When it comes to developing flavor profiles for cannabis-infused food and beverages, product developers can take two paths: eliminating the cannabis flavor or complementing it.

Deciding which move to make often depends on the product and its audience, says David Banks, director of marketing, Bell Flavors and Fragrances, Northbrook, IL. 

Through Bell’s research, he notes the company has found younger consumers, who tend to seek adult-use products, may be more open to cannabis notes in their food and beverage products. Meanwhile, older consumers, who often turn to cannabis for health and wellness benefits under medical programs, may not want to taste any cannabis flavor.

However, Banks says Bell is researching whether consumers need at least a hint of cannabis flavor to know what they ingest will alleviate their concerns.

“There is that consumer perception from a sensory perspective that it needs to have a bit of off note to showcase it is actually in the product,” Banks says. “If you make it taste too good, maybe the perception of efficacy is less.”

Whether their goal is to mask or enhance cannabis notes, flavor firms suggest manufacturers collaborate with their development professionals to build solutions that will meet their needs.

“Manufacturers can overcome potential challenges by working closely with their flavor house as early in the product development process as possible,” says Dawn Riviere, West Coast business development manager, Flavor Dynamics, Inc., South Plainfield, N.J. “Understanding the customer’s goals helps to select flavors that best fit. Selecting the right solubility and desired flavor profile upfront is a good start.”

Flavor and product formulas

Incorporating flavor profiles into cannabis-infused products is similar to developing traditional food and beverages, but the hydrophobic nature of cannabis oil poses an added challenge.

“The formulation challenges are like any formulation challenges you’d have with any type of food and beverage product—mouthfeel, flavor delivery—but you do run into some issues with the materials themselves, specifically because they are an oil-soluble material,” Banks says.

Dolf DeRovira, president, Flavor Dynamics, adds flavor format and solubility are key factors to take into consideration.

“Typically, cannabinoids are oil-soluble, so the flavor would be oil-soluble as well,” DeRovira says. “However, in emulsified systems it can be either. Also, in some cases, the flavor must be dried in order to be evenly dispersed and avoid ‘hot spotting.’ Systems that are heated are usually best handled by adding the flavor at the last moment to avoid flash-off of sensitive volatile aromas.”

Understanding cannabis terpene profiles and their flavor notes can also bolster product development. Bell began working on a slate of strain-specific terpenes blends three years ago with help from its Canadian office, which has a license to work with psychoactive ingredients, Banks says.

Bell’s sensory panel smelled through 100 terpene blends and tasted 25, mapping them out by flavor. The company also developed a flavor wheel and language to describe the blends, similar to how tasters approach chocolate.

“We were able to identify that some of these strains had different skunky notes, some of them were more piney, some of them were more citrusy, some of them were more fruity, floral, tropical, bitter — all those key descriptors,” Banks says.

Bell’s research resulted in a library of terpene profiles representing some of the most popular cannabis strains on the market, including Blackberry Kush, Blue Dream and Pineapple Express.

While Bell’s terpene blend portfolio continues to gain traction, Banks says Bell is keeping an eye on up-and-coming strains.

“There’s always work that can be done. We’re always exploring,” he says.

Flavor trends

Citrus flavor profiles are among the most popular in cannabis-infused product launches, thanks to their ability to pair with cannabis’ terpenes, Riviere says. 

Rebecca Shurhay, marketing analyst, Flavorchem, Downers Grove, IL, agreed, pointing to CBD-infused beverages that turn to botanical and herbaceous flavors to support their wellness-based positionings. She cited combinations such as Grapefruit Rosemary, Lemon Lavender, Lemon Ginger, Blood Orange Cardamom, and Blood Orange Coconut.

“These fusions are in line with consumer pursuit of health and wellness, as these flavors and ingredients encompass immunity, cognitive (support), and other functional claims,” she says.

Manufacturers and brand owners continue to introduce products that pair cannabis with botanicals and adaptogenic ingredients, such as ginseng, ashwagandha, and reishi mushrooms, to not only offer unique flavor profiles but also build on benefits of promoting focus, relaxation, sleep, and stress relief.

“Consumers want more out of everything they consume,” Banks says. “Consumers will continue to gravitate toward products that can deliver multiple beneficial impacts versus just one.”

For confectionery products, traditional fruity and indulgent flavors rein. Shurhay cited Wild Berry, Strawberry Lemonade, and Sour Peach as flavors found in new gummy and hard candy launches. CBD gummies targeting immune support have also appeared in Elderberry and Yuzu flavors.

For chocolate and baked goods, developers can’t go wrong with indulgent flavor pairings that inspire warm feelings, such as Milk Chocolate & Peanut Brittle, Red Velvet, and Cookies & Cream, Shurhay says.

As manufacturers gain more understanding of cannabis terpenes and their flavor profiles, it’s likely products highlighting and complementing particular strains will hit the market. Kiva Confections, Oakland, CA, recently introduced its Lost Farm edibles brand to play on strain-specific pairings.

Created with 100 percent live resin, Lost Farm edibles are designed for experienced cannabis consumers seeking a richer and more complex experience.

Lost Farm gummy options include:

  • Raspberry made with Blue Dream strain: Blue Dream is well-known for its sugary, berry flavors, which inspired this fruit gummy's sweet, juicy and subtly sour taste that's balanced with floral rose notes.
  • Strawberry Lemonade made with Super Lemon Haze strain: Inspired by the earthy, citrus flavors of the strain Super Lemon Haze, this fruit gummy boasts sweet strawberry flavors upfront with a lemonade finish.
  • Juicy Peach: The Mimosa strain’s bright, sweet and sour citrus flavors are paired with the tastes of ripe, juicy peach rounded out with a creamy, tart pineapple background.
  • Citrus Spritz made with Clementine strain (Limited Release): The rich, earthy flavors of the strain Clementine serve as the foundation for the sweet yet sharp, juicy citrus taste of this fruit gummy.

Launched in February 2021, the Lost Farm Chews include:

  • Blueberry made with Blue Dream strain: Inspired by the sweet berry flavors of the strain Blue Dream, this fruit chew tastes like ripe blueberries dipped in sugar. 
  • Watermelon made with Wedding Cake and Watermelon Zkittlez strains: Playing off the fruity, floral flavors of these two strains, this fruit chew boasts a juicy, melon flavor with fresh cucumber notes.
  • Key Lime made with Lemon Meringue strain (Limited Release): The Lemon Meringue strain's dessert-like flavors inspired this fruit chew's rich lime upfront with a sweet, creamy meringue finish.

“While appreciative for the nuances captured in inhalable formats, we had to ask ourselves: Why can't we explore the incredible nuances of cannabis in an edible?” says Kiva CEO and co-founder Scott Palmer. “Lost Farm is the culmination of the journey we went through to answer that question.”