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March 19, 2021

Creating Winning Flavors for Savory Snacks

I usually introduce myself as a chemical engineer bytraining who works in the food business by choice. One the one hand, I lovescience and technology, but I also love food and admire chefs who elevatecooking to an art form. Bringing science to the art of making great flavors hasbeen my passion since I started my career in the coffee business back whenProcter & Gamble (P&G) still owned the Folgers company.

In this article, I share some of the stories from my journeyto marry science with art and create winning snack flavors – flavors that ledto hundreds of millions of dollars in incremental sales and to products whichdelighted consumers around the world.

Chefs and Culinary Experts

After P&G started selling their food businesses in the1990s, it was clear that if I were to continue to pursue my passion for food,it was going to be with a food company. In 1996, I joined PepsiCo Foods astheir VP of R&D for Latin America based in Dallas, Texas.

PepsiCo had an active and growing business in Latin America.However, the flavor versions of many of our snack products weren’t sticking aswe would have hoped. I partnered with my marketing counterpart, and wecommissioned several of the major flavor houses to present and recommend how wecould improve our track record with flavors. We hypothesized that we neededtrendy flavors to win over the Latin American consumers. The flavor houses dida great job of sharing cool and trendy flavors with us. But something wasmissing. We didn’t see a clear connection to the consumer or the culinaryinspiration we were looking for. My boss Rogelio Rebolledo suggested I hire achef to help us with our flavors. At that point, I wasn’t ready to hire a chef,but he had the right idea.

We turned to CCD Innovation, a development house in SanFrancisco, to get help from its vast network of chefs and culinary expertsincluding many with Latin American roots. Again, I was convinced that the keyto success was developing trendy flavors. Maybe a Thai theme or Italian? Weconvened a cross-functional meeting and had several of the chefs present ideasfor flavor development. I shared my hypothesis with each of them. After themeeting, each of them commented how excited they were to participate, and whilethey respected my hypothesis that we needed trendy flavors, they all said thatwhat they really thought was an opportunity was to bring back authentic flavorsthat were indigenous to their respective countries. After the fifth or sixthchef told me the same story with passion, I had to concede my hypothesis waswrong. The critical learning from the sessions with the chefs was that weneeded to create authentic, recognizable flavors that would resonate withconsumers, which was the epiphany that started an incredible flavor journey.

How to Get Authentic Flavors?

Now we had a clear goal for the R&D team and our flavorhouse partners to develop authentic flavors. But how? We created our ownMasterChef initiative. I enlisted the help of Eapen George, one of our talentedR&D Directors with an unmatched passion for creating winning flavors. Withour network of chefs, we started by making traditional dishes from various countries.We had Brazilian chefs make feijoada, a classic Brazilian stew, and Chileanchefs make chimichurri. Mexican chefs made dozens of dishes from differentparts of the country, and Dominican chefs made plantain dishes with aioli. Thegoal was to create “gold standard” culinary targets to guide our flavordevelopment.

We used flavor curves to “fingerprint” the culinary dishesby describing not just the flavor notes but the time-intensity curves over the30 seconds or so that it takes to taste the dish. Just as musical notes createa melody, flavor notes create a taste profile that is not just a mix of flavorsbut rather a series of flavors displayed over time with the more volatile noteshitting the palate first, and other flavors like some of the spicier notesfinishing the profile. Interestingly, the use of flavor curves was pioneered inthe 1950s, but for whatever reason seemed to fall out of favor with spidergraphs being the more common way to communicate flavor profiles. The problem isthat a spider graph is static and cannot convey how the flavor display overtime.

Delivering Authentic Flavor: Art and Science Work Together

Now that we understood the mission to provide authenticityand had the culinary gold standard identified and the flavor curves developed,we had to deliver the flavor. We worked closely with our flavor houses to getthe right flavor molecules. The objective was to mimic the time-intensityprofile of the culinary gold standard. We needed ways to get the topicalflavors on our chips to display over time. We were able to learn a lot fromchewing gum technology. We needed to get flavors to display over a 30-secondwindow. Imagine doing that for over an hour with chewing gum! We accessed thetoolbox of suppliers with flavor substrates that released the flavor rightaway, or after a bit of time. As we learned to leverage these tools, we startedgetting wins with consumers who experienced an emotional connection to theauthentic flavor cues we were able to replicate.

Another issue we had to address was the quality of the basechip we applied the flavor to. We had an opportunity to improve the quali ty ofour chips. We discovered the hard way that even a great flavor cannotcompensate for a stale chip whether a potato chip, tortilla chip or extrudedcurl. Indeed, poor quality contributed to lackluster results for some of ourflavor launches. So, in parallel, we launched a strong push on quality.Fortunately, we were able to borrow heavily from our US colleagues who hadundergone a quality transformation in the 1990s, as the introduction of EagleSnacks showed Frito-Lay that they needed to radically improve their quality andregain product superiority.

New Ways of Applying the Flavor

As we continued our flavor journey, we saw success not only inLatin America but in Asia and Europe as well. My responsibilities increasedfrom Latin America to International and eventually to all of PepsiCo FoodsR&D globally. If they made it and you ate it, I was responsible for theR&D. We continued to look for ways to bring authenticity to our flavors. Westarted challenging the conventional wisdom of how to flavor snacks. Theconvention was to plate flavors on to a starch substrate so that flavors couldbe stored in a dry form and easily transported and then applied as a powder atthe seasoning step.

We had a breakthrough in the early 2000s with thedevelopment of what we called “flavor plus.”

As product developers, our interest was in getting the rightflavor molecule to the taste buds at the right time. We were inspired by theway chefs would flavor oil either for cooking or as a way to flavor theirdishes. We started using flavored oils as well as conventional powderedseasoning to flavor our chips. The result was a unique way to layer the flavorand come even closer to the culinary gold standard. A great example of this wasthe application of lime flavor to our Mexican potato chips. The benefit was alime flavor that was much closer to a freshly squeezed lime.

Furthermore, as some of the more subtle flavors werereleased in the bag, there was a pleasant, freshly squeezed lime smell when thebag was opened. Indeed, we were able to build on an observation that manyconsumers smelled the chips in the bag when they opened it. Again, consumersresponded with a significant jump in sales for our lime-flavored potato chips.

Finding the Emotional Connection

As proud as R&D was for the flavors we were creating, wewould never have had the commercial success we did without the partnership ofour Marketing colleagues. Food is a highly emotional product and often withprofound connections to childhood memories. When I was the SVP of GlobalR&D and Quality at Campbell soup, I quickly learned that everyone had astory about how one of our products would bring back strong childhood memories– usually chicken noodle or tomato soup. Indeed, that led to our purposestatement, “Real Food that Matters for Life Moments.” I have been veryfortunate throughout my career at P&G, PepsiCo, Campbell Soup and many ofmy consulting clients to work with many highly talented marketing and consumerinsights professionals who understand how to communicate that emotion.

For example, our PepsiCo marketing team in Mexico ran agreat campaign for the introduction of our lime-flavored potato chip by showingconsumers smelling the bag of chips as they opened them and seeing the delighton their face as they smelled the freshly squeezed aroma of lime. Anotherexample is from Russia. We had a hugely successful wild mushroom flavor launchin Russia. The insight was that families in Russia would often go out onweekends in the fall to pick wild mushrooms. Besides being a culinaryadventure, it was also a time for families to enjoy being together. With thehelp of chefs and flavor houses, we nailed the wild mushroom flavor. Ourmarketing team put together a beautiful copy showing families picking the wildmushrooms and showing our bag of chips. The result was a very successful launchwith almost 100-percent incrementality.

Putting it All Together

Recapping our flavor journey to bring art and science towinning flavors:

• Authentic flavors: Create the culinary gold standard andfingerprint it with flavor curves.

• Quality matters: A great flavor cannot compensate for apoor base product.

• Emotional connection: Food is emotional. Understandconsumer insights.

• Flavor delivery: Use the tools and suppliers to deliverauthentic flavor cues to the consumer.

• Shelf life: Don’t forget that the flavor has to survivethroughout the shelf life. We needed to upgrade our packaging film to keep ourmore delicate flavors intact.

Following this methodology took a lot of practice and atalented crossfunctional team. But, the results were tremendous and asignificant factor in the double-digit growth that PepsiCo Foods Internationalenjoyed during the 1990s and 2000s.

Clean Label

With the consumer demand for clean labels, it’s not enoughto deliver a great flavor; we need to do it with a friendly ingredient list.The demand is an opportunity, not a problem, and gives talented productdevelopers a way to build further layers of protectable advantages byidentifying new tools. There are ways to deliver better flavor with clean labelingredients.

Winning Flavors

I hate it when I hear a comment that we need to make aproduct taste good in spite of being healthy. Product developers need toapproach health and wellness with the conviction that we will make flavortastes great because of the healthy wholesome ingredients, not in spite ofthem. This isn’t just words. In the early 2000s, sodium was a concern in theUK, and Walker’s brand was a poster child for too much sodium. By chance, wehad been improving the flavors in the UK leveraging our MasterChef program.

As a result of improving the flavors, we lowered sodium by25 percent or more. We didn’t need all that salt with better flavors- a realwin win solution and a great example of bringing art and science together tocreate winning flavors. More recently, while at Campbell Soup, we created aline of very clean label soups under the “Well Yes!” brand. The soups have avery clean label and lower sodium content on average. But the real driver wasto create delicious flavors using just real wholesome and high-qualityingredients. The result was to bring in new consumers who were looking for authenticflavors from real ingredients.

(Originally published in The World of Food Ingredients. September2019)