A Dutch research group found that naturally occurring aromas can reduce the sugar content of flavored beverages while keeping the sweet taste. NIZO researchers said consumers have a limited ability to tell the difference between taste and aroma, so aromas might be used to enhance sweetness.
As consumers look for healthier products with less sugar, beverage manufacturers are trying to limit the ingredient in their products by replacing it with artificial or processed sweeteners. However, NIZO said consumers would prefer natural ingredients. They also enjoy the sweet taste they expect from sugar.
Using specialized equipment, NIZO conducted aroma testing with a panel. They found by adding ethyl hexanoate, a natural aroma synthesized in apples during ripening, to apple juice, tasters thought it contained more sugar than it really did. The effect was strongest in those who hadn't been exposed to the aroma before, so NIZO researchers suggest repeated use could limit the impact.
Using aroma to bolster sweetness-enhancing effects in beverages might interest manufacturers who want to cut down on sugar in their products. Doing so could decrease their production costs, and consumers wouldn't see as much added sugar on product labels. According to Mintel, 84% of U.S. consumers say they're reducing the amount of sugar in their diets.
Other studies have found a close connection between smell and taste. Last year, Monell Center researchers reported finding odor-detecting olfactory receptors in human taste cells on the tongue and in the nose. They suggested interactions between smell and taste, the main components of food flavor, could start on the tongue rather than in the brain. Additionally, a 2017 survey of 1,000 European consumers found aroma to be an important part of millennials' snacking experience.
Manufacturers have long known the aroma of a food item can influence consumer purchases and enhance their eating experiences. As they reformulate with more natural sweeteners and sugar-reduction technology, the goal has become to enhance taste without sacrificing flavor. Food giant Nestlé has created "an aerated, porous sugar" that allows a person to perceive the same level of sweetness but still consume less sugar.
Another approach from Swedish sugar-reduction specialist Bayn involves analyzing the smells of sugary foods, resulting in a database of aroma molecules that can be tweaked to reduce sugar use but retain the taste. Used on a gingerbread recipe, the approach found more cinnamon, cloves or orange peel were needed to maintain texture, sweetness and taste in a lower-sugar recipe.
If the results the NIZO researchers found are confirmed in additional studies, it's possible more intense aromas will start showing up in beverages and foods in order to appeal to consumers' sense of smell and taste. Some CPG companies are leaning on artificial means to enhance the aroma of salty or sweet foods so consumers will assume they have stronger flavor. However, this approach conflicts with the increasing demand for more natural ingredients.
NIZO also noted it is exploring whether "cross-modal effects" can be used in sugar-reduction efforts. This is better defined as the tendency of consumers to start associating food aromas with the anticipated taste just by being exposed to many different foods.
"Adding an aroma to mimic the smell of sugar-rich versions of the food increases the perceived sweetness by mere suggestion," the company said. "In other words, the brain tells us the sweetness is there, even when the sweet ingredient is not."