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Insights Into Flavor Application


“It all started with great taste.” Greg Pickett was an avid racecar afficionado for most of his life. He taught his son, Mike, and daughter, Nikki Brown, the importance of speed; to innovate, to create and to market. But he cautioned them along the way by saying “speed kills the competition.” For his company, Flavor Insights, patience didn’t come naturally.

When Flavor Insights was asked to speak at the NAFFS Annual Convention at the Resort at Longboat Key Club in Longboat Key, Fla., the company reps immediately decided it should be a team event. They wanted to cover the historical aspects of the company, where they are today and where they expect to go in the future. Flavor Insights is a west coast flavor and beverage development boutique. Its team helps to take brands from concept to commercialization. It’s worked for decades on its own new-to-market brands and now helps startups or established companies do the same.

Four members of the executive team attended the convention to tell attendees about their flavor applications. It turned into a story about a family, an idea and a hot-selling product called Muscle Milk.

“My father helped to coin the phrase ‘ready-to-drink’”, said Mike Pickett, president of Flavor Insights. Muscle Milk wasn’t sold in mainstream retail outlets at first; it was for sports only. Then 7-11 called and asked to sell it in their stores. Coke and Pepsi noticed and it helped create a new category of beverage.

Pickett told the audience “In the 70s, there was Gatorade. The 90s brought in energy drinks. In 2000 we saw the beginning of vitamin water and in 2008, there was Muscle Milk. Once Pepsi began distributing, it changed our world.”

The sports nutrition/protein drink category has changed through the years. In the beginning it was dairy/whey based proteins dominating the market. “These lacked great taste and organoleptics,” said Pickett, leading the way to today’s protein category where dairy and whey still appear in a number of new launches but there are so many more plant-based options, using clean ingredients and fun and nostalgic flavors. Pickett sees the future of the category going to more alternative protein sources and precision fermentation.

Today the category is completely mainstream. One in five consumers purchased a protein supplement in 2021. In the United States, the protein-based drinks has a market value of $1,182 billion. The protein supplement CAGR for 2022-2027 is up 7.7%. The Energy drink CAGR is up 8.3% and the coffee beverage CAGR for 2016-2027 was up 7.69%.

Greg Pickett won many accolades for the innovation involved in the creation of Muscle Milk, among them small company of the year and Goldman Sachs entrepreneur of the year. It was a breakout sensation.

In 2014 it was time to sell. The CytoSport (Muscle Milk) Business was sold to Hormel Foods, where it resided until April of 2019 when it sold a second time, this time landing with its long-time distribution partner and where it was “meant to be” in Pickett’s words – with PepsiCo.

Mike’s sister and company CEO Nikki Brown picked it up from there. She said her father had taken the small family business and made it a global brand. She said the protein category has evolved from their start. “It was all sport-nutrition at first” she said, “made with whey which was watered-down and needed a full flavor profile.” She said while her father started on the product side, by launching a flavor development and beverage innovation boutique, they have been able to help customers innovate.

They work across most protein platforms, focus on clean ingredients and play with fun and nostalgic flavors like s’mores, orange cream and root beer float. Brown said she was proud to be on this team of innovative collaboration in the fermented protein space since it’s emerging and also good for the environment.

Over the years to follow (and it’s been 20 years since the launch of Muscle Milk) Brown said, the trends in protein really didn’t change.

Chocolate and vanilla, cookies, brownies and strawberry are still the main flavors offered, she said. “The purchase drivers have remained 1) cost and flavor; 2) convenience; 3) indulgence, 4) health, 5) protein and the entire segment grew in the same way coffee did, with one out of five consumers enjoying one product each day.” What was a niche back in the day, is now mainstream.

Brown addressed the many labeling themes within this category. The words consumers are looking for on the package lead with “high source of protein” and “low-/no-/reduced-fat” but also important are “lactose-free” and “GMO-free”, Brown said, adding that “low-/no-/free-of-added-sugar”, and “gluten-free” “no additives or preservatives” and “plant-based/animal-free” are also important for the consumers seeking those attributes.

Now that Pickett had offered a snapshot of where the company had originated, and Brown and given a glimpse into who and what they are today, Adam Schretenthaler took the audience into where they were going. Schretenthaler is the vice president of innovation for Flavor Insights and his task was to explain the next phase, the future of the company and the category. He addressed the many sources of protein available now. He emphasized the need for “clean” ingredients. He said consumers are expecting less-processed ingredients, no artificial sweeteners and they prefer that which is locally made. He said his company saw high sales growth when a product could say it was “Made in the USA.”

Shretenthaler also noted secondary functionality is something informed consumers are looking for. Therefore, hybridization is found across most beverage categories. Offering a secondary benefit such immune support, draws purchasers, he said.

Consumers are also keen for plant-based innovations. Schretenthaler said a quarter of consumers are consuming more plant protein today and they look for a complete amino acid profile. He said he’s seen the rise of brown rice, quinoa and pea protein.

Schretenthaler said research is showing that up next in the protein category is fermented protein from precise DNA sequences. Personalization, where specific body type and genetic makeup are considered, as well as incorporating functional additives such as nootropics for mental performance and added fiber claims, are moving toward the mainstream.

A list of protein sources was presented and began with those derived from dairy or milk. Schretenthaler said there are many options in this arena, including milk or non-fat milk powders, milk protein concentrate or isolate, whey protein concentrate or isolate, micellar casein and caseinates (sodium or calcium).

The second option is animal proteins. Collagen peptides, beef protein isolate or egg protein are the top three. “While on trend, collagen peptides are not a complete protein,” he said. Collagen protein works across the entire pH range, including high-acid fruit flavors. He said dairy is still the No. 1 choice for its creaminess and ease of stabilization, particularly in flavors like chocolate and vanilla.

A third variety is plant proteins. According to Schretenthaler, soy tastes great but there is avoidance out there in the body-conscious marketplace. He said that avoidance is “based on a myth that soy is not good for building muscle. Pea, rice, pumpkin and quinoa are all good proteins, however consumers also look to avoid artificial sweeteners commonly in plant-based options. This creates some additional challenge of achieving adequate sweetness with more natural sweeteners such as stevia extracts, Reb-M or monk fruit extract,” Schretenthaler said. But by far the most potential the group sees today is the trending “precision fermented proteins.” He said his work is increasingly centered around this exciting future source of protein beverages. He named several sources already on the market that can be included in beverage formulation and innovation, including Perfect Day ®® Non-Animal Whey Protein, Fy™ – Natures Fynd, Turtle Tree Labs – Lactoferrin.

The discussion turned to the complicated challenge of packaging shelf-stable, high-protein beverages. Plastic bottles or Tetra Pak (aseptic) options were listed first. Schretenthaler spoke about options across pH range for both high- and low-acid products. He said the aseptic option is difficult for a startup because of the cost of high minimum order quantities and capacity challenges.

He talked about retort (plastic bottles, cans or glass) and tunnel pasteurization as possible package options. He said there was usually a lower MOQ for both. Retort is a better fit for low-acid/high-pH, while tunnel pasteurization can be used for high-acid/low-PH, due to the high-heat exposure to the product. Hot fill is an option for the high-acid, low-pH products that also have high heat exposure.

The final speaker for the group was Mike’s son, Hunter Pickett, who serves as a junior flavorist. He said its best to start with the base and get that piece right before any other steps are added. He said flavor selection and flavor process, are next.

He said the innovation process is application-dependent. Powders and RTD products can use one of three types of proteins: plant, dairy or alternative. An artificial or a natural sweetener system will be selected and factors that will affect flavor load and taste must be considered. Pickett went on to say the processing is also dependent on many factors. He described the choices for aseptic process and looking at solvents used that don’t denature proteins.

He looked at flavoring materials and their flashpoints, noting that using solvents that decrease flammability is of particular concern. He said his team considers price point and labeling issues to achieve an attractive message for consumers in the ingredients profile.

Pickett said one of the favorite tasks of the group is working with brands from concept to commercialization. They like to help startups with a brand-new ideas. The place to start, he said, is with the question “What do we want to tell the customer on the package itself?” –

the claims and reasons a consumer will purchase need to be identified from the get-go. Everything else stems from that.

Aligning on regulatory parameters is important before going any further, he said. Whether a product can claim its organic, non-GMO, be Whole Foods compliant, animal-free/vegan, Proposition 65 compliant, natural, food vs. supplement and the ingredients GRAS status all must be considered in the earliest stages of development. He suggested “pressure-testing” the fundamentals at this stage for success. The cost of goods estimate is vital, including the costs for distribution and what price and margin it might retail for. The level of technology that will be required for packaging is important, as is the overall project timeline, launch quantity and shelf life expected.

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