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Flavor trends in seasoning snacks

The snack market continues to experience growth in new flavor explosions including beer-flavored chips!

September 30, 2008

18 Min Read
Flavor trends in seasoning snacks

Brett Stern didnt wake up one morning and decide to make a beer-flavored potato chip. But in winter 2005, while enjoying what he called a sort of Walden Pond existence in upstate New York after a 20-year career consulting corporate clients, Stern clicked on an episode of the Food Networks Unwrapped and found a new problem to solve.

To Stern, thats the name of the game. I dont necessarily design a product, he says. Im solving a problem. The problem of the dayand the topic of the programwas potato chips. The guy on the show said, Well, we have 12 different flavors, Stern recalls. And I said to myself, I bet I can think of a flavor. Luckily, he had a can of beer handy to help his brainstorm. So I said to my brain, Okay, Brain, thinkbut first, lets take a sip of beer, Then Brain looked at the bottle of beer, and said,

Beer-flavored chips. Well call them Beer Chips. And the rest is history.

More than three years later, Stern, now based in Portland, OR, has parlayed that serendipity into a line that includes the flagship Beer Chips, as well as spicy bloody Mary Hot Potatoes chips and margarita-with-salt Chip Shots. A little sweet, a little salty and slightly spicy, the trio brings to life several grown-up trends shaping the snack scene today. Look at snack foods that are out there, Stern says. Most of the packaging and flavors in a lot of snacks are definitely geared toward kids, but adults eat as much, or probably more, of them.

The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, WI, notes that on any given day more Americans snack than eat breakfast. As we do, the snack industry will need more creative brains like Sterns to keep the idea pipeline flowing.


Were experiencing a fundamental shift in the way we eat. Just as the ubiquitous iPod has allowed us to consume music in bits and bites, the snack has effectively obliterated the edible equivalent of the LP, the meal.

With snacks assuming a greater share of our sustenance burden, weve begun to expect them to deliver a greater degree of sensory stimulationas much, in fact, as we used to get from full-fledged meals. Not surprisingly, then, the trends influencing the dining scene at large also sway the snackscape. Whats new about todays snacks, though, is their sheer dynamism. Theyre embracing flavors and seasonings with an ambition and boldness that wouldve caused the snacking public to blanch just a few years ago.

What weve found is that more companies are looking to ideate around culinary inspirations and the main themes in snacking of healthful indulgence, good-for-me/good-for-the-planet, an artisan-type feel, or adventure, says Mia Arcieri, marketing manager, FONA International Inc., Geneva, IL.

Thats sent companies to a wide range of sources for inspiration. We research whats going on in the market for global new-product launches, Arcieri points out. We research whats on the menuwhether its a beverage item, an appetizer, entrée, salad or something thats used in a vinaigrette or dessertand we take inspiration from combinations that are out there that might be applicable to a food category were working on.

Appetizers to go

Thats an MO that Danny Bruns, CRC, CCA, senior corporate chef, Kerry Ingredients & Flavors, Beloit, WI, would recognize. His advice is simple: Read the appetizer menu. You could just paste every midscale restaurants appetizer menu on your test-kitchen wall, and on any given day the phones going to ring and the client is going to want one of those profiles from one of those restaurants in a chip or a bar or a pretzel, he says.

Bruns considers the appetizer menu the snack designers farm team for ideas. Those profiles really cross categories, he says. Theyre the USA Today version of flavorseverybody sees them, and everybody gets them. If you can base your concepts on these profiles, youve got a built-in fan club. They play into indulgence, he says. They play into global exploration.

Theyre also endlessly adaptable. Buffalo wings, quesadillas and spinach-artichoke dip need only a tweak to fit the snack medium, but they can also stretch their profiles to capture adventuresome snackers attention. So, instead of going with a straight Buffalo-wing flavor, use the concept as a springboard for a habanero-Buffalo chip paired with a buttermilk-feta dipping sauce. When you build off of these profiles, Bruns says, people recognize it. They can understand it in a snack chip.

21st century fusion

If this mash-up between appetizers and snacks smacks of flavor fusion, so be it. But, as Bruns says, todays savvier approach to snack-flavor fusion is more rational. Youve got to ask yourself first if the flavor will taste good with a snack, and then youve got to test it. You need a reason for why you put that pair together in the first place. Not all couplings live happily ever after. Why would you put a smores profile on beef jerky? It works great on cashews, he notes, but lets make sure it doesnt clash somewhere else.

Nevertheless, he still advises product designers to keep an open mind about flavor combinations. Weve had some prototypes where the flavor has been just unbelievable, yet there was no logic for it, says Bruns. In the end, it can pay to be boldespecially with snacks, where the risk factor is reduced because its done in little bites, he says. We did a kung pao chip two years at SNAXPO, and when you have somebody taste it and tell you right there that they get it, its a really gratifying experience.

But determining how a flavor combo works on a conceptual level is only the start. Snack manufacturers have to ensure that the seasoning and substrate are compatible during processing, storage and beyond, as well. Call it chip logistics, if you like. Different products taste different on a rippled chip than on a flat chip, because of the surface area, says Reid Wilkerson, president, McClancy Seasoning Co., Fort Mill, SC. While the former offers more surface area for seasoning adhesion, a ripple chip, per square inch, has more weight, he explains. So you need to put a greater amount of seasoning on that chip to accommodate that. Yet, even then, he says, your two chips will not taste exactly the same because of the bite. Even if you had the ratios exactly right on each, theres something about the bite and how you chew them differently, and how the pieces break up in your mouth that alters our perception of their flavors.

Of course, the nature of the substrate itself will also influence the amount, type and application of seasoning, notes Wilkerson. In some cases, he says, we have to have two different formulas for two different substrates. Its not unusual to have two products that are the same basic profile, but well do one formulation to suit a pork skin and one for a potato chip thats totally different in flowability, ingredients and other ways. Pretzels, he notes, are a particular challenge to season, because of their slick surfaces. You almost need to run it back into a dryer to dry the seasonings back on top of it. Things really tend to roll off of a pretzel well, he says. The broken pretzel bits allow the inside of the pretzel to be exposed so you can do a slurry, and those products do just fine. Its just that, when you put a wet seasoning on a pretzel, youve really got to dry it back out. And that means you need a special piece of equipment, and thats tough.

Familiar with a twist

Considering how much influence appetizer profiles have on snacks, it should come as no surprise that the same sort of split personality that characterizes the appetizer sectionwhere border-crossers like Thai curry spring rolls bump up against classic onion ringsappears in snacks, as well. While snacks are hothouses for flavor innovation, theyre also bastions of culinary nostalgia. The classic flavors for the shelf-stable dried snacks are still the strongest, Bruns says. The overarching idea is to incorporate slightly new elements into traditional profiles. Everybodys got a caramel-brownie flavor, but now theyre putting a chile with it. Theyre adding a unique element to the traditional to make good on the concept of familiar-with-a-twist.

A cornerstone of the snack seasoning repertoire is cheese, but long gone are the days when a snack flavor could get away with being just cheese. One of the more-exciting developments that Bruns has seen is the acceptance of the goat, feta and stronger European cheeses in snacks. All of a sudden, he says, spinach-artichoke-feta on a pita chip, or a Greek-style chip with feta and black olives, isnt all that out there. Youll find that kind of profile at Wal-Mart. Hes also noticed a shift toward smoked cheeses like mozzarella, Cheddar and provolone that really build these flavors as another dimension into the snack. The cheese-based concepts he and his colleagues have worked on are good enough to eat: toasted Brie, aged Parmesan, blue cheese and chive, Gruyere and caramelized onion, even beer-and-cheese fondue. And every one is imaginable on a snack.

Another snack staple, the plain-old barbecue chips still got life in it, it really does, says Wilkerson. He suggests that every time someone comes out with a new kind of sauce on the market, whether its K.C. Masterpiece or a regional sauce, its an opportunity to extend that sauces flavor and its good name to a new snack. Marketing agreements and co-branding opportunities are the watchwords here, he says, yet while they have the potential to generate snack sales and an unmistakable brand identity, the challenge is to get everyone from both sides to agree on a profile that accurately represents the sauce and tastes good enough to sell the snack.

Salt of the earth

If you want to talk about the real classics, says Jeff Banes, culinary development manager, FONA, there isnt much need to go further than salt and pepper.

As Wilkerson says, the combination makes sense: Youre putting things together that go together. Youve got salt and pepper on every table in every restaurant in the United States. It plays on that theme that weve been trying to come up with in the snack food business of pairing familiar things in ways that are novel.

The novelty can come by way of new pepper varieties, too, from white and cracked black to pink, green and Sichuan. But the real rising tide is in the wave of specialty sea salts. If you want to see one of the biggest trends out there, Wilkerson says, its sea salt. Several years ago, we came out with a sea salt and black pepper blend, and weve done sea salt and vinegar, too. He thinks sea salt fits best in nontraditional, niche-type snacks, like blue-corn tortilla chips or whole-grain crackers, where it can capitalize on its upscale image. Its almost like the gourmet salt, he notes, adding that its seen as more natural, even if it actually isnt.

What sea salt is, however, is different in both taste and functionality. There are a variety of minerals that are present in different sea salts from different places, Wilkerson points out, and each has an effect on the salts overall taste. Moreover, sea salts shape leads it to behave differently vis-à-vis conventional varieties on snack applications. The Alberger process salts are flatter, he says. They evaporate it with the pan top off, and that way, when it dries, it dries flat. And its easier to plate color on. Vacuum-evaporated salt has a similarly regular shape. If you look at it under a microscope, its a square, because its been evaporated in a vacuum because it takes less energy, he says.

Sea salt is different from both of those, in my experience, says Wilkerson. The granulation on sea salt isnt as straightforward. Consequently, it adheres differently to the snack substrate, requiring extra attention in topical applications. The larger the particle, the harder it is to make it stick, he says. Its just going to roll off. If you use, for example, flour salt, which is a very fine, granulated salt, it really sticks to a chip. The sea salt may not stick to it quite as well.

Sweet, salty, spicy

One place where sea salt has stuckmetaphorically speakingis on snacks that pair it with an evident sweet note for a sweet-and-salty finish. From a view of 30,000 ft., Bruns says, this sweet-salty idea is the trend thats really getting a lot of attention. Brands from Pringles and Sun Chips to Cape Cod and Clif Bar have added explicitly sweet-salty or sweet-savory snacks to their lineups.

There used to be a distinct difference between savory and sweet in snacks, Arcieri says, but now were seeing more of a cross-fertilization between those, and more culinary-inspired concepts, as well.

Adds Banes: Sea salt and caramel is a current trend pairing. I think that, with the increased awareness of sea salt by the consumer these days, you can use it in a snack seasoning blend and make it feel more gourmet, whether it be a savory or a salty-sweet blend. He cites sweet heat as another major theme, and as the inspiration for a snack cluster he designed that plays up the idea with chipotle, orange, almonds, mangos and apricots.

In the case of Sterns beer-flavored, spicy bloody Mary, and salted margarita chips, the concept of sweet-salty-spicy came from a combination of being in Japan a few times, where the combination is big, and from the kettle corn at county fairs, he says. But the clear inspiration is the bar.

Thats a source that Wilkerson has seen, as well. Were seeing more tequila-lime flavors in snacks out there, he says. The salt-and-citrus thing just goes together. And all of those are salt-balanced. Ive always said that if you can get just a little bit of initial salt taste in a savory product on the outside, you can use a whole lot less on the inside.

Pick a pepper, any pepper

Yet, while sweet-salty-spicy is a recent arrival to the American snack scene, its nothing new worldwide. Certain cultures and countries have always had a combination of sweet-savory flavors, says Leda Strand, technology application and industrial ingredients lab director, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI. Its just that were only now putting them to use in snacks. This continues to grow in the general snack market, she says, where the new focus has been on combining chiles, fruit and chocolateas in a cherry, chipotle and chocolate profileor adding spicy heat notes to classic profiles, such as apples and cinnamon, to create new profiles like spicy apple and blue cheese, or smoked apple and honey.

The fact is, spice is still big. As Bruns says, hot profiles are hotter than ever. But todays spicy snacks have evolved. While just a few years ago the theme was to dare the palate with Xtreme heat, todays spicy flavors are decidedly more subduedand sophisticated, too. But theyre still chile-obsessed.

Chiles are popular and moving to all aisles of the grocery store, Strand says. As consumers gain exposure, they search for new flavors, and are not looking only for jalapeño or chipotle. Now it has expanded to ancho, guajillo and pasilla. Consumers understand the term hot, but are now searching for variable heat intensities combined with complex flavors to bring the new chiles to the snack category.

The rise of chipotle may be the textbook case study in how an edgy flavor insinuates itself into the mainstream. In 1993, the flavor of chipotle was seen more in fine dining and within ethnic communities cuisines, recalls Arcieri. But, as the years progressed, it moved from a novel flavor to an up-and-coming flavor to the mainstream of everyday by 2003.

Not only are consumers ready to move beyond a single chile, but theyre ready to experience heat in new ways. People want various types of heats, Bruns says. They want heat thats either built into the functionality so that you get a burst and then it fades, or so that you might get it at the end to give you this wonderful balance of heat. Or maybe they want the warm-spice heat from cinnamon and cardamom and the more Mediterranean and North African kinds of spices that youll get, or the wasabi and Asian heat. All those things are intertwining to deliver that sensation built into the other components, because its all about balance.

Speaking of North African influences, Banes says, I do think that one of the up-and-coming profiles that we are beginning to see are African and North African spice profiles, as well as Middle Eastern. Seasoning blends like ras al hanoutrecently featured on Top Chef this seasonor like berbere will translate well to a chip seasoning or a snack seasoning.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson has seen a boost in requests for pickled and brined pepper profiles. Weve been able to bring some of the tone of the fermented pepper flavor to the snack-food items that were doing, he says. But transforming a pickled pepper into a dried seasoning ingredient isnt easy. You cant get all those components together just by using the chile pepper thats in there, he says. Theres an aged, fermented flavor of those chiles that is suspended in water and vinegar. All those things you have to replace in the exact proportion to where it tastes just like a hot sauce.

Snacking with a healthy halo

Everyone is trying to get consumers to feel better about eating between meals, and theyre doing so by sticking a bright-and-shiny healthy halo atop our favorite snacks. Consumers want to continue snacking, but with less guilt, says Bob Kaminski, consumer products lab director, Wixon. There is a trend toward whole-grain snacks and baked items that dont compromise taste. Consumers also prefer fried snacks made with healthy oils, such as sunflower. Some manufacturers are even promoting the heart-healthy virtues of plant sterols and omega-3s in snack products.

Adds Mariano Gascon, vice president of R&D, Wixon: Just look at the trend for natural ingredients, such as berries, nuts and so-called superfruits. Youll also find bars with cholesterol-lowering ingredients, probiotic fiber and antioxidant-rich additives.

People want healthy, but they also want snacks to be just as tasty and indulgent as ever. Its the I-want-everything age, says Arcieri, and theres high demand to provide consumers with what they want. The idea of healthful indulgence is moving more toward indulgent healthand those two are very different. It used to be that consumers said, I want a snack to be healthy for me, and I really hope that it tastes good. Now, though, the message is, I expect it to taste good, andoh, by the wayit better be healthy for me.

But with the insistence on all-natural, organic and generally clean labels, coupled with a growing rejection of preservatives, MSG, high amounts of salt and any amount of trans fat, snack-flavor creation can become a real challenge, as Bruns says.

Functional ingredients can generate off notes, Gascon says, and you may need the use of taste modifiers to improve their profiles. Also, he notes that some adjustment of the flavor profile may be in order for reduced-sugar formulations. He cites an ingredient that enhances sweet notes without the addition of sugar. This is a natural flavornot a sweetenerthat has a synergistic effect with the sugars present and enhances the natural sugar taste without the calories, he says.

Yet, while a snacks healthy halo comes more from its core ingredients than from its flavor profile, a strategic flavor choice can go a long way toward reinforcing the good-for-you impression. The overall idea is incorporating a healthy halo from a flavor standpoint, says Bruns. Its all about perception.

Flavors like ginger, green tea, dark chocolate and superfruits drive the point home. Theres a high level of awareness right now about superfruits, says Arcieri. Pomegranate led the way, and now theres goji and mangosteena whole new wave of superfruits.

Manufacturers have the option of sourcing these superfruit notes in the form of flavors, but Bruns suggests ingredients with a bit more substancebasically a freeze-dried fruit powder used as a flavor. So its all natural. And you can use it at levels around 1%. And because weve got superfruit varieties in the line, you can add those flavors without having to worry about high cost-in-use. Some of the options include mango, pomegranate, pear and cherry.

The same logic that goes into matching snack seasonings with their substrate applies when working with superfruit profiles. But, in this case, it may make even more sense to pair the novel fruit with something we already know and love. Were seeing more superfruits paired with traditional, tried-and-true flavors so consumers can feel familiar with the overall profile, but can still enjoy these new fruits that have been catching their attention with high antioxidant qualities, Arcieri says. The trick seems to be keeping the familiar base flavor strong enough to appeal to timorous palates, but not so strong as to swamp the superfruit. There is an increased focus on having a good balance between the two so you can taste both of the profiles, she says.

In the end, its just a matter of try, try and try again. And thats half the pleasurefor consumers and product designers. Its fun working in our environment, in that we research these trends, we talk about them and we execute them, Arcieri says. We see what works best out of the possible combinations of the different profiles, whether its a spicy, savory, sweet, brown or fruit flavor profile. You just go with it to see where it takes you.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected] .

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