Chromocell CEO: Natural taste modulator niche will continue to grow
How did a company formed to develop pharmaceuticals become a player in the flavor modulation business? "It was an accident," according to CEO Christian Kopfli. "One of the co-founders was on the scientific advisory board of IFF."
Attorney Kopfli and researchers Kambiz Shekdar and Gunter Blobel co-founded Chromocell of North Brunswick, NJ, in 2002. The company's goal was to research the use of human receptor cells for creating pharmaceuticals. Shekdar and Blobel had created a technology called Chromovert that could examine enormous numbers of cells and analyze how they react to certain molecules using high through-put screening. Chromovert can also create human taste receptors and then test the effect of millions of natural compounds on the receptors. The process lets researchers identify compounds that might work to create a flavor enhancer or blocker.
International Flavors & Fragrance (IFF) expressed interest in the technology for flavor development.
Chromocell's work with IFF was enough to attract a partnership with Kraft in 2005. Kraft wanted to reduce the sodium content of its products without affecting taste. Chromocell went on to form ongoing partnerships with Coca-Cola in 2010 to reduce the bitter aftertaste of stevia in the company's drinks, and with Nestle in 2012 to develop natural salt enhancers to reduce sodium content in products.
Receptors and flavor
Chromocell's website explains that flavor consists of more than one molecule. In the same way music is a combination of tones from different instruments, flavor is a mix of taste, aroma, and mouth feel sensations. The critical factor in identifying compounds that modulate taste is the right receptor.
"It's very, very difficult to create receptors in a format that you can do this high through-put testing," according to Kopfli. "Our technology allowed us to replicate them. That was really the key challenge." He sees the use of Chromovert to develop receptors as the company's competitive advantage. It provides a qualitative difference in the taste receptors Chromocell produces over traditional methods used by other flavor companies.
The challenges of developing flavors are in the discovery phase. Natural compounds are available everywhere; that's why the high through-put process is so important. Then, once compounds are identified, they have to go through safety and toxicology testing. Kopfli says company researchers find something great and then see someone else has already found it, and also find something great but it's too rare and expensive to use.
The future of flavors
Although Chromocell produces both artificial and natural flavor modulators, the company's focus is on developing natural ingredients in response to current consumer demand. Kopfli sees the company as a prominent player in the natural taste modulator space. He believes this niche will continue to grow for two reasons: health concerns about too much salt and sugar in food products and the millennial interest in new and different flavors.
"People still incredibly like sweet and salt," Kopfli says. "That will not disappear because it's such a genetically programmed craving." Hence the need for taste enhancers to reduce the amount of sugar and salt in products while still providing those tastes.
Kopfli also expects strong growth in the millennial-powered exotic and spicy flavor arena, noting these tastes are often not easy to produce and need modulators. In particular, Kopfli believes the modulator that will have the most short-term impact is bitter reduction. New/exotic/healthy ingredients often have a bitter component that needs modulating. For example, many food companies, including Kraft, Nestle, Mondelez, and Campbell, replace sodium with potassium chloride, but it's a bitter ingredient.
Stevia is another ingredient with a bitter aftertaste. Kopfi thinks the most promising approach to reducing calories in products is to reduce sugar, and then add a little stevia, a sweet enhancer, and a natural bitter blocker.