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Flavor Opportunities in the Cannabis Market

NAFFS Staff Report

The cannabis market is an emerging, growing industry which presents a huge opportunity for the flavor industry, Scott Riefler, vice president, science, at Tarukino, told attendees of the 101st Annual NAFFS Convention. The cannabis market, he said, is increasing by 27 percent per year.

Tarukino is based in Washington, where medicinal use of cannabis has been legal for more than 10 years and recreational use from three to four years. The No. 1 selling beverage in the state is Happy Apple, a non-alcoholic apple cider beverage made by Tarukino that has a low dose of THC. He said one of the tasks of the firm’s research and development team is to “make oils and extracts of the cannabis plant to help it (the plant) play nice with water.”

Riefler said chefs in the state are actively trying to create new recipes for cooking with CBD (associated with anti-inflammatory effects) and THC (which is associated with psychotropic effects, when heated) extracts. There are cookbooks being published offering mainstream population new ways to work with cannabis.

Riefler said the majority of adults in North America have “at least tried cannabis.” Reasons cited included health issues - CBD for anti-inflammatory assistance and THC for those trying to come away from stronger relief of opioids. Many others, he said, use cannabis for relaxation or anti-anxiety, the way they might use alcohol.

In the edibles market, Tarukino is seeing the uses for cannabis move away from the standard brownie and into all types of confection and liquids, also tinctures that can be dosed into other platforms and even mistings, Riefler said. Tarukino starts with a “barley soda” that is non-alcoholic beer. They dose it with a low amount of cannabis oil to create a beverage, such as beer or wine, that a person could drink throughout the day.

Riefler said cannabis affects people in different ways than alcohol. “If you consume too much alcohol, you’ll feel sick or have a headache. If you consume too much cannabis, you will feel sleepy but wake up feeling fine,” he said.

He said cannabis oils have an awful, bitter taste and they don’t always mix well with water-based platforms. “That’s where the flavor industry comes in,” he said. “The people taking this cannabis to market are entrepreneurs but they are not food scientists and they are definitely not flavorists; they’re desperate for help.”

The psychotropic extract of THC is regulated and amounts per serving are important, Riefler said. “10 milligrams is a healthy single dose since the plants are grown very strong these days,” he said. “It’s important that the effects be predictable to be marketable. New cannabis users want lower dosage, even a micro-dose. This is not the same as historic stoners or heavy users, so the products have to accommodate that.”

Riefler said the turpines are what create the varying reactions people experience when consuming cannabis; there are different physical effects for different strains used. “The THC or CBD that is extracted from a plant offers the same experience for all,” he said. “THC Is a molecular experience. “it is always the same.” But all the different types are attributed to turpines and their combinations. “Science is evolving very quickly in this space,” he said.

Marketers must allow for manageability of the effects of consumption, Riefler said, noting there is significant variability of digestion for individuals. “Oil material isn’t processed in the stomach the same way, causing an irregular lift-off for edibles. A sublingual dose is in the bloodstream faster, offers a more predictable half-life and then ends.”

Mr. Riefler said there is a process by which distillation happens “to remove turpines to a low-fragrance state. “Extracts are exceedingly bitter; so when we start talking about edible platforms, customers won’t like it. So there’s a lot of opportunity for bitter masking, flavoring, etc.

“Product homogeneity is absolutely critical in this space from a food safety standpoint, Riefler said; industry experts are needed. “Uniformity of dose is king. “These oils are excessively potent and they need to be spread evenly over the chocolate bar or gummy bear. And the chemistry involved is also complicated, since the science is trying to put oil-based actives into things that are water-based,” he said.

“Regulators are not food scientists or flavorists,” Riefler added. “The flavorists know what needs to happen. We are familiar with these processes, placing distillates on carriers, using co-solvents, emulsifiers and related processing techniques. Choosing the right materials is critically important,” he said.

Since these plant extracts are becoming a food ingredient, Riefler expects more regulation is on the horizon. The methods that are working are becoming proprietary, so this is a particularly important moment and the flavor industry, he said. “Getting the homogeneity is key. It’s the same as our flavor goals. How do you ensure flavor density is the same throughout a beverage? It’s the same thing,” he said.

Riefler added that there are no standardized tests for this potency play. Micro-dosing is common. “Labs are approved on their proficiency, but again, the methodology is proprietary. The culinary experience is being censored because the consumer wants it to taste good and be predictable,” he said.

In response to a question from a member of the audience, Mr. Riefler said regulations vary by state, with some doing a better job than others. He said the market is doing a lot of internal policing to ensure products meet laws such as Proposition 65 in California. “Though regulatory bodies are lagging behind somewhat, product safety is important to the industry.”

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