“Dairy categories continue to benefit from increased home cooking, given their perishable nature and common usage as accompaniments to other foods and/or as ingredients in recipes,” the company put forth in its most recent Flavor Flash dairy report.
“Just as pandemic easement was allowing consumers to venture out for more frequent foodservice visits, inflationary pricing pulled them back into home kitchens in pursuit of cost-savings.”
The report, supported by Kantar Profiles and Mintel data for the 2020 to 2022 period, highlights emerging trends and growth opportunities for the year to come with an eye on sweet flavors, international inspiration and sustainability efforts.
Easing cooking fatigue
“Dairy is a kitchen mainstay being called upon again to help consumers during an inflation-induced return to home kitchens,” said Mimi Bonnett, senior director of US food, drink and flavors and ingredients at Mintel, as quoted in the report.
In a scenario where cost-conscious consumers are still recovering from cooking fatigue brought on by the pandemic, the experts at T. Hasegawa position flavored dairy as a shortcut to reduce the number of steps and ingredients required during meal preparation. They add that flavored dairy “can appear as an affordable mood-boosting upgrade to meals and snacks” and provide comfort in “accessible and small format indulgence”.
Butters with garlic, honey, lemon and herb mix-ins, for example, continue to grow in popularity as an easy way to convert a plain base into a specialty or special occasion product in a range of tangy to sweet flavors. And, if restaurant menus are any indication of where the category is headed, the data indicates that consumers can expect butters in Guajillo pepper, black truffle, maple and wasabi flavors.
“Despite price increases that outpace other categories, the omnipresence and relative affordability of dairy categories secures their central place on shopping lists,” Bonnett added.
“Instead of taking this privileged position for granted, brands can emphasize their value by delivering on the convenience and simple pleasures gleaned from flavor innovation and by reclaiming dairy’s identity as an original functional food.”
Reclaiming dairy’s functional food identity
With 'functional plus' claims trailing behind 'minus' and 'free-from' claims in launches across categories, T. Hasegawa suggests that dairy double down on communicating functionality to consumers.
“Both dairy and dairy alternative categories must reclaim the ‘it does a body good’ messaging in order to compete with the increasing array of functional foods and drinks on the market,” the experts said, citing data showing that 56% of milk and non-dairy milk buyers want brands to lead with benefits over ingredients.
Currently at the forefront of consumers' minds are naturally flavored, low fat, no-sugar-added, made with sustainably and locally-sourced ingredients, and high in protein, Vitamin D and calcium attributes. On the brand side, convenient packaging, ethical/animal, portionability, and plant-based are among the fastest growing claims.
‘Tis the season
Another key Flavor Flash takeaway is that while tried-and-true flavors continue to dominate, particularly in yogurts, it is the season to break away from the familiar vanillas and strawberries to test flavors via seasonal launches across dairy and non-dairy products.
“Strong flavor innovations storewide have piqued consumer interest in exploration,” according to the report. “Seasonal activity is a safe means for brands to check the temperature among their core consumers before expanding into permanent new flavor SKUs.”
In a category primed for flavor variations, T. Hasegawa points to the potential of eggnog flavor, which has seen four-fold growth since 2020, as well as savory (dill, garlic, spicy) mix-ins and sweet-tooth upgrades like pumpkin spice, cinnamon sugar and snickerdoodle.
‘Getting the flavor game right’
“Coffee creamers are getting the flavor game right” and “taking the lead in fun flavors”, the experts noted. “Historically reliable creamer flavors continue to lead launches, but innovation is moving into whimsy, seasonality and finished product varieties (e.g., macchiato, mochaccino), all of which deliver on accessible mood boosting.”
The report also suggests that the milk category look to creamers for inspiration to innovate beyond chocolate and vanilla, noting that “eggnog and banana are growing in flavored milk launches along with exciting variations on familiar flavors, such as Belgian chocolate or vanilla bourbon.”
While sweet flavors like mixed berry, wild blueberry and sweet cream continue to dominate innovation across dairy, consumers also expressed interest in savory flavors like pesto, caramelized onion and truffle.
“Collectively, these flavors can be described as having an earthiness or nuttiness, from which interest in other related flavors could be extrapolated, such as potato, eggplant or turmeric. A second tier of savory flavors of interest include those with a fresh piquant profile,” the report noted.
Say flavored cheese
“Cheese relies more heavily on flavor innovation than any other dairy category,” T. Hasegawa reported.
“While cheese is the leading dairy category consumed, it’s one of the least popular among dairy alternatives, putting increased emphasis on unique flavors of traditional dairy cheese to keep the category fresh.”
Most US cheese launches in the last two years have been unflavored, given that the base products themselves offer flavor variation. This, however, leaves room for innovation in mature categories – think pizza, lavender, coffee/espresso and chili pepper flavors – to retain relevance among younger and more adventurous shoppers.
Mintel data also shows that of the 98% of US adults who consume dairy, 29% expressed an interest in trying more internationally-inspired dairy options such as feta cheese, Irish butter and ghee.