The combination of the latest economic roller coaster and the directly opposing forces of indulgent eating and demands for healthier offerings turned the art of predicting food & beverage trends into a bigger challenge than ever. So it's helpful to frame the problem within the greater context of general trends that will impact the food & beverage market in the coming year.
Last fall, Innova Market Insight identified 10 key trends that will underlie consumer choices in 2012. And while this list represents a great deal of dedicated research, it's possible to sum up the high points in a few sentences:
Consumers are getting older but want to feel younger. They're attracted to "pure," "natural" foods that are premium in quality yet within their (much tighter) budget. Also, consumers want to "buy green" and local when possible. They also want foods and beverages that are rich in protein and with health claims that are grounded in science. Yet they feel justified in an occasional indulgence.
There will be some niche markets that are hard to measure, such as gluten-free. "One can recognize from many markets, despite [the economic] crisis, the consumer is looking to have more confidence in a food product," says Thierry Gay, vice president of food-enhancement systems for Vitiva (www.vitiva.eu), a Slovenia ingredient supplier. "As a result, the premium segment is growing with clean labels or ‘friendly' labels.
"Even discounters are now looking for high quality products," he continues. "For instance, recently the EU supermarket chain Lidl (www.lidl.co.uk) asked all its food manufacturers to remove synthetic beta-carotene. We also see a great interest in shifting from synthetic sweeteners -- such as aspartame, acesulfame K and saccharin -- to stevia for the same reasons: friendly labeling and purer and ‘cleaner' products."
Gay suggests that with stevia, retailers and food manufacturers have the opportunity to make a "positive marketing statement, educating consumers by explaining reasons why they reformulated with a natural-origin sweetener." He also points out this will increase consumers awareness for products that include stevia.
"I can foresee a booming in launching products with stevia in parallel to this increasing awareness," he declares. PepsiCo's Tropicana division launched Trop50 orange juice in 2009, replacing half the sugar (and half the calories) with stevia. Healthy Beverage Co., which showcases organic and fair-trade teas and sparkling green teas, has been using stevia for its zero-calorie Steaz Teas.
Other taste trends on track to please palates in the coming year include merging cultures (chipotlé-lemongrass chicken, anyone?), getting back to nature with earthy root vegetables, tree fruits and nuts, and bringing comfort flavors to new foods and beverages."
"Spicy ethnic flavors are growing in popularity," says Ed McIntosh, marketing manager for Flavorchem Corp. (www.flavorchem.com), Downers Grove, Ill. "Ethnic flavors are hot-hot-hot. Flavorchem released a new line of Hispanic flavors, recognizing the rapid growth of this demographic in the U.S.
"New concepts are coming through the changing demographics," he continues. "We're seeing spicy ethnic flavors like cracked pepper, chili lime, chipotlé, jalapeño and ‘buffalo wing' flavors used in a variety of snack foods. They also are being used in seeds, nuts, chips and even nontraditional snack foods like dehydrated vegetables and wasabi peas."
"Robust ethnic flavors are going up in America," agrees Meera Vasudevan, executive vice president of Stamford, Ct.-based Preferred Brands International (www.tastybite.com), makers of Indian meals and meal-kit components. "Consumers are increasingly adding spices and flavors from around the world into their daily meals. Whether it's aromatic spices from India or Asia or a variety of chili peppers from South America, I see America 'spicing it up' in 2012."
According to Flavorchem's McIntosh, top flavors for savory snack categories are varietal cheese flavors, barbecue, wasabi and garlic. "Six months ago, barbecue-type flavors were not even listed," he says. "Now, they're in the top 10."
"Flavors of the Far East are fusing into American palates," says Elliot Chung, senior brand manager for CJ Foods Inc. (www.cjfusa.com), Commerce, Calif. The interest is moving beyond Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. Citing research by consumer flavor-trend experts such as Baum + Whiteman LLC, Chung reports Korean food will "soar as one of the hottest dining trends in 2012, with items like bulgogi beef sliders, kimchi quesadillas and galbi [grilled ribs] tacos."
CJ Foods is making Korean cuisine more accessible to everyday American chefs through its new Bibigo line, an assortment of high-quality ingredients such as gochujang (hot chili paste) and Korean BBQ sauces for making traditional dishes like bulgogi and kalbi, or for adding a new twist to everyday foods such as sandwiches with gochujang spicy mayo.