Before it was infused with vanilla bean, drenched in chocolate, layered with banana, paired with cookies and cream, and blended with all manner of decadent flavors, protein actually tasted pretty disgusting. Over the past decade, CytoSport—the supplement empire responsible for Muscle Milk—played a significant role in turning post-workout sludge into a mass-market beverage. Adam Schretenthaler is the senior vice president of technical services at CytoSport, a jargony title that hides a much cooler job. Donning a white lab coat at the R&D lab in Benicia, CA, Schretenthaler leads a team of chemists who mix, swish, sniff, and taste their way toward the sweet, creamy, delicious protein you crave.
We already know protein provides a ton of recovery and muscle-building benefits, but at the end of the day, how do you actually make the stuff taste good?
Here in our R&D lab in Benicia, we have basically a test lab where we have all of our ingredients and we have a miniature beverage processor that allows us to mimic and scale the production that we see when we are making millions of plastic Muscle Milk bottles. But instead of millions we make like, five.
We have protein chemists on staff who understand how proteins are manufactured and understand their molecular structures so we can really get to the root level and understand it. It’s that collaboration of knowledge that allows us to put together a product that really tastes great. I say that’s where the magic happens. It’s really putting together ingredients that are going to work and also taste good. There’s a ton of academic people that can look and say “there’s four research papers and if we take those and combine those ingredients at the right level then it’s going to be fantastic.” But the mix ends up tasting horrible. The real magic or the skill is being able to deliver those benefits in the product while still having it taste great.
So what do some of these proteins taste like before you flavor them?
Different dairy proteins might have bitter notes, they might have grassy notes, there are soapy flavors. There are probably a thousand different flavor descriptors that get used across different types of ingredients.
What are some of the more uh… interesting flavors you have tasted?
There are things that taste like body odor smells or things that taste like other human byproduct smells. There’s burnt flavors or almond or cherry notes. Interestingly, if you use too much almond flavor it will start to taste like cherry.
Basically we have to build a flavor system of natural and artificial flavors to mask and work with each ingredient. Like milk protein, for example, has a creamier note than whey protein, so the flavors we use wouldn’t have to substitute that cream flavor, we would already naturally get that milky cream flavor.
How do you build that flavor system? What is the development or “cooking” process like?
We’re actually tasting and smelling the product and tasting and smelling the materials, much like a chef in a kitchen would taste soup and say “OK, it needs more salt or it needs more ginger.”
Typically you won’t change more than one or two things at the same time in a recipe because you are really trying to measure what that one specific thing did. It could be like the concentration of the flavor we are adding or the amount of sugar we are putting in the product or the amount of stevia.
Take us through your tasting process? Is it like tasting a fine wine?
First, I would pour it and see how it pours to make sure it looks like it has the right viscosity, and I would use a glass that’s much bigger than the amount of product that I am going to drink. I might fill the glass a quarter of the way full. And then I’ll swirl it around, much like you would a glass of wine or a fine bourbon. Then you put your nose in it and smell it, because most of the flavor that you’re going to get in your mouth is really going to be through smell—through the swallowing process. That’s also the first impression our consumers are going to get. If you smell something like a great-tasting vanilla or graham cracker flavor your mind’s already primed to taste that.
Usually I’ll step away from it for a second or two and then I’ll go ahead and taste. You just kind of try to clear your mind and only think about what you are tasting. The first question I ask myself is, does this taste like the creamy vanilla I’m trying to make it taste like, and does it taste good? Is the flavor intensity the right amount? Is the sweetness correct? How long does the flavor stay in my mouth? As it washes down I ask, what aftertaste am I experiencing? Do I taste a metallic taste, do I taste grassy notes, am I left wanting more, or do I have this bad aftertaste that maybe isn’t as desirable? Then you look at what you think is causing these flavors.
When you know you’ve finally got the right flavor, do you have a signature move? Like do you shake your fist or say anything?
There’ll be some shaking of the head [laughs]. What Greg Pickett—the founder of Muscle Milk taught me, and he taught me everything that I know about flavoring products—we are really looking for that wow factor. When you taste it, it taste so good that you want to tell the person next to you how fantastic it tastes. And that’s really what Muscle Milk was built on. Protein products for a long time had been almost like a niche culture of people that were suffering through the taste of protein so they could get the best fit they were looking for. It’s almost like they were making a sacrifice. What Greg really wanted to do, and what he did do, is make a product that tastes so great that people are looking forward to drinking it after a workout.
Since your career started, how many different protein concoctions have you tasted?
I’ve been doing development for 10 years, and so there’s roughly 200 work days, it’s at least 10 a day on average, so that would be somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000.
There’s some days that you taste stuff so many times that you don’t eat anything else because even though you spit the product out, a lot of the time you’ve consumed so many different servings. When I’m working on like a highly caffeinated product, I’ve had days where I have no idea how much total caffeine I’ve consumed. Like there was no chance I was going to go to bed anytime soon.
Are there flavors you would really like to try and make but haven’t yet?
I think that there’s a whole category of like savory protein product flavors—like different snacks or cheesy flavors. I feel like most of the smoothie milkshake flavors, those are the flavors that have been done. I’m also really excited about an organic product that we just launched and I am excited on working with ingredients that are more natural, non-GMO, and organic. I think that’s an exploding category within all of food, and within sports nutrition, so I see different plant based proteins becoming more popular.
What’s your measure of success?
For me, knowing something is successful is when you see random people buying it and consuming it and enjoying it. That might be a mom, or someone that’s not athletic, or that’s aspiring to get in shape.