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The Science Of Flavor: Explained

Abbott is pioneering sensory research to understand the complexities of flavor and give your family the science-based nutrition it wants and needs.

Sense of Taste is complex
Nov 22 2017

There's more to flavor than what happens on your taste buds. It's a dynamic experience that draws on smell, sight, touch—and even your expectations, cultural upbringing and past experiences.

That's why, at Abbott, we are continually studying the complexities of flavor and how preferences differ from person to person — and across the world. As we learn more about what drives taste, we then ask ourselves, how do we apply this to products such as Ensure and Glucerna?

Dan Schmitz, director, Global Product Development

To accomplish this, you must blend art with science. First and foremost, a nutritional product has to be made with nutritious and effective ingredients. Delivering therapeutic nutrition to active adults or those fighting an illness to give them the strength and energy they need is always our first priority. Then, finding the perfect balance of flavors is where science meets art.

As a 30-year nutrition scientist, it's that combination that keeps me, a director of user experience and global product development for Abbott, excited to be constantly working on making nutritional products enjoyable for families everywhere.

Making Ingredients Work

Developing something delicious can be incredibly complicated when there are so many different nutritional compounds and ingredients that may not work well together. That's why we have our product developers looking at ingredients, processing, and recipes on every product to make sure we start with the cleanest base product possible. If you are a cook, it's comparable to starting with a great stock for your favorite soup.

For instance, when creating Ensure Enlive, an important therapeutic drink made to support recovery from health setbacks, not only were we developing a product that contained almost twice the amount of protein per serving compared to our other Ensure® products, we were also adding in HMB or beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate. HMB is an important muscle supporting compound that doesn’t taste good on its own and reacts with protein in way that causes a thickening to happen.

This is where our scientists step in. Using technology and rigorous testing, we are able to analyze and blend ingredients in a way to eliminate reactions, maintain their effectiveness, and neutralize the taste of certain compounds, ultimately creating a blank canvas that allows us to flavor our products.

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Pleasing Senses All Around the World

Our genetics, age, health status and cultural upbringing play a role in what we prefer when it comes to food and nutrition products. Our work in five research and development (R&D) centers around the world, in Asia, Europe and the United States, allows us to connect with consumers and understand these preferences in a real way.

At these centers, our scientists work with consumers to study what flavors, colors, textures and aromas are popular in different regions — often collecting up to 250,000 inputs on preferences. We've learned some surprising facts along the way.

  • Vanilla is a crowd-pleaser all around the world — and thousands of variations of vanilla exist.
  • Dark colored beverages are often viewed as rich and decadent — dark or fudge-like chocolate types are top favorites.
  • Smell can’t be overlooked. While humans can sense five types of taste — sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami — aroma actually contributes to 80 percent of what we perceive as taste.
     

And we get excited with our discoveries. For instance, by studying foods on supermarket shelves and working with consumers, our R&D centers in Asia found that kesar badam (saffron almond) is a hit with kids in India and that wheat is a popular flavor in Vietnam.

The Role of Packaging

Last, but certainly not least, packaging is critical to making our science-based nutrition products user-friendly. For example, if a mom is trying to mix up a bottle of formula in the middle of the night while holding her little one, she needs to be able to easily open the package and scoop the formula with one hand. If a patient is recovering from surgery, he needs to be able to open the package and beverage despite weakened muscles and grip strength. If an athlete is trying to get needed carbs and protein mid-workout, the package needs to be easily opened (and closed again) between sets.

A dedicated team of user-experience scientists study the various ways in which people use our nutrition products in order to help us better meet their needs.

Why Taste Matters

We spend so much time testing and perfecting the flavor of our products because if they don't taste good, people won't drink them, which means they won't be getting the nutrients they need. Our research shows that nutrition is a powerful form of medicine, especially for those who are recovering from an illness or who may have just had surgery, and we firmly believe that by providing nutrients to those who need it most, we can help people live the healthiest, fullest lives possible.

Now, on to try the next new flavor!

Dan Schmitz is the global director of product development and user experience for Abbott's nutrition division.