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Approaching natural colors and flavors, from concept to science to store shelves

Manufacturers find answers to the "why" and "how" of meeting consumer demands for natural colors and flavors in the food and beverage industry.

"If you want to start a food trend, start a war."

This declaration, uttered by food industry consultant and the president of Culinary Tides Suzy Badaracco, helped kick off the 2019 SupplySide West/FiNA (Food ingredients North America) education session, "Colors & Flavors: Superheroes of Product Success."

Badaracco, a former criminalist who now devotes her innate pattern-spotting ability to identifying culinary trends for food industry clientele, started this session off with a fascinating look at how trends get started, how they evolve through economic booms and recessions and how these things have an impact on consumer demands. This intersects with the growing call for natural colors and flavors in that it helps explain what is driving these trends and where they are headed.

Among her predictions for 2020: "Expect coastal blues and greens, nature's yellow, charcoal gray, cinnamon reds, dusty purples and paper white," without forgetting, she says, that, "Natural colors in their proper settings signify that [things are] healthy for the body." In terms of flavors, Badaracco forecasts seasonings including charred smoke, regional global blends, turmeric, yuzu, tamarind, pickled flavors, pandan, charcoal, annatto and others.

By tracing the market's origins, drivers and future, Badarraco's talk was the perfect "why" leading up to the more "how" presentations that followed. Joe Farinella, vice president of R&D (research and development) for Imbibe, began with a regulatory overview of natural flavors and coloring, and then provided an analysis of costs, supply chain issues and concerns in terms of formulation using natural colors and flavors and its impact on shelf-life, among other factors. A particularly fascinating case study in stability testing demonstrated what goes on behind the scenes in making the leap to natural coloring and provided insight into the challenges faced by suppliers and manufacturers when making the shift to natural colors and flavors.

Dr. Smaro Kokkinidou, senior research & innovation scientist at FONA International, delved into consumer expectations for function and taste as part of their growing interest in health and wellbeing. Consumers are demanding more nutrient-dense, lower-sugar foods with clean and natural ingredients, but they are also unwilling to sacrifice taste. Therefore, suppliers would benefit by understanding flavor cognition and the neuroscience behind it, in order to "facilitate the development of natural taste modification strategies." This is particularly important when it comes to optimizing the masking and enhancement of certain aromas, as well as blocking others. Kokkinidou also examined how colors can have an impact upon consumers' sensory perception (cinnamon conjures images of browns and reds, peppermint is associated with blues and greens, etc.).

Regardless of its origins or what the path to natural colors and flavors may look like for manufacturers, there is little doubt that this is the way the market is headed. Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights, North America for Innova Market Insights, demonstrated as much though the presentation of a wide selection of products that exemplify the trend of consumers seeking out better-for-you products made with natural ingredients.

Even so, it is important to keep in mind that while people are seeking products made with natural ingredients, that have functional health benefits, that meet the dietary requirements of lifestyle diets like keto and paleo, etc., taste is still paramount. According to a 2018 Innova Consumer Survey, flavor is the most important factor influencing food and beverage purchasing decisions. This is leading to the development and search for new and innovative ingredients that offer healthier options, without sacrificing flavor.

Botanical blends, functional chocolates and plant-based foods are just a few of its manifestations, at the same time that earth tones suggest the use of more natural ingredients. Another trend that Vierhile pointed out was consumers' desire to "get out of their comfort zones to discover new flavors, textures and flavor sensations."

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