Dr. Debbie Parker discusses why sensory aspects are important and cracks the shell over which properties make a delicious vegan Easter egg.
What makes a vegan Easter egg irresistible?
Q: Describe your role as a sensory expert
A: As sensory scientists, we understand that people respond to products both rationally and emotionally, and that that response is based on the entire sensory experience, from sight to smell, taste and touch.
At the walnut [a research agency]We discover the psychology behind people’s emotional attachment to products using behavioral and neuroscience. However, as a sensory scientist, it’s my job to study all aspects of the product’s sensory makeup, the unique properties that appeal to our senses.
The results we get from this approach are a purely objective sensory assessment and reflect what the products really are like. When we combine this data with consumer research, we get deeper insights because then we can really understand what the products that promote taste are all about, or even what consumers don’t like.
I love when I can trace certain sensory aspects of taste or texture back to elements of the food composition. With my taste science background, I understand the chemistry of how these attributes came about and can make recommendations for changes based on whether their presence is popular or not.
Q: Meat-free alternatives are on the rise, but can the same be said for the vegan chocolate category?
A: We found that almost half (48 percent) of consumers are familiar with vegan chocolate, but only four percent buy it regularly. This equates to 65 percent who know meat-free alternatives and a proportionally higher 12 percent who buy them regularly. However, there are clear indications that sales of vegan chocolate will only continue to rise as Generation Z adults (18-24 years old) eat vegan chocolate three times more often than the general population.
Although only two percent of the population are currently vegans, this number is increasing as the trend towards ethical consumption increases. There is a strong correlation with veganism and the openness to vegan products that increases with youth. Generation Z adults are three times more likely to be vegans than the general population. With the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for sustainable, ethical food and beverages is only rising, and we expect this to be felt across all categories, including vegan chocolate.
Q: What is a “taste test” and what are you looking for / tasting specifically?
A: Taste tests vary based on what we need to know about the product. For example, if you want to know whether a small change to a recipe affects the overall sensory experience of a product, a simple taste test will provide an answer along with the degree of risk associated with whether that change can be perceived by consumers.
However, if you want to know how this change to the recipe will specifically affect the taste and mouthfeel of the product, more sophisticated taste tests are used. These tests use expert tasting panels trained to measure the intensity of each individual sensory attribute that together make up the perceived taste, texture and mouthfeel. With these more detailed sensory results, we can directly compare the new product with the current one and see exactly how changes to the recipes have affected the product’s sensory profile.
Q: What’s the secret behind creating the same chewability / texture etc with vegan or non-vegan?
A: Chocolate is made from cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder gives the chocolate its rich color and taste, while the cocoa butter provides structure. Cocoa butter has an additional property; It is solid at room temperature and melts at body temperature. It is therefore also responsible for the important “melting in the mouth” experience that we love and expect from chocolate.
Chocolate can only be made with cocoa powder and cocoa butter, but the resulting texture is hard and brittle, and the taste of tannins contained in the chocolate powder is astringent and bitter (remember to eat a very high cocoa percentage dark chocolate). Adding milk softens both the texture and taste of this challenging chocolate. This is due to proteinaceous milk solids that combine with the tannins and reduce astringency and milk fats that complement the flavor of cocoa butter and add to its creamier taste. The challenge for recipe developers is to replicate these important sensory properties for the texture and taste of chocolate when milk is replaced with alternative vegetable oils.
Compared to other vegetable oils, coconut and palm oils are also solid at room temperature and melt similarly, but not as well as milk fat. Coconut butter and oils appear to be the preferred ingredient for dairy substitution in chocolate; and have the advantage of contributing to a sweeter taste. Other oils can also be used, for example a shea oil. Today rice and corn flour and powder are also used as a milk powder substitute.
Q: How do non-vegan and vegan Easter eggs measure up in the taste test?
A: It is likely that many of the vegan Easter eggs currently available are dark or flavored chocolate, e.g. Orange, strawberry, raspberry, caramel and sea salt etc, and this can be a means to increase the lack of creaminess in the taste and texture of the milk and cream would otherwise contribute.
Some vegan “alternative to milk chocolate” eggs that were tested were noticeably tougher and crumbled more when broken than their dairy counterparts. The chocolate was also less smooth and gritty to eat and didn’t melt in your mouth as easily. In general, vegan eggs had a less noticeable “chocolaty” flavor and aroma, and some eggs were also very sweet and had particular oily notes that might come from some of the alternative ingredients to powdered milk. Overall, however, manufacturers are rising to the challenge of vegan chocolate, and most of the vegan eggs that were tried were acceptable alternatives to dairy chocolate eggs.
Q: Are there certain vegan chocolate brands that mimic traditional chocolate particularly well?
A: All brands gave an acceptable performance on taste, but yes, Divine’s dark vegan chocolate was most notable for the richness of flavor, smoothness, and that all-important and indulgent melt in the mouth!
Q: Are there any innovative techniques / tools / ingredients that come into play in the vegan chocolate arena?
A: Vegan chocolate grows enormously in the variety of flavors and ingredients used. Alternative dairy products such as oat milk and soy as well as alternative vegetable and nut oils are used.
Flavored chocolates like sea salt, caramel and orange are already common additives, but so are other ingredients that are considered “natural” and offer additional functional or health benefits, such as rose water, rosemary, beetroot and chocolate that use other sugar sources (e.g. not White sugar). There is even high-protein chocolate geared towards health awareness and post-workout consumption.
Q: Will vegan chocolate ever surpass traditional chocolate in popularity?
A: As long as the taste, texture and melt are acceptable, customers can forego a slight lack of these special sensory aspects in connection with chocolate in order to achieve a higher cause and a higher feel-good factor for the right thing, for example to protect the environment. Even without milk, chocolate still contains feel-good chemicals that influence the brain and body and make eating chocolate a pleasant experience.
Q: What kind of chocolate do you prefer?
A: Sensory scientists give no preference – this word is not in their sensory lexicon! The divine dark chocolate egg was seriously indulgent!
About the author
Dr. Debbie Parker is Head of Sensory at Walnut UNLIMITED, the agency for human understanding. She is a sensory scientist with a degree in biochemistry, a postgraduate certificate in sensory science, and a doctorate in brewing science. She leads sensory panels in evaluating all food, beverage and non-food projects to use sensory science to provide a full understanding of brands. Debbie is also a certified trainer, regular lecturer and presenter and one of the few female beer sommeliers in the UK.
With these skills, Debbie is a regular judge of the Quality Awards and the Great British Beer Festival and has led tastings at the British Embassy in Stockholm and the European Parliament. Debbie has provided an expert review for Channel 4’s Food Unwrped program, BBC Radio’s 4 Food program, and World Service. It’s safe to say that Debbie knows her flavors.