How do you pick what lemon flavour to use from tens of thousands of different options?
For food formulators, a common process looks something like this. For each new product under development, food and beverage manufacturers brief flavour houses, a process that might take a week. Flavour houses then submit their proposals and samples are gathered, usually taking around three weeks. It takes another two weeks to screen, create prototypes and gather feedback. Internal testing and consumer sensory panels follow.
While effective, digital flavour hub iSense doesn’t think this approach is very efficient. Developers rely on flavour houses to pre-select flavours often based on incomplete briefs and under time constraints. Flavours can’t be compared or benchmarked effectively. This, we were told, leads to a proliferation of flavours and inflation of costs.
Mathieu Aste, Founder and CEO of iSense, believes there a different way can be unlocked if flavours are measured and standardised.
This is as important in flavours as it is in colours, he suggests. “Would you choose a colour without a colour palette? Today flavour selection is artistry because flavours are functional black boxes, they are not ‘measured’ for their taste and against a ‘standardized’ frame. As a result, flavour choice is slow and iterative, and inflation and proliferation happen.”
Customisation has consequences: Inefficiency and expense
At the moment, this lack of specification has come to define how the flavours industry operates. The uniqueness of a flavour has become a commercial argument associated with customisation services. The number of flavours available have multiplied, with large flavour houses creating many new iterations of flavours like vanilla each year.
In itself, this vast array of flavour options isn’t a ‘bad’ thing, Aste told FoodNavigator. “Having many flavours does not impact negatively the innovation process.”
However, he continued: “Not being able to leverage your existing portfolio is an inefficiency. Not being able to define the taste with your marketing is another. Making incomplete flavour briefings (due to no standardized taste description) or random flavour selections are inefficiencies. The innovation process stays iterative and neither marketing, procurement or product developers are gathering data and learning.”
Proliferation of flavour options triggers increased expense for food manufacturers, the tech expert continued. “Proliferation triggers cost and supply contingency. If you buy 20 vanilla flavours instead of 150, there will be a volume effect, less stocks and less suppliers to manage.
“Rationalizing a large portfolio of 50 or more flavours generally comes with at least 30% reduction in price. Whether a small or large portfolio, constant benchmarking, including cost in use, allows manufacturers to keep prices in control and avoid inflation. So, it is about reducing cost in a sustainable fashion, while gathering data to drive innovation.”
This status quo is bad for both the flavour houses themselves and their customers, Aste believes.
“Incomplete briefings result in random sampling and less than 5% hit rates when the sample results in a sale. Collateral is that product developers often screen more than 20 samples to find one that works. And one flavour screening iteration lasts six weeks. What if Marketing does not like your choice?
“The other aspect is that F&B makers do not learn about the sensory drivers of liking. Because they have no sensory data about the flavours. On the long term this is the most crippling effect on cost.”
Straight-forward comparison and benchmarking for increased efficiency
How can these inefficiencies be driven out of the flavour industry? According to iSense, we need to start by defining flavour by its taste.
Shades of vanilla can be defined and sorted in a similar way to shades of blue or green. Once the taste of flavours is measured, it can be mapped and organised. The differences between different flavours can be understood, comparisons can be made, and flavour benchmarking becomes possible.
This is exactly what the taste tech company is doing. “iSense defines and maps flavours for their taste, on an iso-intensity basis and across suppliers. This accelerates flavour selection, matching, creation and enables the first tech-driven flavour marketplace,” Aste explained.
iSense believes this approach is a win-win for both flavour houses and the food and beverage brands they supply. The group’s marketplace model can enhance the traditional services supplied by flavour houses, making them available ‘in minutes instead of weeks’.
“We enable flavour houses with software solutions and make customer digital engagement a reality. Flavour sourcing becomes quick, easy and affordable. The sample hit rate goes up from 5% to 25% and the flavour screening process is shortened by weeks.
“The status quo is that flavours are functionally [opaque]. iSense brings transparency.”