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Vanilla gives milk a sweeter perception


Adding vanilla to sweetened milk makes consumers think the beverage is sweeter, allowing the amount of added sugar to be reduced, according to Penn State researchers.

“We are utilizing a learned association between an odour and a taste that will allow us to reduce the added sugar content,” said Helene Hopfer, assistant professor of food science. “Reducing added sugar in products, just like reducing fat and salt, is the holy grail of food science.”

The idea that congruent or harmonious odours enhance certain tastes is not new, explained Hopfer, whose research group in the College of Agricultural Sciences has been experimenting with these “cross-modal interactions” in food since she came to Penn State three years ago. Her goal is to see them actually incorporated into foods.

In a blind taste test that provided new insights into ­taste enhancement by an aroma, participants – who did not know vanilla had been added to the milk – consistently indicated that samples with vanilla were significantly sweeter than their added sugar concentrations could explain.

The subjects’ responses indicated that with the addition of vanilla, the added sugar content in flavoured milk could potentially be reduced by 20 to 50 per cent, suggested lead researcher Gloria Wang, and people should not be able to perceive the beverage as less sweet.

“We maintain the sweetness perception by having this congruent odour, this learned, associated odour, basically trick the brain into thinking that there is still enough sweetness there,” she said. “Based on our results, taste-aroma interaction is a robust effect.”

Wang, now an associate scientist in product development with Leprino Foods Co. in Colorado, conducted the research at Penn State as part of her master’s degree thesis in food science. She tested not only congruent taste-aroma combinations but incongruent combinations as well. It turned out that even a beef odour in milk slightly enhanced sweetness for study participants.

Given widespread concerns about sugar intake and health, manufacturers are reformulating their products to help address consumer demand, Wang noted. She believes the findings of the research, recently published in Food Quality and Preference, offer them a workable option to reduce added sugar in their products and retain the sweetness consumer’s demand.


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