Tom Vierhile, the innovation insights director for Canadean, also expects the New Year to bring increased consumer interest in all things sour – perhaps as a counterbalance to the sweetness of hard soda – as well as more consumer focus on foods they can drink, plant protein, fat and better-for-you products that give them permission to indulge.
As is often the case, the fast-moving consumer packaged goods segment is full of contradictions, but Vierhile helped untangle conflicting consumer demands to explain upcoming trends.
For example, he says the rise of hard soda builds in part on consumers’ wistfulness for classic flavors of soft drinks, which increasingly are becoming taboo due to their high sugar content and artificial ingredients.
“There is a nostalgia factor that is working for soft drink flavors in alcoholic beverages that goes beyond the current sales troubles in carbonated soft drinks. The flavors are comfortable and familiar, and offer huge potential for transitional drinks between overly sweet flavored alcohol beverages and more sophisticated drinks like beer and soda,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
The quick success of hard soda this summer also could be a backlash to the stiff, classic cocktails that have been trending the last few years.
“Another factor here is the surprise success of hard cider,” he added, explaining, “Hard cider lacks the bitterness that beer has, especially many of the new craft beers. Hard soda also lacks this bitterness.”
In addition, he said, sweeter flavors tend to work better for younger consumers than they do for older ones, which will play well to the Millennials who are coming of drinking age and “very much up for grabs.”
Given the high stakes, more brewers are quickly following Small Town Brewery’s footsteps and launching hard sodas. One of the bigger new products is MillerCoors’ Henry’s Hard Soda in Orange and Ginger Ale flavors that are hitting the market now. Anheuser-Busch also is “playing catch-up” with its new Best Damn Root Beer, Vierhile said.
Sour could be next big flavor trend
Sour flavor also is gaining traction in beer, alcoholic cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as foods, Vierhile said.
He explained shrubs are bringing a sour, vinegar flavor to cocktails, and sour beers are a growing niche to watch. Kombucha and other drinking vinegars also have “carved out a permanent spot in health and natural food store,” and are starting to go mainstream. Beyond beverages, sour is gaining ground in fermented foods like pickles and kimchi.
Vierhile explained America’s emerging fixation on sour is a reaction to the negatives of sugar. In addition, he said, “consumers have become conditioned to expecting more lively types of flavors such as the use of spicy flavors [that] has exploded over the past few decades. This has laid the groundwork for other types of flavors that can deliver unique taste sensations.”
Fat continues to grow
Health villains come and go in the food industry and “the view on fat has come full circle” in 2016, Vierhile said.
He explained, “It wasn’t all that long ago that consumers were encouraged to avoid high-fat foods like nuts, for instance. Today, nuts are viewed as a health food. The same would apply for foods like avocados and coconut oil."
While consumers may not fully understand the different types of fats and which ones are good or bad, they are getting the message to eat more of them.
Vierhile pointed to results from the Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey for 2015 that found 27% of Americans said they were trying to consume omega-3 fats, which is up from 21% the year before. Likewise, 4% of consumers said they are trying to consume saturated fats, which is double the 2% in 2014.
“There is a lot of confusion when it comes to fat, but what is happening today in a broader sense is that fat is no longer the major health villain it was,” Vierhile said, adding: “Sugar has assumed that role.”
Plant protein powers up
Plant protein also will continue to gain traction in 2016, thanks in part to athletes embracing it and to its more earth-friendly aura, Vierhile said.
Specifically, he sees potential for oat protein, which fared best in a 2015 Canadean ingredient survey that found 64% of consumers globally said it would positively impact health. Soy was next with 60.6%, followed by pea protein at 48.9%, he said.
“Consumer awareness is probably holding pea protein back from a more positive rating since 30% of global consumers said they were not familiar with it versus just 14% that said the same thing for soy protein,” he said.
Consumers also “generally had a warm glow” about nuts, which they perceive to be high in protein, Vierhile said. He explained a Canadean survey found almonds were tops globally with 79.3% of consumers saying they would positively impact health. Hazelnuts followed at 71.7% and peanuts at 62%.
The intense interest in plant protein stems in part from a growing number of “meat-free athletes,” who were much more likely to perceive plant-based protein choices positively than other consumers.
"These “meat-free athletes” were much more likely to perceive plant-based protein choices in a positive light than all consumers. For soy protein, 75% of meat-free athletes said it would have a positive impact on health, versus 61% of consumers overall …. Meat-free athletes were also more bullish on oat protein and soy protein with a 73% positive rating for oat protein and 65% positive for pea protein versus 64% positive for consumers overall for oat protein and 49% positive for consumers overall for pea protein,” he said.
He added that winning athletes’ endorsements is clutch for plant proteins because they can link the ingredients to athletic prowess.
Other trends to watch
The expanding drinkable soup category, spearheaded by Tio Gazpacho, Mucho Gazpacho and the Splendid Spoon, will continue to grow in 2016, Vierhile predicts.
So too will the trend to add better-for-you ingredients to indulgent foods, he said. Consumers are drawn to these products because they feel less guilty about indulging if they also gain health benefits and nutrients at the same time.