Food Trends: What will be the top flavors for 2005?

Going into the new year, specific Asian tastes, citrus, herbs and even chocolate seem poised for popularity.

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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Flavors make up some of the deficiencies of foods that are low in fat, carbs, high in protein, or that contain ingredients that may be good for the waist-line but hard on the pleasure zones. But the top flavors of one decade will change, sometimes radically by the next. What are food developers looking for this year?

Last year’s list of important flavors included bay leaf, chili peppers, cinnamon, coriander/cilantro, lemongrass, mustard, pepper, sea salt, sesame, turmeric, vanilla and wasabi, according to McCormick and Co. Mintel International, the U.K.-based new products surveyor, called pomegranate 2004’s top flavor.

Of course, “bests” of anything don’t change abruptly, so 2004’s top flavor will carry into this new year -- especially since food trends move from the coasts to the plains, and from high-class restaurants to chains and fast food outlets and finally to the home kitchen.

But it’s gotten more complicated, opines Denise Salisbury, manager of General Mills’ new Culinary Center in Minneapolis. In addition to doing work for the food giant, the center has many clients that are quick-service restaurants (QSRs), which produce family-style food and are situated between the white-tablecloth-lots-of-silverware types and fast food outlets.

“These restaurants are trying to find the right amount of upscale, and are generally developing products that are familiar, but with a twist,” Salisbury says. So flavors have to be fun and novel without being intimidating. “They like almost-cutting-edge, ethnic food done American style. They want their diners to be able to pronounce the name of the food and people won’t buy it if they can’t pronounce it.”

The challenge is not new for General Mills. In addition to being a leading grocery products company, Big G until 1995 was the parent company of the Red Lobster, Olive Garden and China Coast restaurant chains. The culinary center is home to nine chefs, some with restaurant experience, others with industrial, health care and school feeding expertise.

“Diners also are looking for foods to be a little lighter in character, such as yogurt dressings or spreads for sandwiches, maybe with a chipotle note,” she continues. “The QSRs are looking for food trends in the women’s service magazines, not Bon Appetit. What’s in Bon Appetit may be the trends for this segment next year, or the year after.”

So what’s in this year? “Olive oil and olives, maybe a tapenade spread, different kinds of peppers, hummus and pesto. Anything to differentiate them a little is important.” Salisbury notes restaurant owners are asking their supplier companies what the flavor trends appear to be.

Still exploring Asia

Asian cuisine is nothing new to America, but the interest has moved from generic Chinese to regions of that huge nation, as well as to other countries in that continent, especially in Southeast Asia.

The Culinary Institute of America featured Asian cuisine at its recent meeting, including the full range of Chinese from Szechuan’s fiery sauces to the complete flavor profiles of Cantonese to Korean’s garlicky notes to Thai’s lemongrass. Elsewhere, Americans are dipping into and brushing on sauces made from exotic seafoods and mushroom extracts, as well as heat and cooling factors.

Vietnamese cuisine, itself a fusion of French and Asian flavors, is very popular and is introducing American palates to such flavors as lemongrass, white rice vinegar and fish sauce.

While long a key category in the restaurant world, Asian food and flavors are now showing up in fast food. Salads are a key strategy for increasing the healthfulness of their menus, and most of these introductions feature Asian variations on that theme: more exotic lettuces and other greens, Asian flavors and sesame in the salad dressings, and garnishes of fried noodles and mandarin oranges.

“There’s a lot of interest in Oriental flavors, including exotic oyster sauces, heat factors and cooling factors,” says Charles Manley, vice president of research at Takasago Inc. (www.takasago.com), Rockleigh, N.J. Herbal flavors, popular in Asia but not unique to that continent, also seeing a surge in popularity, he notes.

Replacing lost citrus

It figures. Just as citrus flavors are enjoying a resurgence, a series of fall hurricanes wipes out much of the Florida crop. “Citrus is getting really hot in both savory and sweet applications,” says Andrew Lynch, manager of Quest International’s citrus applications group. Grapefruit oil, in particular, is a backbone for other flavors. “But with 60-75 percent of the crop destroyed, grapefruit notes are tough to get,” says Manley.

Sports drinks are an important market for grapefruit flavors, especially an identifying sesquiterpene called nootkatone. The flavors can be produced synthetically, but you need special terpenes to build on. Nevertheless, grapefruit flavors are under development at Takasago.

“The dependence on Florida as a source for flavor oils has hurt supply of the ingredients for grapefruit flavors,” continues Lynch. “Loss of two-thirds of the crop during last fall’s hurricanes has driven us to looking at other solutions.” As a result, Quest (www.questintl.com), Hoffman Estates, Ill., has developed Citrusense grapefruit flavors, which are not dependent on grapefruit oils from Florida.

Lime flavor sometimes may substitute for grapefruit, and lime adds reasons of its own for popularity. Lime is essential to Mexican and Caribbean cuisine. As the demographics of the United States shift toward Mexican and other Hispanic populations, lime will become more important. There are different notes in lime: Tahitian and Key Lime are some of the specials.

“Our executive chef, Christopher Hansen, has immersed himself in trendy ethnic dishes, for example Thai and Mexican cuisines,” says Lynch, and lime is a key ingredient in both. “Lime also is hot in beverage applications. However, one of the issues with lime in low pH application is the stability.” So Quest has developed a line of stable citrus flavors called Citrustable, to manage the off-note formation in low pH beverage applications.

Other fruit flavors also appear on the verge of popularity, but not common fruits. Special apple flavors, including Fuji apples, are under development at Takasago. “We’ve done a lot of work on characterizing the special flavor and aroma notes of different apples,” says Manley.

Berry flavors have long been a favorite. Newfound interest in their antioxidant properties is providing a surge. “Strawberry, raspberry and blueberry are popular, at least partly because of all of the interest in the healthy properties of berries,” says Lynch.

The challenges of health

Current health and diet trends are providing challenges for flavor. “There’s a new sense of excitement in breadings and batters, and attention to dealing with current trends is important,” says Christine McBride, manager of breadings and batters R&D at Chicago-based Newly Weds Foods (www.newlywedsfoods.com).

“Most of our products end up in frying oils, and the oils are changing to healthier types with higher rates of oxidation,” she observes. Trans fats are out and more Omega-3s are in. “Coatings that feature green herbs, such as rosemary, which supplies a sophisticated green note and antioxidant qualities, help retard fat oxidation. These are particularly popular in coatings for chicken and snacks.”

Between trans fat replacement and the interest in whole grains, Paul Richards and Bob Boutin, who operate Knechtel Laboratories (www.knechtel.com) in Skokie, Ill., are working with more cereal products these days. “Flavors have to be superb,” notes Richards. “There are more ingredients that require masking, and they have flavors of their own that thin out the flavor profile you want. It takes big flavors to make products, which border on the nutraceutical, that taste as good as consumers want them to. And grocery products across the board are moving toward the nutraceutical.”

Even Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. (www.benjerry.com), South Burlington, Vt., cannot buck the low-fat and low-carb trends. The recent launches of Carb Karma (2-5 g net carbs per serving), no-sugar-added ice cream (sweetened with artificial sweeteners), light ice cream (half the fat and 25 percent the calories) and low-fat frozen yogurt (3 g or less fat per serving) provide flavoring problems for a company noted for delivering big and indulgent flavor.

But don’t look for good, old, decadent chocolate to disappear any time soon. Chocolate “is something we do awfully well,” says Chrystie Heimert, director of public relations. So chocolate bits, chips, fudge, cookie dough, and brownie batter will remain in almost of the company’s top 10 flavors (except vanilla), as well as what she calls come-back flavor peanut butter cookie dough.

This year, chocolate is almost gaining a halo. Recent research indicates a connection between cocoa’s polyphenols and a reduction in cholesterol plaque.

Cocoa’s anti-cancer suggestions won’t hurt, either. So count chocolate in as a flavor to watch this year: chocolate plus hot components, chocolate plus fruit, chocolate plus spice, and chocolate just for the heck of it.

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