Flavor Trends 2010: Make Mine Plain

Flavor trends are going comfort-retro — but don't write off exotics just yet. Consumer palates remain open to new adventures.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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Back a ways, flavor was approached with the same daring and experimentation that Henry Ford encouraged for car colors — he infamously told customers they "could have any color Model T they wanted so long as it was black." Until a generation or two ago, food & beverage flavors ran a short gamut, too, from chocolate, vanilla and strawberry to lemon/lime, cherry and grape.

This tunnel vision — or "tunnel palate," if you will — changed drastically in the past couple of decades as worldly consumers welcomed new flavors they encountered through globe-trotting chefs, their own travels or the huge influx of new citizens from all over the world.

Suddenly, instead of looking up in a dictionary lemongrass and lavender, kumquat and blood orange, consumers were snapping them up in beverages and snacks. Case in point: Does anyone out there recall a time, not so very long ago, when pomegranate wasn't in everything?

The "2010 New Product Development" trend report from Innova Market Insights (www.innovadatabase.com), Duiven, Netherlands, bookends simplicity and "real authenticity" on its Top 10 trends list for the coming year. Put succinctly, building in comfort and appealing to the basics are in. With the main breadwinner laid off and pennies being pinched, the urge to try kiwano melon soda has come up against a desire for more familiar, fundamental (and perhaps less expensive) flavors.

Hardly plain vanilla

Coca Cola Vanilla

Perhaps 2010 will bring a more conducive environment, as Coca-Cola Co. relaunches Vanilla Coke as Coca-Cola Vanilla (and Coca-Cola Vanilla Zero).

Think more in terms of vanilla … such as Dry Soda Inc.'s newest flavor. The company that as recently as last year was championing its juniper, lavendar and rhubarb sodas just added Vanilla Bean to its lineup.

Not to be outdone, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. just reintroduced its Vanilla Coke as Coca-Cola Vanilla and Coca-Cola Vanilla Zero. And Haagen-Dazs relaunched an old but not-so-plain-vanilla flavor, Vanilla Honey Bee.

Recognizing this flavor can no longer be termed "plain vanilla," Givaudan Flavors Corp. (www.givaudan.com), Cincinnati, decided to "push the boundaries," in its own words. The company created a bank of hundreds of new vanilla flavor concepts via its branded TasteEssentials process. It targeted a global range of taste preferences and brought 150 of these to the consumer-testing phase.

According to Givaudan, focus-group members equated vanilla with "fond memories of childhood, holidays, indulgence and shared moments."

If vanilla is hot, you know chocolate is right there with it. According to London-based market research group Business Insights Ltd. (www.globalbusinessinsights.com), chocolate is still the overall top flavor of product launches.

"The new appeal of these basic flavors is that they evoke comfort and highly sought-after simplicity. That simplicity also implies health to many consumers.

"Big, hit flavors for 2010 will depend upon the product application — beverage, nutraceutical, confection, etc. — but generally flavors that have a positive health perception or high nutrient profile will be the focus of development efforts," says Ron Arb, marketing director for Abelei Flavors Inc. (www.abelei.com), North Aurora, Ill.

But as Arb points out, consumers will no longer "forgive" healthful for not being flavorful. "With all of the new health and wellness ingredients put into food, beverage, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products, there will be a great call for flavor to play a major role in assisting not only with taste and aroma, but delivering enhanced functionality, performance and sustainability," he says.

The flavor of health

Chocolate is uniquely well-positioned to hit all three bases of simplicity, comfort and health. Already the ultimate comfort flavor, chocolate is coming off several years of surprise popularity as a health ingredient.

Dark chocolate currently is one of the fastest growing flavor preferences among consumers (with milk chocolate slipping just slightly), according to Business Insights. In fact, the group's most recent Top 20 list includes nothing but classic flavors, including strawberry, orange, lemon, cherry, mint, nut, cream, caramel and vanilla.

This ability to hit the aforementioned flavor trifecta proves timely for processors. "Many of us in the food industry have recognized the importance consumers are placing on natural compounds and real benefits from real foods — a trend sure to continue and possibly grow in 2010," says Mary Wagner, general manager and chief technology officer for Mars Botanical (www.marsbotanical.com), Rockville, Md., a recent startup from candy-maker Mars Inc.

"Mars Botanical capitalized on this trend by turning an old staple, cocoa — nature's unexpected superfruit — into the next ‘new' ingredient for the food and beverage industry," she adds.

Mars recently introduced Cirku, a cocoa extract, and CirkuHealth, a cocoa extract dietary supplement, that are concentrated sources of natural plant compounds called flavanols and sold as a hot chocolate-type beverage powder. But to cover all basic-flavor bases, the company has citrus and cranberry versions in the works. That's right — flavanols from cocoa without the chocolate flavor.

Vita Soy  Inc.
Positioned as "nondairy recipe starters," the Nasoya line of silken tofu products from VitaSoy Inc. was launched in the three classic dessert flavors.

Chocolate and vanilla (as well as another taste classic, strawberry) were tapped as the introductory flavors for the launch of Nasoya brand nonsavory tofu from VitaSoy Inc. (www.nasoya.com), Ayer, Mass. The three sweet, silken tofu products are designed to be used as primary ingredients in dairy analog desserts and confections but can pass as healthful, dairyless "custards" in their own right.

Sweet and savory

Natural, non-sugar sweeteners could become an economic flavor trend, according to Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California (www.bluecal-ingredients.com), Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The company's stevia leaf rebaudioside-A extract, Good & Sweet Reb A, is now actually 10 to 20 percent below the cost of sugar when the sweetness equivalency is taken into account, she claims. (Reb-A is around 400 times the sweetness of sugar.)

"The flavor companies we work with to develop unique, natural blends prefer sweeteners such as our Good & Sweet Reb-A 99% because often there's no need for an additional masking flavor," says McCollum. In comparison tests, fruit beverages using reb-A without maskers or enhancements actually allowed the natural fruit notes to come through better, she says.

The key to stevia's acceptance was new techniques of purification. "It's of the highest purity, meaning we've eliminated all the compounds that impart any negative taste, including bitterness or metallic aftertaste," explains McCollum. "As with all our products, it's derived through natural methods, such as water extraction and ultrafiltration. This allows us to refine it to such a degree it can meet all the requirements for the stricter EU requirements to be labeled 100 percent natural."

FDA's approval at the end of 2008 of reb-A came at a perfect time when the consumer demand for natural was impacting artificial sweeteners and even naturally derived sweeteners with bad publicity — i.e. high-fructose corn syrup. As a natural sweetener with virtually no caloric load, this is a nascent trend that promises years of strong and steady growth.

On the savory side, the flavor trends mirroring sweet natural and basic demands focus on sea salt (countering such falling-out-of-favor flavor enhancers as monosodium glutamate), ethnic spices (especially chili) and — perhaps because of all the interest in vampires these days on TV and in cinema – garlic. Garlic's increasing popularity was cited by Business Insights as being linked to the increased attraction to "natural" flavors. Consumers do trust garlic.

A surprising jump in the savory flavor trend curve comes from the humble chick pea. Hummus maker Sabra Dipping Co. has seen a doubling in sales in just two years. Moreover, the appeal of hummus has branched beyond Middle Eastern flavors. The company enjoyed instant success with such flavor crossovers as jalapeño, chipotlé and sundried tomato.

The flavor is expanding beyond dip to the dipper. "Our Hummus Maximus Culinary Crisp has been one of the better selling products this year (2009)," says George Eckrich, owner of Dallas-based Dr. Kracker Inc. (www.drkracker.com). "These are new and exciting flavors, and customers love the nutritional profile of higher protein and whole grain, adding both chick peas and sesame to the whole grain or whole seed camp." The 100 percent whole-grain spelt-based cracker has lemon and garlic as well as chick pea flour, thus including two other hot savory flavor trends in a single snack.

In 2010, processors tasked with deciding flavors for new formulations find themselves at an interesting point of the flavor-trend pendulum's swing. As with everything else the past couple of years, the economic collapse has triggered a cascade that is affecting what the next round of snacks, drinks and energy bars will taste like. Luckily, consumers are proving themselves eager to accept the old favorites as well as new experiences — as long as they taste good.

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