"I say this without being flippant," admits Dr. Robert Pastore. "Getting the flavor of Modus right was harder than making the extract. Making Modus taste good was way more difficult than making Modus."
On face value, that might sound like a bit of an exaggeration. Many of us can whip up something decent in the kitchen. Heck, some of us might even be able to put together a meal worthy of a decent restaurant. But not many of us can figure out the science involved in making a protein powder. That takes a very different skill-set.
So when it comes to Modus, a chocolate-based protein powder, why was getting the flavor right so difficult?
Well, what if you were tasked with creating something delicious out of pumpkin seeds, cranberry seeds, potato and other natural, non-dairy, non-animal ingredients? And what if you couldn't use any artificial flavors to enhance it?
And on top of that, what if you had to make sure to preserve its extremely rare nutritional qualities that made it beneficial for some of the world’s top professional athletes to consume? How tough would the task be then?
That's ultimately what Dr. Pastore, the Chief Science Officer at Vitalere (parent company of Modus Nutrition) faced in coming up with Modus, the first plant-based protein that out-performs whey and casein. Make it support muscle growth and maintenance, but also make it taste great.
The entire process started back in 2013 when Dr. Pastore was working with the Washington Nationals. Two players were looking for an alternative to whey, so Dr. Pastore set out to create a non-dairy, plant-based protein that didn't use any artificial flavoring. Given these parameters, Dr. Pastore started out working solely with raw, plant-based ingredients, and the shake bore this out, with the initial concoction tasting a bit like powder scooped from the earth itself.
"I actually started with the raw material alone to understand their flavors combined. Meaning, I just consumed Modus with no flavor,” recalls Dr. Pastore. “The cranberry seeds were extremely bitter. They just have so many antioxidants, and a very specific alkaloid profile that makes it that way. Potato had this odd tart and bitter flavor. Pumpkins for me -- and I know all of our taste buds are different -- but they were very earthy. It felt like you were chewing on pumpkin seed hull, almost. So at that point, the flavor was something that I would consume, but I don't think it was ready for prime time."
After consulting with the Vitalere team internally and determining that chocolate was the right flavor for Modus, he then did what anyone trying to crack the flavor code would do. He went back to what tasted good to him as a kid.
"I was looking for that Nestle Quik of my childhood, and how close I could get to that," says Dr. Pastore. "Using bio informatics, and really getting into the individual chemistry of food, (Modus) ended up being widely launched with one flavor -- the chocolate bean powder extract that we processed using a Dutching process, which is where chocolate is processed with Alkali to make it very palatable. It was almost childlike to me."
At this juncture, Dr. Pastore turned towards his scientific background to further tweak the flavor of the protein powder.
"If there's one really cool thing we did, to get the flavor of Modus exactly right, I had to turn it into a little bit of an electrolyte and I had to use my knowledge of the gustatory cells and the taste buds to see how we can make this protein palatable and accessible,” says Dr. Pastore.
Just because one knows how all taste buds work, however, doesn't mean that you can make something that works for all taste buds. Which is when the straightforward taste-testing grind began.
"We get that everyone's taste preferences are different," says Dr. Pastore. "Some people love cilantro, some people think cilantro tastes like soap. That's a known scientific fact. So we had to do a huge amount of taste-testing before we reached the final product."
After countless rounds of taste-testing, and despite Modus’ chocolate flavor, it turns out that the final formula was reached thanks to the introduction of one key savory ingredient: salt. Suggested by one key family member: Dr. Pastore’s wife, Shauna.
"What worked was a pink Himalayan sea salt as an ingredient, which was suggested as a concept by my wife. This salt has a broad spectrum amount of minerals and sodium to help with our flavoring," says Dr. Pastore. "With Himalyan sea salt and the chocolate bean powder, we created this flavor that really was the home run. When we hit that, I'll never forget, I was in the lab at the time, we all had our hairnets and white coats on, and it was a pretty exciting eureka moment I wish we caught on film."
The whole process would likely have been much easier had the team decided to use non-natural ingredients. But that would've gone against the original spirit of the product, so Dr. Pastore stayed the course and steered clear of artificial flavoring.
"A lot of our competitors use non-natural, artificial ingredients and artificial sweeteners,” says Dr. Pastore. “I would've solved the flavoring issue in three days if I sold out. But I didn’t want to. And it was brutal. I had to have a lot of people taste it. Then we did the final taste test in my kitchen, and I had to get the professional doctor who was first going to prescribe it, to love it. And if he loved it, I knew it was going to be a hit with the team. And when (the doctor) loved it and the Nationals loved it, I was extremely excited."
In fact, it wasn't just the Nationals that loved it. Their kids did as well.
"Jayson Werth was the guy who got a hold of this product before any other athlete did, and he said, 'I would drink it even if it didn't taste good because of all the benefits and components it has for my body,’” recalls Dr. Pastore. “And I loved that; that was a great selling point. He knows he doesn't have to take this big jar of pills. He's getting his zinc, his key minerals, and all the amino acids he needs, period. No more going to the strength trainer and getting separate branch-chain amino acids. He gets all of it in the shake. But then he said, 'The fact that it's good enough that my kid would like it was unexpected.' And that made me very, very happy."
Happy as a kid sipping chocolate milk, perhaps.