This article appears in the September issue of Pig International. View all of the articles in the digital edition of this magazine.
Flavors (also described incorrectly as aromas, sweeteners, taste enhancers or even appetizers) are a series of diverse compounds that aim to increase feed intake in sensitive animals, especially young ones. They are used frequently in diets and milk replacers for piglets, calves and other young ruminants, and lately in super pre-starter feeds for broilers. They are not inexpensive, at least the good ones, so one must ensure they work properly.
According to flavor experts, a flavor should be defined as a combination of taste and aroma compounds that, when in the right balance, will enhance feed intake. In most cases, we talk about a proprietary formula composed of many such compounds. Some flavors may make the feed smell attractive, but the overall taste effect can be nil. Others might have the opposite result, such as a strong sweetener with no aroma at all.
Second, we must understand there is a considerable body of evidence pointing to the fact that such sensitive classes of animals often do not respond to flavors. Currently, there is a debate why this happens; some experts believe that when feed is composed of raw materials of the highest quality, then such compounds may be superfluous — but this does not take into account the advent of modern flavor products. Also, it is understandable that inexpensive flavors are often less potent than some more pricey, competing products. Nevertheless, the discussion so far is looking at matters from the animal’s side, and research is continuing to fine-tune the compound-animal relationship.
When we look at feed from the manufacturer’s point of view, we often have to accept imperfection and compromise as part of running a commercial operation. This state of business continues at the distributor’s warehouse and does not end before the animal actually first encounters the feed. No matter how much we stress the term quality when it comes to feeds for sensitive animals, this elusive property is more often than not compromised even when every effort is taken against such chance. In addition, feed manufacturers have to accept the fact that they sell feed to humans, and, as such, flavors with a strong aroma can have a part to play in marketing and brand identity. When one considers all these, it is easy to discern flavors have an additional yet different — a technical, if you will — role to play, and it is the intention of the discussion hereafter to identify such occurrences where these additives can save a business.
Synthetic methionine, a significant feed-feed grade amino acid, is rather bitter in taste. The same can be said for chicory pulp, a natural source of functional fibers. The taste of most salt forms of minerals and trace minerals used in animal feeds do not taste exactly great, either. The list of useful ingredients with unpleasant taste is limited, but it should not be dismissed as insignificant. Young animals have a clear aversion to such naturally off-tasting raw materials. In such cases, using a strong flavor will mask the unpleasant taste and avoid making an otherwise good feed rather unpalatable.
Off-quality batches of raw materials
No matter how much attention is paid into buying quality ingredients, the wrong batch will end up in some of the best feeds, just because any and all quality control systems are not 100 percent efficient. Perhaps it is the case of an over-processed whey that nobody notices that is darker than usual. Or, it is the case of a different supplier of fishmeal the purchasing department picked to fill up an unexpected large feed order. It does not take much for such easily unnoticed cases to cause a significant shift in feed taste or aroma, leading to lost business. Again, a flavor will alleviate the problem, but at the same time, it will not allow the quality control program to spot the guilty batch. Thus, these additives should be used as a supplement rather than a replacement to a robust quality control program.
Changes in raw materials
Nutritionists, at least those feeling qualified enough, like to change formulas to make them better, less expensive or just modern. Young animals seem to follow another philosophy: if it's not broken, don't fix it. So, occasionally they may take some time getting used to a revised feed, especially if it comes midstream in their growing phase. A constant flavor will definitely help avoid this gap, especially when feed ingredients change often and rather drastically. There is also a school of thought that ascribes to the notion that this method can be used in helping young animals transition easier from milk diets into solid ones.
Young animals seem to follow another philosophy: if it's not broken, don't fix it.
Just masking it cannot resolve the problem of rancidity. Animals will eventually get poisoned by free radicals and start having symptoms that affect their health status. Before long, they will go off feed. So, using wholesome ingredients and having a great respect for feed antioxidants is a must. But, mistakes happen, and a rancid batch of extruded soybeans or a tank of oil without antioxidants will be used without being noticed. Or, by the time the problem is identified and resolved, feed has reached the animals. It would be a shame for an honest mistake to upset a long-term relationship with customers and reduce feed intake in animals. Again, strongly rancid feeds cannot be helped; here, we discuss the chance of dealing with an off-batch of a single ingredient that contributes in a minor way to the whole feed composition. In such cases, using a flavor will keep business and animals going until the problem is resolved.
I do recall a very successful product line based on strawberry flavor. It was a simple feed formula, but because of this unique flavor it had gained legendary fame. It is a shame this ingenious line of products was discontinued because of corporate issues. But it proved to me the significance of brand identity with one’s products. And, of course, everyone smells a bag of freshly opened specialty feed! The same can be said about color, to the point some use artificial or natural dyes to keep feed color constant, but that is a different story.
Whether you launch a totally brand new line of products or a revised one, having a new flavor may help towards the direction of enhancing the new image in the minds of customers. After all, as my first manager said, humans sell to humans, and marketing is as important as everything else needed to make a high quality product. The only problem here is to find that new flavor. Luckily, some manufacturers are happy to work with you to this end. And, why not, if you are a large customer, have your own exclusive flavor.
It’s a tool, not a method
As mentioned before, flavors must be used to safeguard and not replace a vigorous quality control program when something gets by unnoticed. In the long run, animals will notice, flavors or not, and when they stop eating, customers will notice, too.
I must admit I belong to the aforementioned group of skeptics when it comes to understanding the way flavors act to make commercially-raised animals eat more. This understanding is based on now rather old, but published, data. New flavor products keep emerging and, to this end, I would encourage flavor manufacturers to publish their new data in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Read more about flavor imprinting in piglets