For Brian Surratt, there’s no such thing as a carefree day in the kitchen. If he’s whipping up a homemade take on a dairy standard, like a frozen dessert, flan or pudding, don’t expect him just to kick back and enjoy once it’s ready.

“Now you’ve got to compare it to your favorite branded version,” said Surratt, a senior scientist in dairy applications for Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Wayzata, Minn. “Is it different? How would you characterize that difference? What would you change to make homemade resemble store-bought, or vice versa? Which do you prefer, and why? Welcome to my world!”

In that world, product texture comes into unusually sharp focus, and for good reason. “I’ve become fixated on being able to detect minute changes in textures when formulating new or reformulating existing dairy products,” Surratt said. “So personally speaking, I’ve given texture vast amounts of attention because it’s my job.”

If the “civilian” population can’t make the same claim, don’t hold it against them. To the casual observer, texture simply doesn’t generate the same flash as do flavor, scent or visual appeal. But that doesn’t diminish its contribution to a product’s — especially a dairy one’s — gestalt.

As Surratt said, “Just like taste, aroma and appearance, texture plays a critical role in consumers’ overall perception of a product and, ultimately, its success.”

That is why dairy developers should make like the texture experts and zero in on the unsung sensation capable of revolutionizing current brands and giving life to new ones.

Textural entanglement

Texture’s tendency to keep a lower profile is no secret to those who study it. As Ross White noted, “We commonly enjoy foods through appearance, aroma and taste first, and texture second.” White is the applications manager for the Americas at FMC Health and Nutrition, Philadelphia. But even if “texture often takes a ‘back seat’ to the other sensations,” he said, that doesn’t mean consumers don’t appreciate it.

“Our insights indicate that consumers do care about texture, and that it has a big impact on product preference,” noted Ivan Gonzales, the marketing director for dairy at Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill.

Evidence lies no farther than the increased presence of texture descriptors on product packaging and promotional materials.

“According to Mintel, the number of product launches containing texture claims increased more than 70% comparing 2014 with 2010, which shows the importance that food and beverage companies are giving to texture,” said Marcelo Nichi, Ingredion’s senior manager of texture marketing.

So if manufacturers and consumers are paying attention, why doesn’t texture get the same respect as taste, smell or appearance? Because we eat with our whole brains more than with just our eyes, noses, tongues or teeth. And our brains entangle texture with other sensorial properties to create what we perceive as a unified eating experience. And thus entangled, explained Surratt, texture “becomes, in some respects, less identifiable by the average consumer as an independent sensation.”

In other words, said Donna Klockeman, the senior principal food scientist for TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md., “Consumers may categorize a beverage as ‘refreshing’ but not necessarily break down its textural attributes, such as low mouth coating, high mouth clearing and low cohesiveness. Instead, they may focus on attributes that have more common consumer terms, such as those associated with flavor, sweetener systems and carbonation.”

The upshot is that if any one attribute seems somehow “off,” consumers may perceive texture as “off” along with it, regardless of whether or not it is. Which is why, said White, “It’s our job to ensure this doesn’t happen and that the textures we create with our customers are appealing to consumers.”

Dairy’s multiple texture ‘hats’

But just which textures consumers find appealing is a complex matter, especially in the dairy context. As Gonzales noted, while bakery, snack and confectionery have traditionally been more “active” in the texture space, dairy remains “an area that’s very interesting when it comes to texture innovation.”

What sets dairy apart, he said, is the frequency with which fans enjoy it, and the demographic breadth those fans represent: young, old, health nut and hedonist. Another factor, Gonzales added, is “the variety of uses and consumption occasions where dairy products are found.” Some serve as ends in themselves and others are ingredients in everything from pizza and cheeseburgers to macaroni dinners. No wonder dairy wears so many textural hats.

That complicates the task of optimizing dairy texture — which is a goal that experts believe is context-specific anyway. According to Nichi’s theory, “Texture optimization depends on consumers’ expectations for the finished product, must be ideal for the consumption moment and must deliver the desired eating experience over the course of the product’s shelf life.”

So while creaminess, meltaway, mouth coating, firmness on the palate and absence of syneresis are optimal in a stirred yogurt, he said, they may not tick the right boxes in, say, a fruited cottage cheese.

As far as White’s concerned, “Texture is ambiguous, and the ‘optimal’ texture depends on the target market. That’s why consumer insights and sensory analysis are so important, particularly in the dairy category. Each product is so distinctive and recognizable: ice cream, mousse, whipped toppings, yogurt. Each has a unique texture that resonates with consumers.”

Balancing texture with other factors

Alas, each also has characteristics that pose challenges to achieving that resonant texture. First there are the matters of consumer expectations, eating occasions and, in some cases, the need for ingredient functionality; add commodity costs, processing considerations, packaging limits and nutritional and labeling concerns “and concessions must often be made to overcome any one hurdle so that the product tastes good and delivers a desirable texture,” White said.

Understandably, then, an optimal texture is more elusive in some dairy applications than others.

“Of particular interest are cheese products,” Gonzales noted, “because of the great variety of products on the market, which range from hard and semi-hard to soft, spreadable and sauces. And each comes with unique textural characteristics and functionalities when used in different food applications.”

Also worth noting is the contrast between an ice cream versus a milk-based beverage.

“Compared with ice cream,” White explained, “dairy products like flavored milk, with a narrower textural range, tend to be ‘simpler’ in delivering the desired sensory experience. It’s not that texture development in this space is easier, but perhaps that expectations aren’t quite as demanding.” But by carefully coordinating base components and processing methods, he said, developers “create a solid foundation for texture so that they can focus on other hurdles, like physical stability.”

Stability and texture

And those hurdles abound, with stability chief among them. It wasn’t such an imperative back in the days when we ate or drank dairy items soon after production. But “as consumers expect their dairy desserts or ice creams to hold a certain texture for their whole shelf lives, stability and longevity become key concerns for dairy developers,” White said. “It’s this stability, creating the framework for consistency from first bite to last, that often presents major challenges.”

Sometimes those challenges owe to distribution and storage, as is the case when ice cream endures freeze/thaw cycling. “With each freeze/thaw cycle, attributes that include everything from creaminess to iciness to perceived temperatures can change and impact overall eating quality,” White noted.

Other stability challenges arise from the same processes that manufacturers apply to improve product stability. Consider a flavored milk beverage, Klockeman suggested.

“Traditional HTST [high temperature, short time] pasteurized chocolate milk is a simple system of milk, cocoa, sweetener and carrageenan,” she explained.

Yet the higher-temperature processing involved in either extending its refrigerated shelf life or conferring shelf stability without refrigeration inevitably induces ingredient interactions that require adjustments to the basic formulation’s texturizing and stabilizing components, she said, adding that packaging and operational changes may also be necessary.

Other challenges for product developers include ingredient costs, as Greek-style yogurt illustrates. The product tends to have a higher formulation cost than other yogurt types because many brands use proteins to deliver that unique texture, White said. As a hedge, he suggests supplementing those proteins with hydrocolloids, which broadens the scope of textures one can achieve while also trimming costs.

Texture and the clean label

As for the biggest textural challenge facing dairy developers, though, “the front runner by far,” Surratt said, “is clean-label or ‘naturally’ derived dairy formulations.”

Again, yogurt provides an example. For years, the product “had its texture determined by the commercial brand leaders,” explained Ann Tigges of Cargill Texturizing Solutions.

To wit, the standard was a smooth pudding style made possible courtesy of a starch and gelatin base strong enough to withstand the intense thermal processing and high shear involved in the product’s manufacture.

But with consumers now demanding products with fewer ingredients, companies have “completely altered” that traditional base by building body with proteins and “then looking to other hydrocolloids to aid creaminess and offer process tolerance,” Tigges said.

Chocolate milk underwent a similar evolution. Though stabilized safely and successfully with carrageenan — which, Tigges said, “is tailor-made by its chemistry to function efficiently in this system” — a “shift in consumer attitude toward this ingredient has forced many R&D teams to try to find alternatives,” she said.

Texture extension

As they hunt for new ingredients, they’ll also stumble upon new textures to create. And  that’s what has texture experts and dairy developers jazzed.

“It’s an exciting time for dairy product development,” Klockeman said. “Simple changes in product texture can turn a single product into a platform that appeals to a wide range of consumers,” she noted. “This is an easier approach than developing complete products from scratch and can be more quickly brought through the development process.”

Flavored milks offer an example.

“A slight change in texture — lower mouth coating, higher mouth clearing and reduced cohesiveness — combined with a refreshing flavor like banana and vanilla make it appealing as an exercise recovery beverage,” Klockeman said.

Then again, increased mouth coating, decreased mouth clearing and a more indulgent profile — she likes chocolate truffle fudge — yield “a dessert alternative for adults.”

Similar tricks are in the cards with other dairy standards, such as sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and dips.

Added White, “Once the link is made between texture and other organoleptic attributes, unique approaches to new-product development can be taken.” He sees potential for creativity, with “opportunities for texture ‘mashups’ similar to what’s been done with flavors, or for manipulating texture so that it changes throughout the eating experience, or perhaps for introducing textures from one application or one region into another.”

Why planning matters

The possibilities are enticing. But before developers even start thinking about mashing one texture into another, first define your target texture.

“I’ve found from my two decades of experience in product development that even today, an end target or goal is more often than not vaguely — if at all — defined,” Surratt said.

That is a mistake, he said. Both a definable goal and a means of measuring it should be part of the plan at the outset, he insisted: “In essence, you start from the end and work your way back — almost like watching dominos fall, but in reverse.”

White pointed out that by defining the textural target early on, developers better understand the boundaries — “like ingredient cost, label restrictions or processing” — within which they must work, and that makes for a more effective discussion about how to deal with those boundaries.

Said Nichi, “our recommendation to any customer, whether working on a reformulation or designing a completely new product, is first to get the texture right, and then to build in all the other elements, including nutritional ingredients, colors, flavors and so-on.”

But don’t lose sight of the decider: the consumer.

“It’s critical that we not apply our own assumptions to consumer preferences,” White noted. “Products developed for the health-conscious don’t always require texturizing ingredients to add back mouthfeel after removing fat or sugar. For other consumers, adding back that indulgent quality might be crucial.”

Talking texture

Which is why talking about texture — with suppliers, marketing teams, sensory panels, consumers and more — is so important. As White said, “It needs to be part of that early conversation.” Moreover, the parties to that conversation must understand what the others are saying, which doesn’t always happen when “the language used to describe texture varies quite a bit from one developer to another, and certainly among consumers,” he added.

So texture specialists have devised lexicons, often proprietary, to bring those participants onto the same page. TIC Gums’ Klockeman said, “we work with product developers to deconstruct combination terms like ‘smooth,’ ‘creamy’ and ‘indulgent’ into individual texture attributes such as mouth coating, denseness, mixes with saliva and so on. This allows us to speak the same language and focus on the product characteristics that should remain the same versus those they’d like to change.”

Ingredion uses its Texicon language “to translate consumer descriptors into measurable scientific terms that enable precise formulations,” Nichi said. “In a practical way, we’re able to dive deeper into consumer terms like ‘creaminess’ and break it into more actionable, fundamental terms — meltaway and mouth coating. This deeper dive and understanding lets us make finer adjustments, deliver target textures and enhance the eating experience.”

Which bodes well for texture enthusiasts, who’re always happy to talk texture — and even happier when that talk focuses on intriguing innovations. Surratt is a perfect example. As he willingly confessed, “I’m biased, but I think this parameter should be at the top of the list!”