Flavor Trends

Bitter emerges as a new flavor trend that could aid sodium reduction efforts

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Bitter emerges as flavor trend that could aid sodium reduction efforts

Related tags Taste

Increasing consumer interest in bitter flavors could help manufacturers regain momentum on sodium reduction initiatives, many of which are stalled due to the common perception that less salt equals less flavor, suggests market research from Mintel. 

“Bitter flavors offer a big mouthfeel and may provide enough flavor boost that consumers no longer need a salty taste as well,”​ Marcia Mogelonsky, a food and beverage analyst with Mintel, told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that many food and beverage manufacturers are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they are under pressure from health advocates and consumers to reduce sodium, which at high levels is associated with negative health effects, and at the same time “salty”​ currently is the top flavor profile in snacks.

Indeed, manufacturers have said that sales drop off notably when they reduce sodium more than 40-50%, according to the American Heart Association​, which launched a campaign last year encouraging consumers to “break up with salt.”​ 

To compensate for lower sodium, some manufacturers added sweetness, but that trick may have run its course as consumers become concerned about the health impact of sugar.

Indeed, recent Mintel data found more than a third of US adult snackers are limiting their intake of sweet snacks and about a third are looking for healthier options this year compared to last year.

Consumers also are turning away from sweet and savory combination snacks because they are bored with the concept, Mogelonsky said.

 “Salty/sweet used to be cutting edge, and now it is so routine,”​ Mogelonsky said. She added that consumers want to be “challenged”​ by new flavors, such as the Ghost pepper, which already is trending through fast food.

Bitter could be another flavor horizon that could fit that bill, she added.

She explained bitter as a flavor trend already has “legs”​ in food service and is just starting to move into retail.

“Right now, there is a lot of interest in bitter flavors in food service: bitter greens for example (kale, broccoli) and vegetables that have been purposely burnt in preparation, imparting a bitter flavor profile,”​ she said. “From food service we are seeing the trend move into retail – salty snacks, for example, where kale chips are popular.”

In confections, bitter is increasing in popularity along with dark chocolate featuring 85-100% cocoa content, which also is associated with health benefits. Bitter fruits and vegetables also are appearing in other typically sweet products, such as marmalade, Mogelonsky said.

“Beyond snacks, there is a growing interest in bitter beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic,”​ she added, pointing to the growing prevalence of matcha green tea, juices made with bitter greens and bitter aperetifs, such as amaro, Cynar and Campari.

Overall, these trends suggest that bitter can replace salty as a flavor horizon, at least in some categories, and is worth manufacturers exploring, Mogelonsky concluded.

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