Taste and price drive most food and beverage choices, although healthfulness, convenience, and sustainability are also important, according to consumers polled in a 2012 survey. Survey respondents with heart disease, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a high body mass index—those most in need of dietary guidance—reported finding it difficult to figure out how to eat properly. In fact, a startling 52% of survey participants said it was harder to figure out how to eat healthfully than to do their taxes, which speaks to the challenge facing nutrition professionals and the food industry alike. Food producers and manufacturers want to extend the benefits of nutritious foods to consumers who have little time to cook every day, and flavor is 1 missing link to healthier eating.
REACHING CONSUMERS THROUGH INCREASED AWARENESS AND FAMILIARITY
Two strategies for improving consumers’ eating patterns are increasing awareness and promoting familiarity. The online environment is a good place to build awareness of how to eat a healthy diet. A Google search of articles on the health benefits of spices and herbs, for example, returned more than 1 million articles posted on popular Web sites such as WebMD and Reader’s Digest. Many Web sites and food blogs feature recipes in which spices and herbs boost flavor while decreasing the amount of added fat, salt, sugar, or calories.
Familiarity is another way of reaching consumers. The idea that pairing familiar condiments and flavors with a new food will increase its acceptance has been a topic of research since the 1980s. Today, there is ample evidence that a “flavor principle” can be developed in which children and adults are willing to taste a novel food when it is paired with a familiar food or flavor. Improving flavor and palatability with added spices and herbs may help overcome consumers’ resistance to trying unfamiliar foods.
SPICES AND HERBS DELIVER THE TASTE CONSUMERS WANT
Consumers say they want pre-prepared foods that taste fresh and natural, like home-cooked dishes, according to an international survey of 5000 urban consumers around the world. About half of the survey respondents said “a very good taste” was their reason for a repeat food purchase. Spices and herbs offer many opportunities for meeting consumers’ desire for flavorful foods that taste home cooked. The various forms of these versatile ingredients—whole, sized, and ground—offer distinct flavors that can be used in many applications, including baked goods, coatings, confectionary, dry rubs, glazes, marinades, sauces, soups, and stews.
SPICE AND HERB EXTRACTS
When developing food products that meet the consumer’s desire for good taste, extracts can go where plain spices and herbs cannot. Extracts are obtained by distillation and contain the desirable flavor components of spices and herbs; they offer a more consistent flavor than fresh or dried herbs in some packaged foods. Two main categories of extracts are essential oils and oleoresins. Essential oils can be distilled or expressed from a seed, fruit, root, stem, or leaf of a plant. They capture the complete aroma in the form of highly concentrated volatile components, but because they do not contain the nonvolatile constituents, they may not represent the complete spice or herb flavor. The average volatile oil content of spices and herbs varies from a low of 0.4% for basil to a high of 15% for nutmeg; the volatile oil content of cinnamon, thyme, and dill falls between 1% and 3%. Oleoresins are viscous, complex mixtures of the volatile and nonvolatile flavor components derived by extraction. They typically contain essential oils, nonvolatile substances, fats, waxes, and pigments. Oleoresins represent the complete spice or herb profile in a concentrated oil-soluble liquid form and thus capture the potentially bioactive components of interest to the health and nutrition community.
USE OF SPICE AND HERB EXTRACTS IN PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
Depending on the food product, spice and herb extracts can be combined with other ingredients to enhance flavor. They can also be diluted to standardize or solubilize the natural flavor or sprayed dry on carrier material for dry applications. The amount of extract used in a food product depends in part on its relative strength. For example, ground ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe, Zingiberaceae) contains about 1% to 5% volatile oil, whereas a ginger oleoresin contains 30% to 50% volatile oil; ginger oil contains 100% volatile oil. Spice and herb extracts and flavors deliver flavor components in versatile forms and for a variety of purposes, as shown in the Table.
CASE STUDY: GINGER TEA
Whether developing an all-natural breakfast bar for the on-the-go eater or a low-sodium soup for baby boomers, food product developers choose a desirable spice/herb profile, determine how the product will be positioned in the marketplace, and identify the best prototype. In developing a spicy ginger energy tea, for example, a product developer might weigh the merits of using a teabag versus a ready-to-drink beverage to meet consumer expectations. However, it is important to identify the best form of ginger to incorporate into the product. Fresh ground ginger is not a good choice for a teabag because its volatile oil content is low, and any ginger essential oil added to tea leaves will evaporate over time. In this case, adding a ginger extract to a ready-to-drink tea is considered the best option, and a prototype would be developed based on this choice.
For consumers, taste is king. For product developers, spices and herbs and their extracts provide the flavors and flexibility needed to develop food products with the tastes consumers want.