Vanilla: Sweet milk with less sugar

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glass of milk

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Adding vanilla to sweetened milk makes consumers think the beverage is sweeter, allowing the amount of added sugar to be reduced, according to Penn State researchers, who will use the concept to develop reduced-sugar chocolate milk for the National School Lunch Program.

Taste enhancing

The idea that congruent or harmonious odors enhance certain tastes is not new, explained Helene Hopfer, assistant professor of food science. Her goal is to see them actually incorporated into foods.

The findings of her group’s most recent study may pave the way.

In a blind taste test that provided new insights into taste enhancement by an aroma, participants — who did not know vanilla had been added to the milk — consistently indicated that samples with vanilla were significantly sweeter than their added sugar concentrations could explain.

Their responses indicate that with the addition of vanilla, the added sugar content in flavored milk could potentially be reduced by 20 to 50%, suggested lead researcher Gloria Wang, and people should not be able to perceive the beverage as less sweet.

Other combinations

Wang, now an associate scientist in product development with Leprino Foods Co. in Colorado, conducted the research at Penn State as part of her master’s degree thesis in food science. She tested not only congruent taste-aroma combinations but incongruent combinations as well.

It turned out that even a beef odor in milk slightly enhanced sweetness for study participants. Given widespread concerns about sugar intake and health, manufacturers are reformulating their products to help address consumer demand, Wang noted.

New options

She believes the findings of the research, recently published in Food Quality and Preference, offer them a workable option to reduce added sugar in their products and retain the sweetness consumers demand.

The study was novel because it did not ask participants to rate individual attributes of the milk such as sweetness, intensity of vanilla odor or milk taste. Instead, participants took a more holistic approach and simply selected the best match for the vanilla milk from four differently sweetened milk choices.

School lunches

Later this summer, Hopfer’s lab in the Department of Food Science will start working on a two-year project aimed at developing a reduced sugar chocolate milk for the National School Lunch Program.

The effort, based on the recent research utilizing the synergistic actions between vanilla and sugar to reduce the added sugar content, will be a challenge because of the inherent bitterness of cocoa.

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