Taste is highly personal. Think back to the last beverage you ordered. Maybe it was tea – and you were asked if you wanted it hot, iced, sweetened or unsweetened; and with lemon or milk.
And your responses were influenced by everything from your culture and geography, to your experiences and memories, and even your health.
That’s exactly why Abbott prioritizes flavor, texture and aroma in every product it makes. “Even if nutrition products such as Ensure® have important health benefits, it doesn’t matter if you don’t drink them,” explains Monica Tortorice, a senior flavor scientist with Abbott. “Taste plays a critical role in the delivery of nutrition.”
But making “good for you” taste great is not as easy as it sounds! After all, for Abbott, meeting the therapeutic nutrition needs of consumers is priority No. 1, and balancing the nutrients they need with taste they want is a science – literally.
“The more nutrient-dense a product is, the more challenging it is to make it appealing in aroma and taste,” Tortorice says. “Important ingredients like HMB, which can support muscle health, don’t taste great and can create off notes that need to be covered. These are primary considerations in our development process.”
“It’s even trickier making products for people who are ill,” says Normanella DeWille, PhD, a research fellow and product developer at Abbott. “People who have cancer often have their sense of taste impacted. Everything tastes or smells different. It’s our job to intensify certain flavor elements and sweetness levels to ensure our nutritional supplements are enjoyed by these patients so they get the critical nutrition needed.”
So how does Abbott do it? Here, we dig into the latest innovations in food and flavor technology to explain how Abbott makes good-for-you nutritional products taste great:
Starting with the Best Ingredients and Processing
Behind every one of our products is a great recipe and quality ingredients. That’s why the Abbott team first sources the best ingredients by partnering with high-quality farms and trusted suppliers.
“We look at each ingredient closely for its quality and the benefits it brings to our products,” says Normanella DeWille, PhD, a research fellow and product developer at Abbott. “For example, our years of research tell us that combining proteins from milk as well as those from plants gives our products the smoothest mouthfeel possible, which has a huge effect on overall taste and experience.”
The processing of these ingredients also matters. For example, exactly how protein is extracted from milk in order to produce milk protein concentrate (a key ingredient in a wide range of complete nutrition products including Ensure and PediaSure) affects taste and texture.
“If the protein is extracted in a harsh manner, either through the amount of heat or type of chemicals applied, you can have an increase in off-tasting compounds and the protein itself can develop an unpleasant texture,” DeWille explains. The solution: Abbott scientists only work with suppliers that use gentle methods of extracting that protein.
Minimizing Undesirable Tastes
If you’ve ever turned up your nose at a piece of pungent fish, you’ve smelled exactly the sort of obstacles flavor technologists are up against in making nutritional products taste great. After all, some of Abbott’s products, including ProSure® and Ensure® Surgery Immunonutrition, include fish oil for omega-3 fatty acids, which play a valuable role in overall health and healing. And while fish oil can taste and smell fishy all on its own, once it oxidizes (reacts to oxygen), that “fishiness” gets stronger. Much stronger.
“Fortunately, through a lot of research, we’ve been able to find an antioxidant blend that prevents fish oil from oxidizing,” says DeWille. She explains that, when combined with rosemary extract through Abbott’s pending patent on the technology, those antioxidants help scientists get fish oil into the Ensure Surgery Immunonutrition drink with no fishy flavor. The end benefit: your loved one gets the nutrition they need to help with recovery from surgery or illness.
Tapping Into Favorite Flavors Around the World
Once a product’s nutritional base is made, it’s up to flavor scientists to turn that base into a nutrient-laden treat, so to speak. Fortunately, Abbott scientists have been perfecting their flavor technology talents for 30 years.
“Taste is highly personal and preferences are affected by many factors, including geography, cultural traditions and locally available foods and spices,” Tortorice says. “While some flavors are universally appealing – chocolate, strawberry and vanilla are popular worldwide – some countries have their own unique flavor preferences that we need to consider.”
Five research and development (R&D) centers in the U.S., Europe, China, Singapore, and India enable Abbott to respond quickly to those regional differences in consumer preferences, from taste to packaging.
To aid the insights, Abbott conducts consumer likings studies regularly and the data collected can be staggering. In a 2016 U.S. insights study on chocolate, Abbott collected more than 150,000 consumer responses on preferences related to taste, texture, aroma, appearance, thickness, and more. And to test some new ideas or improvements, scientists internally tests over 10,000 sample every year. Sixty employees across North America, Asia and Europe are trained as qualified descriptive taste testers to support product developers and many more provide taste feedback.
Chicken Soup or Wheat?
So how do those global tastes play out within Abbott products? Well, for example, Ensure Gold Wheat is a favorite in Vietnam and mushroom and chicken soup are popular flavors for Ensure in the United Kingdom. Also, wheat and green tea are loved in China and a special saffron almond flavor is popular in India.
“Our R&D center in India suggested kesar bedam (saffron almond) as a PediaSure flavor, noting it was common in beverages and other foods,” says Tortorice. “When we looked at what foods people there already eat with milk, we saw that soaking almonds in hot milk with saffron is popular.”
Once Abbott identifies favorite flavors and flavor combinations, its scientists are able to dig into them to determine the best way to apply them to nutritional products.
“For new flavors, we gather products that contain that flavor – including fruits, cookies, candies and drinks – and then our sensory group uses a method of mapping to understand the breadth of profiles found in that area,” Tortorice says, noting that how those flavors end up in Abbott products often depends on if its working on a creamy protein-based product such as Ensure or something more liquid such as Pedialyte. Whether the product is intended for children or adults also plays a role.
But, in the end, Abbott’s goal is always to make sure that it translates into better health – for you and your whole family.