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CBD in foods: Do consumers really want to taste it?

Consistency and planning are among the keys to getting the right flavour for CBD-based edibles, an expert advises. Getting flavours right for CBD products requires custom solutions that can compensate for inconsistency in production but the objectives can broadly be placed in one of four categories, according to a flavouring expert.

Companies either want a spectrum product that emphasises the inherent “cannabis” taste or masks it. Or they want an isolate product that recreates that taste—or masks it.

“What we found is that there are two camps,” notes Christina Castlejohn, senior scientist at Illinois-based flavouring company FONA International. “People either absolutely want to taste CBD and want to know it’s there, or they don’t want to taste it at all. Consumers want it to 'taste delicious but not taste of terpenes’.”

Spectrum products—those incorporating a greater range of cannabinoids than just CBD—naturally tend to have cannabis notes from the presence of terpenes, flavonoids and other compounds. Removing components removes some flavours—so a broad spectrum product with the THC removed has fewer cannabis notes than a full spectrum product and an isolate, such as pure CBD, has almost none—but as a result tends to have bitter-tasting compounds.

In practice, a company can use masking and blocking solutions to remove the cannabis taste from spectrum products or the bitter taste from CBD isolate products.

“Blocking would be something that conflicts with the terpenes—it fits with the terpene so it no longer fits the taste receptor—or blocks the receptor on the tongue itself,” says Castlejohn.

Standalone solutions can be used to achieve this, but these tend to have long chemical names that do not look great in ingredient lists—particularly in an industry where clean label is so important. Instead, Castlejohn recommends creating a flavour profile that can be included under a “natural flavours” listing in the ingredients section.

Even so, there are limits to what can be done in terms of blocking tastes. For example, the bitterness of CBD isolate can be hard to mask—particularly if there is inconsistency in the CBD product itself. In these cases, creating a flavour profile where you expect to have bitterness—such as dark chocolate, coffee or grapefruit—can be a solution.

For companies looking to emphasise the cannabis taste of their product, a brand could work with congruent flavours. For example, if a full spectrum product has a naturally citrus flavour, it could work to emphasise that—perhaps remove some citrus so that it’s more grapefruit—which could also mask bitterness if inconsistency creeps in to the cannabinoid production.

For isolates, the trick is to build a cannabis flavour profile from the ground up as all the tastes have been removed. “A company could add in citrus or herbal notes and then build in complementary flavours—like blackberry and mint—which could be incorporated into one flavour system,” Castlejohn said.

No matter which path is chosen, there is no off-the-shelf solution that a brand could buy to mix with their CBD product. There are too many variables—the source of the CBD, the strain of hemp grown, the extractor that processed it and the application intended to be used all influence final taste, explains Castlejohn.

For instance, if a company is making gummies, the gelatine may bind to some flavour compounds, producing a different result.

Equally, consistency is a huge factor that needs to be accounted for. Different harvests can produce different tastes if care is not taken—meaning the same product could have different flavour profiles at different times of the year.

“It’s not enough to know just where it’s from,” Castlejohn explained. “Lots of factors can affect the taste and part of the job is trying to figure out the lot consistency from the vendor. And at the moment there’s not a lot of regulation around it—it’s a little bit of a wild west situation, where there aren’t a lot of consistent batches.”

All in all, developing flavours for CBD products requires forethought and planning, both in terms of anticipating what inconsistencies may appear and in terms of adjusting for the use of other ingredients.

“Flavour solutions can be made to work with some issues—up to a point. But, for example, if you have a product where one batch is very citrusy and the next more black peppery, if you create a flavour solution that essentially masks the citrus, this means products in your second batch now have much stronger pepper notes,” Castlejohn explained.

“You perhaps can find a solution that masks both and that will hopefully handle any inconsistencies from batch to batch. But if you’ve got major swings there’s not much more you can do than set the expectations of customers.”

Similarly, companies need to think of how flavours work in different applications and get away from the idea that one flavour will taste the same whatever it’s added to. That means adjusting the flavour profile to compensate for the other ingredients. For example, if a sparkling drink is being created, it might have sugar, stevia or monkfruit as a sweetener.

“All of these hit at different times,” said Castlejohn. “You can’t build or mask flavours until all that is set. You need to get the base to the best possible place you can get it with the ingredients you’re using.”

Christina Castlejohn will be discussing the use of flavours in CBD products and the factors that affect them at the USA CBD Expo being held on 13th-15th February in Las Vegas, Nevada. CBD-Intel provides impartial, independent and premium market and regulatory analysis, legal tracking, and quantitative data for the cannabidiol (CBD) sector, focusing on non-US markets.

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