You’ve heard it before and maybe you’ve even said it yourself: “If it tastes great, it can’t be good for me.” Look no further than the salted-caramel bacon beignet and you’ve proven your point, right? Perhaps not.

The “tastes great/less nutritious” theory starts breaking down in the dairy aisle, where the products give the lie to the notion that what pleases our palates must put our health at risk. After all, frozen yogurt — even red-velvet cupcake frozen yogurt — is still frozen yogurt, with all the protein, probiotics and low-fat goodness that implies.

And the spectrum of frozen yogurt flavors, from simple to sumptuous, implies yet something else: that flavor is a powerful tool for dialing up — or toning down — the shine on dairy’s healthy halo. Depending on the profile, a dairy product can give consumers the fantasy of indulgence, or leave them feeling as superior as their super fruit smoothie. And with help from the health-and-wellness experts at today’s flavor houses, finding a healthy-dairy flavor fit is only some benchtop tinkering away.

In the sweet spot

Even as the food industry takes heat from critics who disapprove of its nutrition practices, the dairy category remains a bright spot. Its healthful reputation remains largely intact among both nutrition advocates and regular shoppers.

“For the majority of North American consumers,” said Scott Harris, segment head, Givaudan, Cincinnati, “dairy products like milk (especially reduced-fat), yogurt and cottage cheese are closely associated with being healthy.”

Indeed, consumers have long perceived dairy as natural or minimally processed. They connect the category with the calcium and vitamin D they need to build strong bones and with the protein they’re learning is crucial for muscle development.

With the U.S. population growing older, “maintaining proper bone and muscle mass will become even more of a consumer focus,” said Mukul Juneja, product manager at Givaudan. “Dairy will be well-positioned to be a natural food of choice” for achieving it.

The yogurt revolution

In fact, thanks to yogurt in general and Greek-style yogurt in particular, dairy may already occupy the sweet spot as America’s most popular good-for-you food group.

Said Beth Braciszewski, dairy applications project leader, David Michael & Co., Philadelphia, “The introduction of Greek yogurt into the U.S. market has certainly caused a new boom in the dairy case. With more people watching what they eat and counting calories, nonfat Greek yogurt has become the ‘feel-good’ food.”

Its full-bodied texture and creamy taste are reason enough to explain its success; just as important, though, “nonfat Greek yogurt has about the same amount of calories as traditional low-fat yogurt,” Braciszewski pointed out, “with twice as much protein and without the fat.”

And as for flavor, consumers are finding they have more options than ever — in the dairy case, the freezer section and the local yogurt shop.

"Although superfruits from the rain forest have become popular, Americans prefer familiar high-antioxidant super fruits, such as blueberries, raspberies, strawberries and tart cherry, says an executive with a flavor house. "

Of course, dairy manufacturers are also facing a sea of flavor options for use in their own products, from Greek-style yogurt to good old-fashioned flavored milk and beyond. Wading through the choices to find the right one can be an exhausting task. Which flavor is most consistent with their product’s “personality”? Which resonates strongly with their core consumers? And which, quite simply, will taste best in their particular dairy matrix?

According to Harris, manufacturers mulling these questions may want to start with the basics. His basic starter flavors for dairy introductions are strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, with blueberry, mixed berry and peach following.

“From milks to yogurts to protein drinks, flavors associated with fruit and fruit preps are the most prominent,” Harris said.

The pairing works not only because fruit flavors generally play well in dairy, but because their plucked-from-the-tree image reinforces dairy’s wholesome appeal.

“The health benefits of fruit — such as antioxidants that are extremely important to slowing down the aging process — are a great complement to the health benefits of dairy,” Juneja said. And even if “real” fruit flavors don’t deliver the health benefits of real fruit, they’re still obvious choices for good-for-you dairy, Juneja said.

Pro antioxidant

Robert J. Verdi, business director, health & wellness, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., has also noticed the rise in antioxidant awareness. And though previously obscure super fruits such as açaí now make regular appearances in frozen yogurt shops and smoothie bars, they may not be the fruits that consumers gravitate toward most, he said.

According to his company’s consumer research, Americans still prefer the “more familiar high-antioxidant super fruits, such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and tart cherry,” Verdi said.

Though these homegrown super fruits may lack the exotic back story of their rainforest-grown cousins, they more than compensate with mainstream appeal and broad consumer recognition. And bringing things back to the good-for-you theme, he noted, “they support the healthy halo of dairy products in general and yogurt in particular.”

Familiar fruit profiles like strawberry and cherry also help keep things simple. And simplicity, Harris said, “is a growing consumer driver, especially in the realm of health and wellness.”

Perhaps the classic keep-it-simple dairy flavor is vanilla.

“Vanilla is probably the flavor that most reinforces simplicity and is the most well known,” Harris said.

And it never goes out of style for good reason: vanilla complements the creamy milky notes that are the core of dairy’s basic flavor. But if plain vanilla seems a little too simple — especially in an era when pomegranate-mango and peppermint-mocha are run-of-the-mill — its almost transparent simplicity is a genuine plus if it lets dairy’s essence shine through.

“Plain should be noted, especially with the higher presence of fresh dairy cues or creamy character,” Harris said. He added that his flavor team regularly adds these cues to dairy “to help enhance the products and deliver authenticity.”

Best of both worlds

Yet manufacturers walk a fine line between plain and pow! when flavoring healthy dairy. Simple vanilla and fruit profiles may be the angel sitting on one shoulder, but devil’s food cake and peanut-butter cup crunch tempt us from the other. So which side wins? It depends.

“Food developers keep in mind when developing new dairy products that decadent flavors can be used,” said Peggy Pellichero, senior food technologist and dairy team leader at David Michael & Co. “But they are careful not to make the profiles overindulgent. This is to maintain the balance between great flavor and healthy dairy.”

But some consumers aren’t interested in balance. They want to go wild with their healthy dairy flavors, if not with the fat level or calorie content.

“It may seem counterintuitive,” Verdi said, “but consumers accept very indulgent flavor profiles in their healthy dairy products. In the yogurt category, it is not uncommon to see flavors like blueberry cheesecake and tiramisu.”

The theory is that consumers make a tradeoff, swapping out the super-premium ice cream for nonfat yogurt if that yogurt comes dressed in super-premium clothing. It’s similar to what happens in the nutrition bar arena, Verdi said.

Further, reduced-fat or reduced-calorie dairy items might actually need strong, indulgent flavors to make them “believable” as replacements for the original products, Juneja said. He points to some of the popular profiles found in products like Skinny Cow and Weight Watchers ice cream bars, for example: caramel-truffle, cookies and cream, and dark-chocolate raspberry cheesecake.

“Given the healthy platform that dairy provides,” he said, “it is often a great platform to get accessibility to those flavors you’re missing in a weight-management diet.”

Sweet without sugar

But designing dairy for weight management — by reducing sugar, fat or both — involves more than just choosing a flavor theme that gives consumers the best of both worlds. Fat, sugar and flavor behave interdependently in dairy formulations. Changing one of the variables invariably sends the others out of whack.

Consider sugar. Reduced-sugar formulations lean on high-intensity alternatives to replace nutritive options like sucrose. But while these ingredients provide sweetness intensity, it is very difficult for alternative sweeteners to mimic the sweetness profile of sucrose, Verdi said.

Often, their time-intensity profiles differ from sucrose’s, generating either a stronger upfront sweetness, as is the case with acesulfame K, or delaying sweetness onset as aspartame does.

Also, Verdi noted, “Some alternative sweeteners, such as stevia, do not deliver the ‘clean’ sweetness consumers associate with sucrose.”

Given that dairy itself is an exceptionally “clean”-tasting system, lingering sweetener off-notes can stand out in stark relief. To cover those off flavors, Harris suggests turning to fresh dairy, creamy or even cultured notes. Flavor maskers targeted at alternative sweetening systems can help, too, he said, as they work in combination with taste receptors to mitigate drawbacks in reduced-sugar formulations.

But whatever the solution, the goal comes down to “reducing the negatives and enhancing the positives,” Harris concluded, “whether by masking, enhancing through dairy cues or complementing with a top note flavor that works with the base flavor system.”

Fat chance

"Fat, sugar and flavor behave interdependently in dairy formulations. Changing one of the variables invariably sends the others out of whack."

Reducing sugar in dairy doesn’t just mean losing sugar’s sweetness, either; it means giving up its body and mouthfeel, as well. But it’s in fat-reduced dairy that those properties become even more wanting, and while starch- and hydrocolloid-based stabilizers do yeoman’s work restoring at least the perception of fat’s substance, they don’t do so without consequences.

“Many of these ingredients could mask the overall flavor of the product,” Harris said. “Therefore, the levels and types of flavors used may have to be modified.”

What’s more, fat’s absence itself has consequences for flavor perception and delivery. As Pellichero explained, “when we remove fat from a dairy product, the flavors of the other components become more noticeable.”

In fat-free Greek-style yogurt, for example, the milk protein flavor can dominate.

“To some people, the extra protein comes across as creamy,” she said, “while others view this as a negative off note.”

Because fat carries and distributes flavor, its reduction may dampen flavor impact and cause flavors to fade more quickly.

Profiles that suffer most in low-fat formulations are, not surprisingly, those that are foundational in fat, Harris said. His suggested fix is to optimize the unflavored product base before any top-note flavor ingredients are added. Dairy and mouthfeel flavors can help with building back the perception of fat through enhanced mouthfeel, he added. Flavor profiles with an inherent fatty dimension — think chocolate bases with cocoa solids, for instance — can also compensate some for the lost richness.

Fortunately, reducing fat isn’t all downside on dairy flavor. “Fat in a dairy product can carry flavor” Braciszewski pointed out, “but it can also mask flavor release. Higher-fat ice cream, for example, will require more flavor than will a lower-fat mix.”

The trend toward added protein

"While fat and sugar levels are on their way down in healthy dairy, the trend in protein is for levels to creep up. Proteins made from whey can contribute off flavors that product developers need to address."

While fat and sugar levels are on their way down in healthy dairy, the trend in protein is for levels to creep up. And though ingredients like milk protein concentrates and isolates pose little challenge to dairy flavor, their higher-protein cousins made from whey can contribute off flavors that product developers need to address.

Often described as cardboard or “barny,” those off-notes get stronger the more processing the proteins undergo. Hydrolysis, for example, can generate higher apparent bitterness. The full effect of processing will depend on parameters like temperature, time and pH, Harris said, but generally speaking, the more abuse they encounter, “the more pronounced the off-notes get.”

And dairy proteins aren’t the only ones that wind up in healthy-dairy products.

“There is an increase in vegetable-source proteins from novel sources such as rice, pea and even chia seed” Verdi said. “Soy has been used as a protein source for several years, and these plant-based proteins all contribute relatively strong, distinct flavor profiles that product developers must overcome.”

But all is not lost. Flavor houses have studied the problem and designed masking systems that address protein issues specifically.

“Using dairy and masking flavors, we have done shelf-life studies showing a significant improvement in high-protein dairy products over their shelf life,” Harris said.

And that should have us all breathing a sigh of relief. The healthy-dairy category is on the move, and, as Harris said, “The movement seems to be around how dairy is complementing other products and adding value.”

From oatmeal-and-yogurt combos to fruit-filled smoothies, dairy processors are eager to provide a product with more benefits that is also better for you. And if it tastes great, we’ll have seconds.

Leveraging natural flavors in healthy dairy

Natural versus synthetic flavors. Will the debate ever end? It may already have, and it looks like naturals get the trophy.

“Probably now more than ever,” said Robert J. Verdi, business director, health & wellness, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. Consumers — especially moms — avoid synthetics in favor of naturals.

“It is broadly recognized that there is a movement to more natural ingredients,” Verdi said, “and to fewer, more-wholesome ingredients listed on food and beverage ingredient statements.” Natural flavors, he adds, “are part of this more recent trend.”

But don’t flush the synthetics down the drain just yet. As Scott Harris, segment head, Givaudan, Cincinnati, points out, consumers “appear to have different values relative to natural and artificial flavors across categories.”

The reason: ingredient statements may matter, but “taste matters first,” he said. “Where it makes sense, as with simple fruit and basic flavors, natural is preferred. However, in some categories consumers seem willing to accept that flavors that are more complex and more like analogs — key lime pie in yogurt, for example — can be artificial.”