Consumers’ palates are becoming increasingly eclectic, flavor experts agree, and that makes it a challenging environment for flavor houses, but one that is full of opportunity, too.
“Consumers are becoming more adventurous, especially with ethnic flavors, as a result of the amalgamation of different ethnicities and cultures globally. This is driving the development of bold, new flavor combinations and the use of spicy ingredients,” Kantha Shelke, PhD told Food Navigator-USA.
“We will see a lot more seasonal flavors, limited edition flavors and flavors that have a lot more heat to them,” said Catherine Alexander, vice president of corporate communications with Comax Flavors.
That amalgamation of flavors is a trend that has had some legs in recent years. While it’s a challenge to come up with new combinations that are achievable and yet not overwhelming, it offers an opportunity for flavors suppliers to differentiate, said Shelke, a principal with the Chicago-based food consultancy Corvus Blue.
“The trend towards combination flavors is a way to move away from flavors that can be copied and towards distinctive signature products. It also helps that the synergy realized when certain fruits flavors are combined also offers an economic advantage in addition to the ‘uniqueness’ and ‘consumer favorite’ possibility, should one hit the jackpot with a certain blend. This is particularly the case with stick packs of dry beverage blends, RTD teas, and dietary supplements and functional beverages,” she said.
“In the savory and snack sectors, combinations allow processors to leverage the flavors of popular condiments from various cuisines for exotic and exciting flavors . . . without the risk of jarring their senses,” she said.
Layered flavors, textural elements
Alexander said these developments have brought on some unique technical challenges. Formulators may by opting for blends, but they want these blends to taste as they would in a fruit salad or in the case of several foods sampled together on a plate, not as it would if you mashed all those foods up in a blender.
“There is trend toward layering of flavors. If we are working on a s’mores flavor, for example, people want to taste the graham cracker layer, they want to taste the marshmallow layer and they want to taste the chocolate layer,” Armstrong said. Coming up with the technology to present those flavors together, yet in a distinct way is one of the things that can set a flavor house apart.
One particular challenge along this line is to incorporate echoes of texture into the flavor matrix, Alexander said. Texture is a huge part of what imparts pleasure to food, she said, and can impact how flavor is perceived.
“Flavor is important but texture is important, too. So that’s going to be a challenge, reproducing texture in a flavor,” Alexander said. “We can make a butternut coffee crunch flavor. But how do you reproduce the crunch? I have seen a study that says texture is becoming almost more important than flavor.”
Spiciness is a durable trend, and one driven by the increasingly globalized North American culinary scene. This trend started first in a big way with salsa, and then moved into the hotter versions of Asian cuisines (remember when egg foo yung was the big item on the menus of ‘Cantonese’ restaurants?). Things aren’t necessarily getting hotter in terms of Scoville units, but the spicy flavors are differentiating, Alexander said.
“People are experiencing and experimenting with so much more. Our world is so big but it is becoming small,” Alexander said. “You still see a lot of the Thai influences. Sriracha (a Korean chili sauce) is big; it’s becoming mainstream.”
Demand for natural
Another durable and accelerating trend is the demand for natural flavors. Flavors and preservatives are two ingredient categories that seem to get the antennae of dedicated label watchers humming. An artificial flavor may be the tiniest of constituents in a food, but it has an outsized impact on a label.
“Consumer demand for all-natural products (despite the lack of a legal definition) looms large. The trigger for these launches seems to be built around a formula platform and its viability to have a natural flavor system marry well with a natural sweetening system,” Shelke said.
Ultimately, though, flavors preferences seem to mimic the color wheel. Unlike the dizzying differentiation in the savory sectors, flavor preferences in the sweet side of the coin seem to revolve around some tried and true choices that are like the primary colors of flavor, Shelke said.
“When all is said and done, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry are still the best sellers in ice creams and frozen novelties in North America while mango and peach also work well in some of the southern states. In the dairy sector, strawberry outranks all other flavors including vanilla and has been at the top of the list for decades. Honey is rising in popularity thanks to the various Greek yogurts which have educated consumer palates on honey,” she said.