FlavorHealth CEO: We have to move away from this black and white view of 'natural,' when there are shades of gray… the important thing is complete transparency

PIcture: istockphoto/scanrail

How are the next generation of natural flavors being developed? Elaine Watson caught up with Christian Kopfli, CEO of New Jersey-based FlavorHealth, which is taking high-throughput cell-based screening to the next level to identify novel natural compounds that can enhance sweetness and saltiness and reduce bitterness.

High-throughput screening – whereby companies fire thousands of substances at ‘reverse engineered’ taste and aroma receptors that attempt to mimic human receptors in the mouth and nose to see which ones we might perceive as sweet, or bitter, for example – is fairly well established in the flavor industry, acknowledges Kopfli.

If receptors are ‘activated’ – like a key fitting into a lock - they initiate signals to the brain: a process that the lab equipment effectively replicates.

Our screening is exceptionally accurate

However, FlavorHealth is unusual in that it has identified naturally occurring cells that have the ability to produce unmodified, full-length taste and odorant receptors “as they exist in human taste or olfactory cells,” claims Kopfli. The receptors are native (not tagged or chemically modified or truncated), and when tested with known tastants, the functional response of these native taste cell-based assays accurately mimics the corresponding reported human sensory data, he claims.

Where we have a real competitive advantage is that we can select from millions of taste receptor cells to identify the ones that are highly sensitive and most suitable for high throughput screening, whereas other companies maybe select from a pool of tens or maybe hundreds.

“So our screening is exceptionally accurate; which means that the compounds we identify through this process have a far higher likelihood to be active on the human tongue, for example. We then conduct a detailed toxicology review and run promising compounds by our trained [human] sensory panel [at sister company Gustatec] to validate them.”

FlavorHealth utilizes commercially available and proprietary libraries of natural compounds

So where does FlavorHealth find natural compounds to screen?

Its discovery libraries include commercially available and proprietary libraries of natural compounds developed via extraction or fractionation (whereby fruits, herbs, vegetables and other natural products are separated out into their molecular components).

Automated post-fractionation processing then enables a rapid transfer of these components into FlavorHealth’s cell-screening assays.  

Once a promising natural component has been identified, key questions include: Is it safe? And can it be produced viably on a commercial scale? says Kopfli.

At the very beginning when we are curating from libraries of candidate compounds we are also looking at things like, does it come from a remote area, or a protected area?  Is it sustainable?”

The FlavorHealth portfolio is focused primarily on natural flavors, although the company is also pursuing a “couple of very interesting avenues for natural sweeteners,” says Kopfli.

FlavorHealth sweet options can intensify the sweet taste of non-caloric and caloric sweeteners in beverages, syrups, yogurts, dressings, and snacks, enabling sugar reductions of 30-50%. They also work well in combination with FlavorHealth bitter balancing ingredients in stevia-sweetened beverages, by enhancing sweetness and reducing bitterness.

FlavorHealth salty options can be used in prepared meals, beverages, soups, sauces, baked goods, and snacks to reduce sodium by 30-60%. In sensory testing, consumers preferred a 40% reduced sodium cheese sauce made with the FlavorHealth Salty natural flavor solution over the control, says Kopfli.

FlavorHealth bitter balance products can reduce bitterness associated with astringent tannins, caffeine, plant-based proteins, high potency sweeteners, vitamins, and minerals such as zinc and potassium, by 40-60%. 

Our policy is to offer completely transparency

As to what ‘natural’ actually means, there is a legal definition of natural flavors even if there is no general definition of ‘natural' for food labeling purposes, but the endless debate over this topic is not hugely illuminating, says Kopfli, who indicates that whether ingredients are safe, healthy or sustainable might be more valuable topics of discussion.

While FlavorHealth is focused on natural flavors, he says, “We really have to move away from this black and white natural or not natural debate. Because it’s not black and white, there are shades of gray. In my personal opinion, as long as you are upfront about what you are doing, that’s what is important.”

So are ingredients produced via a microbial fermentation process ‘natural’? (The FDA doesn't say much about sweeteners but stipulates in FDA 21 CFR 501.22 that natural flavors can come from, fermentation of a yeast, for example.)

“Our policy is to offer full transparency, as everyone has different views on what natural means," regardless of the letter of the law, he says. "For some it has to come directly from the natural source with minimal or no processing – others say fermentation is fine – my opinion is that you should offer a variety of solutions and let people choose.”

As to whether all natural flavors should be considered ‘clean label’ – an issue that has recently hit the headlines following a lawsuit against Hint Inc and moves by Spindrift to ditch natural flavors altogether - Kopfli is sanguine.

It’s definitely something that’s being discussed now – everyone in the natural flavors industry is now being asked exactly what’s in their natural flavors, which is fine. For me, increasing transparency is a good thing but I’d like to see the discussion shift away from simply whether something is or isn’t ‘natural’.”

Gustatec, Chromocell’s sensory research subsidiary, provides analytical sensory and consumer preference assessment for foods and beverages. It serves as an internal resource for FlavorHealth and a contract research facility for other companies looking to do sensory testing.

Substantial sugar and sodium reductions

So from a product perspective, what sets FlavorHealth – a minnow in a shark tank full of giants from Givaudan, Symrise, Firmenich and IFF to Frutarom - apart?

Unique natural products that deliver sweet and salty taste enhancements and bitter balancing that are more impactful than what is currently available, claims Kopfli, who co-founded FlavorHealth’s parent company – life sciences firm Chromocell - in 2002, and launched FlavorHealth as a standalone brand at the IFT show in 2016.  

And this means sugar reductions of 30-50%; sodium reductions of 30-60% and bitterness reduction of 40-60%. The kind of numbers that have made multinational CPG brands as well as SMEs sit up and pay attention, says Kopfli, who has also entered into collaborations with Nestle and Coca-Cola (although he can’t give details beyond observing that they are “way beyond the research stage”).

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

 FDA 21 CFR 501.22

Plant-based protein and bitter balancing

He adds: “We also sell to ingredients companies as well as CPG companies; say a company has a nutraceutical or vitamin that has a bitter note and wants to mask it, for example.

“Very clearly we have something that other companies don’t have. The reality is that there are a lot of companies out there offering solutions for sugar and sodium reduction and bitter balancing, but we can deliver on all three fronts: Our products are natural, efficacious and they have no off tastes.

“They also work together, so you might use bitter blockers to block the metallic taste of potassium chloride [a popular alternative to sodium chloride], and a saltiness enhancer as well. With the growth in plant-based proteins and other natural ingredients that don’t always taste great, we’re seeing big demand for bitter balancing.”

So what’s the most exciting platform right now when it comes to commercial potential?

“We’re always looking at how we can use our technology to penetrate new markets, and all parts of our platform have potential,” says Kopfli. “But right now sweet is probably the most exciting because sugar is the biggest public health concern that’s out there.” 

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