- Juttelstad A. Crafting appetizing nutraceuticals 1998(March):97.
- Kourouniotis S, et al. The importance of taste on dietary choice, behaviour and intake in a group of young adults. Appetite. 2016;103:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.03.015. Epub 2016 Mar 10.
- Larson N, et al. Predictors of fruit and vegetable intake in young adulthood. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(8):1216-1222. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.03.035.
- Cardello AV, et al. Importance of taste and other product factors to consumer interest in nutraceutical products. Civilian and military comparisons. J Food Sci. 2003;68:1519-1524.
- https://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2013/market-view-taste/. Accessed August 5, 2018.
- Hebden L, et al. You are what you choose to eat: factors influencing young adults’ food selection behaviour. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015 Aug;28(4):401-8. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12312. Epub 2015 Apr 20.
- Birkenhead KL,et al. A review of factors influencing athletes’ food choices. Sports Med. 2015 Nov;45(11):1511-22. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0372-1.
- Hummel T, Antje Welge-Lüssen A (eds.) Taste and Smell: An Update. NYC: Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers, 2006. Karger, NY.
For more opinions and insights visit www.NutraceuticalsWorld.com
Greg Stephens, RD, is president of Windrose Partners, a company serving clients in the the dietary supplement, functional food and natural product industries. Formerly vice president of strategic consulting with The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) and Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Nurture, Inc (OatVantage), he has 25 years of specialized expertise in the nutritional and pharmaceutical industries. His prior experience includes a progressive series of senior management positions with Abbott Nutrition (Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories), including development of global nutrition strategies for disease-specific growth platforms and business development for Abbott’s medical foods portfolio. He can be reached at 267-432-2696; E-mail: email@example.com.
Sheila Campbell, PhD, RD, has practiced in the field of clinical nutrition for more than 30 years, including 17 years with Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories. She has authored more than 70 publications on scientific, clinical and medical topics and has presented 60 domestic and international lectures on health-related topics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.