November 1, 1999

9 Min Read
Flavor Trends

Flavor Trends
November 1999 -- Perspectives

By: Laura Fischer

  Supermarket shelves are packed, consumers are discriminating, and food has become fashion. What's a wary food scientist to do? Get on the bandwagon, of course. Current and emerging flavor trends can be lucrative selling points for savvy manufacturers, providing a way to differentiate product in the ever-evolving world of food. Incorporating trends into a company's offering of products can be as revolutionary as the creation of a line of ethnic entrees, or as simple as tweaking an existing formula. Either way, processors can capitalize on consumers' changing tastes and elevated expectations.

Trend evolution

  To anticipate and act on trends in food and flavor, an understanding of their origins is necessary. Where do these seemingly arbitrary fads come from? Although theories vary, a generally accepted idea, according to Steve Hubbard, vice president and worldwide marketing manager for Griffith Laboratories, Alsip, IL, is that "trends usually don't emerge in retail unless people have had some exposure through the foodservice channel." Retail products take their lead from foodservice offerings, foodservice offerings reflect the menus of cutting-edge restaurants, and the menus of cutting-edge restaurants are created through the inspiration of trained chefs. Flavor trends, then, have to travel through a number of filters before they become a viable marketing tool for retail products.

  "In the supermarket, the first place you see trends emerge is in sauces and condiments," Hubbard continues. "Snack products usually follow behind them, and the last place you see trends emerge is within proteins, entrees and side dishes." These lapses in the appearance and incarnations of trends can be prime opportunities for developers to fill the niche of consumer demand for fashionable flavors and trendy tastes. According to a 1998 National Restaurant Association poll, 60% of adults feel that "their favorite restaurant foods provide flavor and taste sensations that they cannot duplicate in their home kitchens." When time and expense prevent people from dining on restaurant fare, they turn to prepared foods to provide the flavors and preparations they crave.

Celebrating diversity

  Ethnic cuisine is, and has been, an important driving influence in determining flavor trends. Gone are the days when spaghetti, fried rice and tacos were considered ethnic fare, as the "big three" cuisines - Italian, Chinese and Mexican - have become mainstream to the point of being considered "American." In response, these old favorites are renewing their popularity by becoming more regionalized. "The key ethnic cuisines have been around a long time," says Hubbard. "In each case what we're seeing is that consumers are now expanding their interests into related cuisines and broadening their horizons."

  As a result, Italian cuisine is broadening into the Mediterranean, which includes Middle Eastern and North African influences. Middle Eastern flavors have been popular in the United States for some time, and rely on seasonings such as cumin, coriander, sesame, mint, parsley, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves. Other prevalent flavoring agents include yogurt, lemon, honey, pomegranates, various nuts, olives, tomatoes and dried fruits. North African and Moroccan foods incorporate many of these same flavors, but are only starting to receive the attention that's thus far been reserved for Middle Eastern cuisine.

  What we call "Chinese" food is changing too. "Chinese has moved out into broader Asian cuisines, so that now things like Thai and Vietnamese are becoming mainstream - I would expect to see them moving into retail very soon," predicts Hubbard. The popularity of the lighter, fresh taste of Vietnamese cuisine, with its emphasis on the clean flavors of fresh vegetables, is a response to the bold and spicy profiles (soy, teriyaki, sesame and ginger) that have dominated Asian cuisine of late. Vietnamese and the hotter, stronger cuisine of Thailand share an emphasis on pungent condiments that include the flavors of fish sauce, chile peppers, tamarind and pickled vegetables. Look for even further splintering within the Asian arena to include the flavors of Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.

  Latino cuisine though, may be the most dynamic of the big three in terms of growth, regionalization and influence. "Latino culture is going to be a major force in our ethnic make-up, and as a result there will be an even stronger presence in the foods we're going to see," says Ken Seiter, senior vice president and general manager of The Food Group, New York. Hubbard agrees: "There's more interest in authentic Mexican cuisine; it's broadening out into Caribbean and Cuban cuisine. We're seeing different flavor profiles starting to emerge based on what ingredients are used there, with a lot of emphasis on fruits and meat in combination." The influence of the islands is strong, mixing heat with savory and sweet profiles in characteristic combinations. Ingredients like coconut milk, tropical chiles and fruits, lime, sugar cane, molasses, rum, cassava, taro and plantains marry with herbs and spices like annatto, clove, allspice, nutmeg, garlic and cilantro to create the flavors of the Caribbean.

  The new ethnic paradigms offer stronger flavor profiles and unusual ingredients, as is evidenced by the emergence of Indian cuisine as a favorite in restaurants, and a soon-to-be favorite in supermarket aisles. The identifying flavors of Indian mainstays such as curry and masala are those of spice combinations including turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, coriander seed, ginger, red pepper, chiles, mustard seed, saffron, mint, nutmeg and cardamom. Pickled mango and yogurt flavors are also common to Indian cuisine, though specifics vary depending on regional preferences. Because the essence of this cuisine is so fiery and distinctive, these are the kinds of flavors that can make the transition from cultural specificity to applications including snack foods and HMR.

More than Just Flavors

Keep an eye on these foods during the next few years - ingredients that are poised for growth, and potential celebrities of the culinary world:

  • Capers

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Coconut milk

  • Heirloom varieties of vegetables

  • Tamarind

  • Specialty sugars, molasses, sugar cane

  • Mint

  • Sea salt

  • Yogurt

  • Cornmeal

  • Chai

  • Horseradish

  • Oysters and mussels

  • Plantains

  • Rice and buckwheat noodles

  • Berries

  • Legumes and beans

  • Dried fruit

  • Lemon grass

  • Squash and pumpkin

Heat stable

  Spices are "hot," so to speak, making appearances in both expected and unexpected places. Spicy products are multiplying at an unprecedented rate, and traditionally bland foods are turning up the heat with the addition of herbs and spices. "The popularity of bold and spicy profiles is no surprise to anyone who looks at food trends," says Hubbard. "The use of spices has increased dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years." Indeed, it has. According to the American Spice Trade Association, New York, per capita spice consumption for Americans reached 3.6 pounds per person in 1998, the highest amount on record and up over a pound from a decade ago.

  But what's new about this generation of heat? "We're starting to find the nuances in heat," says Seiter. "Not only is it the heat, but it's the heat with specific overtones, and oftentimes heat mixed with sweet." Smoked chiles, like the chipotle, are making appearances on menus in record numbers as consumers are looking for flavor-enhanced heat sensations, and not just a mouthful of fire. "The growth of varietal peppers is strong," according to Jerry Braun, director of marketing for Chicago-based Newly Weds Foods. Menu descriptions no longer mention plain "chiles," instead differentiating between varieties and types, whether they're smoked, dried, roasted or fresh. Heat is coming from other, non-chile sources too, with the fuzzy-hot profiles of wasabi, ginger and horseradish appearing in ethnic and fusion dishes.

  Sweet flavor profiles in combination with overtones of heat, a phenomenon already popularized by spicy fruit salsas and chutneys, is poised for even more expansive growth. "We're looking at the increasing use of sweet flavors, especially fruits, in combination with meats and hot and spicy things," says Hubbard. "People are taking those kinds of flavor profiles that you wouldn't have seen together a few years ago and combining them in some interesting ways." The emerging Latino cuisines of Cuba and the Caribbean exhibit the sweet/hot concept with near perfection, another indicator of its growing importance.

Be prepared

  "Things that are tangentially related to flavor, like method of preparation, are just as important as the actual flavors of the food," notes Braun. Grilling, smoking and roasting foods results in characteristic flavor notes - flavor notes that consumers aren't taking the time to achieve in their home cooking, says Hubbard, who terms these kinds of preparation-intensive flavors "slow flavors" due to the lengthy cooking processes. "Grilled, rotisserie-type flavors, smoking, roasting - these are the types of things that people aren't creating but still want the taste of," he continues.

  Grilled flavors, in particular, merit attention. "Grilling is the number one preparation method across substrates," according to Sue Ary, marketing manager for the seasonings division at Newly Weds. People like the charred flavor that grilling imparts, in addition to its healthful, low-fat connotation. Marinades and rubs offer another level of flavor in a grilled application, and "authentic" and regional-style barbecue sauces and mops are going to continue to proliferate.

  Cooking with alcohol is certainly not a new idea, but it's recently been experiencing a strong resurgence. From wine reductions to flambé applications, the flavor of alcohol imparts a subtle, sophisticated essence to a food. "We've been seeing a lot of whiskey showing up in a lot of different ways, and its movement seems to be rapid," according to Braun. Whiskey marinades for meat and poultry are reaching peak popularity in restaurants, as are alcohol-infused desserts with rum, wine and specialty liquors. In a retail product, non-alcoholic flavors can provide an alcoholic-tasting profile representative of this kind of cooking.

Getting in the game

  "In everything from white-tablecloth dining to snacking in a football stadium, there's a much more sophisticated palate," says Seiter. But in spite of Americans' willingness to try new things, processors and operators need to evaluate new ideas and trends to determine which ones present real opportunities for growth and profit. What distinguishes a fleeting fad from a widespread trend? Concepts centered on what Braun terms "universal drivers" - health, convenience and indulgence - are apt to be influential forces with staying power, differentiating a fad from a trend.

  Constant evaluation of the market, the consumer, and the available opportunities is critical in the development of a successful product. Capitalizing on flavor trends can provide a needed edge in the competitive retail food market by bringing consumers a product they already know and like, or just by piquing their curiosity.

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