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The Foundations of Flavor: How the Reaction Process Gives Authenticity to Savory Foods

Imagine you’re attending an outdoor barbecue or tailgate party this summer. You’re sipping on an iced coffee mocha, others are drinking iced tea, family and friends are grilling smoked sausage or veggie burgers and serving up spicy hot wings. The slow-cooker is warming some roasted jalapeno queso on a table full of snacks like mesquite BBQ potato chips and fresh-cut vegetables with caramelized onion dip. Perhaps there is even a tray of baked desserts like chocolate chip cookies or fried cinnamon churros.

What’s the common thread between all of these foods?

The answer is reaction flavors​. The entire menu consists of foods that are developed and refined by the world’s top flavorists to accurately reproduce the taste of culinary dishes.

One of the biggest challenges facing food and beverage companies is the need to deliver a reliable, robust flavor experience while also accounting for the long shelf-life needed for most packaged and frozen foods. To solve this challenge, food technologists use reaction flavors, which harness the taste of certain cooking processes but are remarkably shelf-stable – providing a versatile flavor solution.

The reaction process aims to provide a more true-to-life flavor by replicating the process used to produce those flavors in the first place. Reaction flavors are isolated using flavor elements from the same processes used in the kitchen.  

Food and beverage flavors are created in a couple of different ways. All foods consist of combined chemical compounds – whether they occur in nature or are produced in a lab – and these elements form aroma compounds which are interpreted by the nose and mouth as flavors. A compound flavor​ is the result of two or more separate chemical compounds added together, while reaction flavors​ provide a unique taste in foods that are cooked, heated, baked, roasted or prepared in some form of thermal heat / culinary process.

At the core of these flavors is the Maillard Reaction – a chemical reaction that occurs naturally when heating foods. The various flavor compounds in raw foods react with one another during the cooking process, with amino acids, proteins and reducing sugars interacting to give a browning effect, resulting in a complex flavor. Flavors that we generally associate with certain savory foods such as beef, pork, coffee and chocolate, are the result of Maillard while cooking these foods. The raw ingredients in these foods taste entirely different or have very little flavor at all, but they have complex flavors and aromatic compounds that are only unlocked through thermal reaction during the cooking process.  

California-based T. Hasegawa USA​, the U.S. subsidiary of global top 10 flavor & fragrance company T. Hasegawa Co. Ltd. in Japan, is a recognized leader in the field of reaction flavor technology. The company’s team of flavorists have expanded on many of the traditional development processes for reaction flavors and reinvented the ways that reaction flavors can advance the science of food technology.

“T. Hasegawa has completely modernized the traditional aspects of reaction flavor technology and reinvented what’s possible in this category with innovative new usage options that are still rooted in reaction flavors” said T. Hasegawa’s, senior flavor chemist, Austin Luft. “This is really an exciting time to be at the forefront of reaction flavors because we’re working on innovative new applications for this technology all the time.”

“The industry relies on reaction flavors now more than ever,” added Luft. “The science behind reaction flavors has grown drastically in the last few years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the surge in consumer demand for vegetarian and vegan plant-based meat alternative products.”

According to Mintel research, over the last three years, demand for burger and sausage substitute products has surged 93% and 77%, respectively. But the prevailing consumer perception is that meat-free substitutes lack flavor and are difficult to prepare. As a result, food brands have focused on bold, flavorful ingredients and convenient preparation formats to improve product offerings in the meat alternative category.  Plant-based meat substitutes rely entirely on reaction flavor technology to accurately mimic the flavor of traditional meat – but in a natural way that replicates the way these flavors are produced during cooking. Without the authentic Maillard reaction of the chemical compounds in these plant-based products during the cooking process, the final product would not have the authentic taste that consumers demand for these meat alternatives.  

Maillard reactions are important for enhancing and protecting the true flavor of cooked savory foods, so the reaction process is a major part of any food product that needs to be cooked or reheated after purchase. Canned soups, frozen entrees and more rely on reaction flavor technology to unlock the complex flavors and aromas in these foods. Since reaction flavors are produced only through a heat process, they are very stable and prevent any loss of flavor when these food products are eventually cooked or reheated.

The applications of reaction flavors are found in various categories of packaged foods and beverages, specifically foods with a meat, burnt, roasted, caramellic or chocolate flavor profile. Reaction flavors form a core part of the taste experience in many seasonings (such as potato chips and other snack foods), frozen and ready-to-eat sauces, shelf-stable beverages, canned chiles, tomato paste, coffee and chocolate products and much more. Even in the dessert category, reaction flavors leverage the Maillard process to provide the “browned butter” taste that is a core aspect of many baked goods including muffins, cookies, fried donuts and even dulce de leche.  Food products that are marketed as a ‘roasted, grilled or caramelized’ variety could be the result of reaction flavor technology.

“Reaction flavors are the anchor or foundation of a complex and culinary flavor,” explained T. Hasegawa’s vp of research and development, Jim Yang.   “Additional flavor top notes are usually added to enhance a food or beverage flavor, but the reaction process provides us with a baseline flavor to work from. Reaction flavors are a true industry workhorse and serve as the foundation for nearly all savory food products in the grocery store or foodservice.”

So next time you are shopping at the supermarket or enjoying an outdoor picnic or barbecue, take a moment to look around at how the reaction flavor process has revolutionized brands to deliver the robust taste and authentic flavor we crave.

Food and beverage brands who are looking to take their product to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities of reaction flavors by contacting T. Hasegawa USA at​ or by calling (866) 965-0502.

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