The beverage industry has witnessed a remarkable transformation in recent years, with an influx of small businesses dedicated to creating high-quality, smaller-batch products. This diversification has led to an explosion of unique flavors and ingredients, pushing the boundaries of traditional beverage offerings.
Once upon a time, a “soft drink” was basically water, sugar (often corn syrup), flavoring, color, and maybe caffeine.
Believe it or not, Coke and Sprite are essentially the same recipe—except for a touch of herbal flavor and that iconic caramel coloring (plus the caffeine of course).
Fortunately, creative beverage producers have broken free of the mold, reaching for new heights of uniqueness and ingredient use. But along with this delightful new turn in gourmet and high-quality beverages, comes a huge increase in the importance of understanding bitterness.
One of the 5 basic taste categories, bitterness can add complexity and depth to beverages, though it can also turn off consumers for various reasons. Sometimes bitterness is part of the charm. Lots of delicious common beverages are bitter: coffee, tea, beer, tonic water, wine, grapefruit juice, numerous classic cocktails…
But when bitterness isn’t desired, or when it’s poorly balanced, it can be quite unpleasant for the consumer—especially for those unfortunate (but not uncommon) folks called “super tasters” who have high bitter sensitivity due to genetic contribution. Not so “super” for drink manufacturers…but fortunately there are plenty of ways to handle bitterness, even for the extrasensitive.
So let’s talk about naturally occurring bitterness in beverages, and the different ingredients that contribute to this controversial taste sensation.
How do you measure bitterness in foods & beverages?
Beer drinkers are readily familiar with IBUs. It’s an easy way of helping customers narrow their choices based on how bitter they prefer their beer.
However the IBU is not a measurement of perceived bitterness; but rather the amount of iso-alpha acid (derived from hops) that’s dissolved in the solution, where 1 IBU = 1 ppm (or 1 mg/L).
So it only works with beer. And it’s really only a rough indicator, because you can sweeten a high-IBU beer to a point that it no longer tastes bitter, but still has a high concentration of iso-alpha acids.
Another, more generalized way of measuring bitterness is Bitterness value, which is based on the smallest concentration of 1 gram of a substance dissolved in water, that can still be tasted as bitter.
This scale centers around the perceived bitterness of quinine (an alkaloid extracted from chinchona bark) which still delivers a bitter taste all the way to 1 g dissolved in 2 liters2000 mL of water.
On that scale, quinine has a bitterness value of 200,000. Pure caffeine has a similar value, though somewhat less.
And by the way, the most bitter natural substance is gentian root, which boasts a bitterness value of 58 million. Which means 1g of gentian extract can bitter up to 58,000 liters of water! That’s enough to fill a 9 x 4 meter backyard pool!
While this scale provides a numerical value for bitterness, it is crucial to remember that taste perception is highly subjective, influenced by personal preference and biological factors such as individual tastebud distribution and age.
What ingredients add bitterness to foods & beverages?
For beverage products like nutraceuticals, energy drinks, and carbonated soft drinks—whether clean-label or otherwise—there are a lot of ways to get the flavors and effects you want to give to your customers.
But many of these natural ingredients are inherently bitter, and require some kind of bitterness management.
Natural stimulant ingredients like caffeine, theobromine (found in cacao and small amounts in tea & coffee), mateine (found in yerba mate), and guaranine (found in guarana) can impart bitterness to beverages.
While these compounds are known for their uplifting effects, their bitterness can vary depending on factors such as the roast level of coffee beans or the percentage of cacao in chocolate.
Fun fact: when training for expert sensory analysis of bitterness, the reference material used is a solution of pure caffeine.
Ethanol (drinking alcohol) is a naturally bitter compound. The method of producing, refining, and aging the ultimate product contributes to the character and level of bitterness—because of compounds such as tannins, phenols, and hop-derived extracts. Which are responsible for the underlying bitterness balanced to perfection (one hopes) in wines, spirits, and beers.
Herbal & botanical bitterness
Many of the most common herbs & botanicals used for creating clean-label flavors add an element of bitterness. And some may surprise you, because their bitterness is usually balanced by other elements (cinnamon, for example, adds bitterness but we usually associate it with desserts).
Classic bitter beverage ingredients:
- Citrus peels
- Gentian root
These natural compounds can add complexity and desirable astringency to a beverage formulation, but they can also be overdone to disastrous effect. (Ever leave cinnamon sticks too long in your hot cider? Yech!)
With the increasing popularity of cannabis-infused beverages, it’s important to understand how cannabinoids like THC and CBD, can introduce bitterness to a recipe. You can’t just add cannabis extract to your recipe and send it out. There’s work to do first…
Ways to balance & mask bitterness in beverage products
Creating a well-balanced and enjoyable beverage that’s more than just sugar, water, and artificial flavors, generally requires some degree of bitterness management.
There are three main ways to approach this:
Flavor (aroma) synergy:
Combining bitter ingredients with complementary aromas (often mis-termed as “flavors”), can help balance the overall gustatory profile. Aromas can add pleasant associations and context to bitterness.
For example, herbal bitterness can be mellowed by incorporating fruity or floral notes (a la strawberry/rhubarb). Grapefruit aroma is also particularly adept at making bitter beverage elements seem fitting and balanced. This synergy can create a more harmonious and pleasant flavor experience overall.
The term “taste” technically refers to the 5 types of flavor receptors we have: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami. This method of balancing bitterness factors in foundational ingredients that bring taste but not aroma; like sugar, citric acid, water, and salt.
By carefully selecting and blending ingredients, beverage creators can manipulate the balance of bitterness. Different ratios and combinations of bitter and counterpart tastes (such as sugar) can lead to a well-balanced flavor profile, ensuring that bitterness does not overpower the drink. Skillful blending can result in a nuanced taste that appeals to a wide range of palates.
Some ingredients have the ability to mask, diminish, or suppress the bitter taste of others. This includes simple, time-honored tricks—as well as high-level food-science techniques.
As you surely know, beverage producers all too often take the easy route—using large amounts of high-intensity sweeteners like stevia or monkfruit extract; which can help blot out bitterness while still maintaining a desirable level of sweetness. However, many consumers are quite sensitive to such non-nutritive sweeteners, which often carry off-flavors of their own (expecially at higher concentrations) sometimes even adding MORE bitterness to the aftertaste. So use with caution, and test via consumer analysis.
Getting more advanced; microencapsulation is a food chemistry technology that encloses bitter compounds within a hollow sugar molecule that prevents them from interacting with taste receptors on their way to the stomach, where the encapsulation readily breaks down.
This technique is especially useful for cannabis edibles, where you want those active ingredients to digest into the bloodstream, but not impart their highly bitter characteristics.
Don’t leave bitterness up to chance
Bitterness, though subjective, plays a crucial role in creating complex and intriguing flavor profiles in beverages and other foods. Understanding the ingredients that contribute to bitterness and using effective techniques to balance or mask it, is key to developing exceptional beverage products that keep your customers coming back for more.
However, crafting a quality beverage recipe formulation that effectively addresses bitterness requires expertise and an understanding of the science behind taste perception.
In this era of small businesses creating high-quality, smaller-batch products, the expertise of a food scientist can elevate your beverage offerings and help you stand out in a ridiculously crowded market.
An experienced food science consultant (not necessarily me—but I do have 20 years of award-winning formulation experience working with highly bitter ingredients) can help you develop innovative and market-ready beverages that fix bitterness naturally, while meeting consumer demands.
Want to develop a beverage that captivates the taste buds while addressing bitterness effectively? Reach out and let’s talk about how we can create a truly exceptional beverage formulation.