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Flavors of the FutureFlavors of the Future

Kimberly Decker

August 19, 2009

14 Min Read
Flavors of the Future

You often hear words like front-row seats and crystal balls when the topic turns to predicting flavor trends. But, in truth, drawing a bead on coming taste attractions means stepping outside the lab and logging some serious legwork.

Trend databases, industry publications and the popular press are time-tested resources, says Kimberly Carson, director, beverage solutions group, Sensient Flavors LLC, Indianapolis, but I would say that the fun part of what we do is actually getting out and trend-spottinggetting into some of these niche categories, asking what we can pull from them that could become mainstream."

Kim Holman, director of marketing, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI, cites frequent travel, restaurant visits and contact with early adopters as key sources of intelligence, and also notes the importance of identifying and following core influencers in the industry. Give those influencers a new-media platform, such as a blog, and they rev the engines for emerging flavor trends.

Food blogs have certainly made niche ingredients more approachable to interested consumers, says Erin ODonnell, marketing manager, David Michael & Co., Philadelphia. There are literally hundredsno, thousandsof blogs dedicated to education about and experimentation with new flavors. The sites incubate trends before they hatch en masse. While a small group of consumers are already using hibiscus, blood orange, kaffir lime leaf and black garlic in their recipes, she says, there are plenty of others who still havent even heard of açaí.

Paulette Kerner, director of marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, watches whats going on at the local snow cone stand or the local scoop shop for trends that may work their way up to national confectionery or beverage brands. Her own neighborhood ice cream and candy store has been a reliable source for years, she adds, because theyre more willing to reach out, and can stretch and change before you get into mass-merchandise manufacturers.

Those waiting for trends to trickle down set their sights on high-profile restaurants. Historically, fine dining paves the way, says Mia Arcieri, marketing manager, FONA International Inc., Geneva, IL. As restaurant owners become aware of trends, you start to see more interestingand affordableflavor combinations showing up in fast-casual restaurants.

When the trickle reaches retail, it hits the snack and beverage categories first, notes Holman. We have always considered these categories to be the playgrounds of innovation, she says. If the flavor profile is accepted here, then it moves on to others.

Thinking outside the taste buds

Where do trendy flavors come from? Why these flavors or ingredients, and not others?

Often, the answer is only tangentially related to hedonics. Its multifaceted when you look at why these trends are emerging, says Arcieri. Its more about understanding why consumers purchase, and what draws them in. Likely, its an aspiration to be a good mom, a healthier individual, or to experience something beyond the consumers community bubble. Consumers want "a product that says something unique about them," she says. "Why is it that pomegranate made such a statement in the food world? It had buzz!

Holman has seen aspirational identities shape the personal-care sector with products like lip gloss for the surfer girl, or deodorant for the sportsman. She believes the strategy is ripe for foods, too. I think we are going to see flavors go a little niche and start to target psychographics, based on what you do, who you and what you represent, she says. Thus, the green consumer will lean to natural and organic flavors, while the indie-rock skateboarder might look for xtreme profiles that chime with his urban tribe.

Jessica Jones-Dille, industry trend manager, Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, KY, sees Gen Y as a huge flavor driver. They are as accepting of new ideas as Generation X, but they want them faster. They are also very quality- and brand-focused, which will shape the food market for the next decade.

Baby boomers, 28% of the population, will shake things up, too. They are going to change what it means to age in America, Holman says. They want quality and quantity of life, and they want to look good, too. So give them açaí or pomegranate, which is high in antioxidants, or give them cinnamon, which is known to help the heart.

The message for product designers is to adopt a wider view of what motivates consumers. You take the big picture from a consumer standpoint, explains Carson, and you work toward how that translates into, say, different beverage categorieswater, energy drinks. And from there, you determine what types of flavor profiles are going to fit within those categories. Its much more about what consumers are flocking to and what theyre looking for outside of the food and beverage industry.

Are you my (flavor) type?

Carson and her Sensient colleagues have applied this lifestyle orientation to identifying four consumer personalities worth targeting: loyalists, adventurers, sophisticates and connoisseurs. What were trying to do is identify what we think are some broad categories of consumers, and then dig down into what is driving their purchases, she says. What are they looking for when they go out to eat, when they go to the shopping center? Then we distill those consumer attributes into not only the type of product they may consume, but what flavors tend to be associated with those consumers. Call it personalized flavor ideation.

We see loyalists sticking to classic flavors, and theyre usually the last to come along with a trend, Carson says. Their tastes do change over time; it just takes a while. For example, now that pomegranates been around for a few years, were starting to see some loyalists embrace it. With loyalists accounting for a large part of the consumer base, she says, we need these other consumers to bring them along into new and unique taste profiles.

Those other consumers include adventurers. Textbook early adopters, they seek out exotic flavors like superfruits and extreme or spicy foods, and are the first on the block to try something new.

Sophisticates, on the other hand, split the difference by looking more for something that they may recognize, but paired with something new, Carson says. Theyre a step removed from the adventurers, who want to go with the bold and extreme, but they still consider themselves to have a sophisticated palate and so they want something a little more familiar with their new tastes.

Connoisseurs bring bits of all three to the table, showing loyalty to classics, branching out into new territory, and demonstrating a level of sophistication that appreciates the subtle nuances distinguishing profiles from one another. An example I use is coffee, Carson says. Connoisseurs want to understand all the different types of coffeeor the types of wine varietals, or chocolates.

The connoisseur effect

This growing class of armchair aficionados has sparked an explosion in varietal everything, from olive oil to cheese to salt. I think the overriding flavor trend we see is flavor provenance, says Jones-Dille. Marketers are using origin specifics as a way to create signature blends and offer differentiation in a competitive food and beverage new-product arena.

Kerner has seen the connoisseur effect at play in teas. Teas are getting specialized, too, she says. Its not just the same-old black tea, green tea, oolong and white, but the source of the teaa specific origin, like Assam or Darjeeling. And does that source really make a difference? Yes, she says. Its going to taste different because of the growing conditions, whether its the altitude or rain or soil. Its very much like wine.

The same holds with vanilla, another flavor that connoisseurs have rediscovered in varietal form. Vanilla, says Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Waukegan, IL, is very similar to chocolate and coffee in the sense that, depending on where its grown and how its grown, it has different flavor profiles. For example, Madagascar bourbon, the classic ice-cream vanilla, has very deep, very rich, sweet creamy notes to it, he says. Mexican vanilla has more of a nutmeg or clove notea little bit of a spicier notemaking it just the thing for Mexican hot chocolate or pumpkin and spice pies. Tahitian vanilla is a very fruity, very floral vanilla, with an almost cherry-like note, he continues. It complements fruit flavors and, when used straight in vanilla ice cream, comes through almost like a lightly flavored cherry ice cream, he says.

Trying times, tastes

As the economy sputters and consumers keep pinching pennies, theyll turn to classicand comfortingthemes with renewed fervor.

Frankly, I think that the recession has changed the game, Holman says. Simple tweaks to flavor, she believes, will no longer suffice. Manufacturers are going to have to offer value-added products beyond flavor, or products with the right flavor profile to drive the incremental volume needed to sustain shelf presence. While she believes this will increase manufacturers selectivity in moving forward with new flavors, it by no means forecloses on innovation.

In fact, a sour economy offers an opportunity to combine the publics instinct to retrench with their aspirations for luxury and connoisseurship. Sometimes, the only artisanal treat is in the flavor of the foods you consume, says Arcieri. There may be no better time to update the classics.

The recession has brought consumers back again to comfort foods, ODonnell says. Only this time, weve had too much exposure to new flavors to be happy with the same old thing. So, as restaurateurs menu more sandwiches and burgers as low-cost options, for example, traditional ingredients arent always the norm, she says.

The recession may also goose our appetite for ethnic flavors. With a lag in pleasure travel, consumers can use food to recreate the travel experience at home, says ODonnell. They can even tap ethnic influences for twists on comfort classics.

Feeding cultural communities

 With Hispanics and Asians being the fastest growing population groups in the United States, and African American spending on the rise in significant amounts, I definitely think that we will see more cultural and ethnic influences on flavor, Holman says. Many manufacturers have strategic targeting programs that address each population group. She bets this trend toward cultural community flavors will continue to grow as many population groups want tastes from their heritage and what Mom used to make, vs. a one-size-fits-all flavor profile.

In our porous society, culturally correct products will inevitably diffuse to the broader public, giving born-and-bred Americans the chance to enjoy international flavors at their most authentic. Speaking of the Latin American products that U.S. food and beverage manufacturers already market to the Hispanic community, Kerner points to the secondary market of mainstream Americans who are discovering them before they become mainstream. These products, she says, have potential to spread beyond their traditional categories. For example, the lightly cinnamon- or vanilla-infused flavor of horchata, a thin, sweet, rice-milk beverage popular in Latin American, does well in puddings, ice creams and yogurts. It could even show itself to good effect in, say, a white chocolate bar.

As consumers dig deeper into global cuisines, says Holman, theyll continue to want to understand what region the flavor derives from and why it is special. Along with Latin American, Asian and Indian flavors, foods from Brazil, Argentina and regional China should start to hit the mainstream. The frozen-food section already has a respectable selection of East Asian and Indian entrées, she notes, and we are seeing ethnic authenticity in the snack category and moving to other categories, too.

Natural selection

Just as the economy may open the door to international influences, it puts new emphasis on the value of health-and-wellness perceptions, too. A trend expected to continue into the next decade is consumers choosing better-for-you products to manage health-and-wellness goals, says Jackiedra Wilson, marketing, Cargill Flavor Systems, Cincinnati. Tighter label regulations and school foodservice restrictions may steer consumers toward more virtuous foods than theyd considered in the past, and this creates continued opportunities for flavors and flavor systems that help meet formulation and taste objectives, she says.

But again, flavors alone wont cut it. Manufacturers, Holman says, are going to want flavors to have added value benefits: Change my mood, make me happy, make me energetic, make me relaxed, or make me healthy; prevent cancer, improve heart health, help me manage my weight, or give me beauty and make my skin glow. I think we will see a rise in this type of flavor strategy over the next decade, especially in health and wellness.

Her comments underscore just how wide-open health and wellness has become, embracing notions as disparate as organic sources and superfruits. Pomegranate, mango and açaí all have perceived health benefits, Holman says, noting that, according to data from Mintel, Chicago, pomegranate has graced over 1,000 new product introductions globally from 2006 to 2008. Other superfruit flavors are gaining traction, too.

While açaí and goji are the superfruits of the moment, ODonnell says, up-and-comers include mangosteen, yumberry, acerola cherry, umbu, hawthorne, Chinese red dates, bilberry and more.

Superfruits are helping grow the trend for natural ingredients. One of the biggest shifts that weve seen in the last couple years, says Carson, is the movement toward natural flavors. Thats where you see examples of true-to-fruit flavor systems, such as goji berry or yuzuthese superfruit and exotic fruit flavors. As consumers become more experienced in the world, theyre going to be looking for more of these true-to-fruit, authentic flavor profiles.

They might look for them in applications that fit their lifestylesand their cup holderslike tea. Tea, Kerner points out, is not something that you have to sell people on. Thus, manufacturers have seized on it as a familiar base for building novel superfruit beverages. Tea manufacturers have merged the interest in tea with superfruits and superfruit flavors, she says. When you pair teas health-and-wellness credentials with superfruits, youve got a beverage that can compete with carbonated soft drinks.

In the mood

Green tea, another popular variety, is gaining increased attention for its naturally occurring amino acid L-theanine. The compound purportedly has a calming effect on the senses, and is one of many mood foods that trend watchers say will gain market share in the future. The reason, Holman says, is simple: The recession and slow-to-no rebound has consumers on edge. They want products and flavors that make them relaxed and happy.

Most mood foods achieve their effects through the actions of specific chemical compounds they contain. By flavoring them appropriately, we reinforce their good-mood message. Were really looking at flavors that not only pair well, but that help build an association with moods, Carson says, such as calming moods, helping to create a greater sense of alertness.

What flavors convey positive mood messages? The biggest one that we look at would be spices and botanical-type flavors, Carson says, flavors such as hibiscus, jasmine or even lavender, for example. Looking more toward spices, you could look at things like galangal or even cinnamon, which weve really seen popping up not only from a mood standpoint, but because it has other associated health benefits when it comes to weight management.

Carson stresses that flavors only reinforce mood and health benefits. The addition of the actual mood-enhancing ingredients will be where the benefit comes from, she says. But for the consumer to feel that theyre getting that benefit, the flavor plays an important role. If you believe that cinnamon is beneficial to your health, it helps to have that perceptionthe aroma, the taste of cinnamonas well.

Unfortunately, the native taste of some mood foods can undo any happy feelings attributable to the active ingredients. Todays consumers have high expectations for functional foods: functionality, performance, convenience and, of course, superior taste, says Jean Gallagher, solutions manager, FONA International. This can result in many product-development challenges, the largest being how to overcome off notes from proteins, botanicals, minerals and so on.

There is no one way to meet these flavor challenges, and no one solution, Gallagher continues. Her checklist for flavoring health-and-wellness foods involves identifying the end product, determining how much functional ingredient you intend to use, considering the effects of multiple functional ingredients and their quantities per serving, choosing the right ingredient form for the application, making sure to meet label or claim requirements, and tying up the whole deal so the formula tastes great for the duration of the products shelf life. Working on identifying the above goals is the best way to set yourself up for success, Gallagher says.

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].


About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing Editor

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer that has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected]

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