America's Pursuit Of Exotic Flavors Shows No Signs Of Abating

Exotic flavors filtered down through the ethnic medley of food-centered culture has opened American palates to flavorful combinations.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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McCormick 2014 Flavors Forecast
McCormick & Co.'s annual Flavor Forecast predicts a big year for chocolate, mint (those first two not so exotic) and passionfruit.

Every year, hundreds of new products hit the shelves … and the following year, hundreds more arrive to fill in for the nine out of 10 that go belly up. Those failures can be attributed to any number of factors but, invariably, they ultimately are due to having flavor or taste that doesn’t meet consumer expectations. They might not be bad flavored (although some certainly are) but they fail to capture the interest of their intended target.

Today’s food development teams are taking more initiative with regard to flavor. They are able to avail themselves of analyses conducted by consumer research organizations and ingredient companies to stay ahead of trends in flavor preferences. They also have greater opportunity than ever before to synchronize the resultant information from such surveys with technology provided by the ingredient companies that helps them realize trending tastes.

One of the biggest trends these days in desired flavors are the exotic fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs that filter down through the ethnic medley of food-centered culture we now find ourselves living in. It’s this exotic food culture that opened American palates to combinations such as ginger and cucumber; juniper and Mexican mint marigold; and yuzu and lavender. Even simple but once unusual combinations, like salt and caramel, have become big hits with the average American consumer.

So, what has research determined to be the new exotic flavors of 2014? Following the rush of pundit predictions like the Seattle Times' tongue-in-cheek references to sloe berries, sea buckthorn and the use of “good-quality hay with a high herbal content” in recipes, a number of ingredient makers have been made more sage predictions based on solid research.

For example, in its annual flavor trends report, Bell Flavors and Fragrances Inc., Northbrook, Ill., pointed to growing interest in flavors associated with Central and South America and India/Asia, while noting the influence of health, spices in general and more narrow channels driving flavor input -- for example the allergen-free wave of interest.

Southeast and Southwest Asian-themed ingredients certainly are sources for both flavor and health. Lemongrass and ginger are supporting players for the Thai trend. Indian product makers continue to use cumin, mustard seed and cilantro, but are increasing application of fenugreek, fennel and its botanical relative, asafoetida. Also, turmeric — thanks to the boom in research on curcumin and its ability to help protect against a host of disease conditions from inflammation and diabetes to cancer and arthritis — will continue to find its way into foods in the coming year.

Sensient Flavors Inc., Hoffman Estates, Ill., is looking to a mix of common and not-so-common influences as balsamic-fig, ginger-plum, juniper, green coconut, rhubarb, tayberries and hops. Those can lead to acceptance of more intense components like gochujang (described as a sort of Korean version of the Vietnamese pepper and garlic condiment sriracha) and guasacaca, a Venezuelan parsley and avocado sauce. Or go all the way to such superexotics as the kumquat-mandarin hybrid called burnt Calamansi, which resembles sour orange and sweet lime, and the ultra-complex flavors typified by the Italian aromatic bitters fernet, which incorporates spices and herbs like chamomile, cardamom, aloe, saffron … and myrrh.

And flavor providers are offering more and more botanicals, for example lavender, white tea and hibiscus. Wild Flavors Inc. , Erlanger, Ky., took note of the traditional South American flavors of mint, guarana and mate as well as the continually popular acaí berry. The company also called out less common blends of common flavors, such as combining citrus with mint.

Fruits and nuts

“Exotic flavors continue to trend up in the foodservice arena, and restaurant chefs continue to push the envelope on the plate,” notes Robert Schueller, director at Melissa's World Variety Produce, Los Angeles. “But the most aggressive use of unusual flavorings has been in beverages, with mixologists incorporating uncommon fruits, herbs and other ingredients to add flavor as well as for essential garnishes.”

Schueller adds that while the basic trendy fruits such as pomegranates and berries still see liberal use, stranger items are showing up increasingly. “Finger limes, also called citrus caviar, is new to the scene,” he explains, “and other seasonal citrus like blood oranges, Buddha's hand lemons and Meyer lemons are showing up often.”

Other fruit flavors Schueller sees appearing with abundance include variety mangoes (such as Indian, Keitts and Ataulfo), red papaya, passionfruit, cactus pears, yuzu and Key limes. “Even jackfruit is now being used more often,” he adds.

There are opportunities for food manufacturers where flavors and nutritional benefit cross paths. The door is thus opened for the exotic versions of the mundane in the form of unique and unusual peppers, such as Bhut jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion, two of the hottest peppers sold. But the fact can’t be ignored that the peppery rush is increased by pepper’s popularity through mounting research attesting to the health value of capsaicin for everything from protecting against cardiovascular disease and cancer to alleviating depression and stomach ulcers.

So, while peppers aren’t exotic by any stretch of the imagination, they remain a growing trend that ties into the fact that a lot of the exotic cuisines streaming into American food culture from other cultures are spicier than our grandparents would dare, by far. Think of the explosive popularity of the sriracha craze and you’ll have a good idea.

And speaking of culture, kimchi, sauerkraut and other strong pickled and fermented vegetable flavors are moving from the big city melting pots to Middle America. Fast-food venues are suddenly slapping Asiago cheese on everything, it seems. Greek yogurt, though slowing down (after all, there’s not much left for manufacturers to put it in or on), will remain popular for a while with yogurt being a the primary component in the big probiotic movement with digestive health finally achieving proper recognition in the U.S.

Other healthful impacts on flavor trends include toasted grains, especially ancient grains, since gluten-free has become so mainstream. The denser, more rustic flavors of grains such as millet, barley and rye are enhanced by toasting. Roasted brown rice, a traditional Japanese ingredient, especially as a tea, is catching on as are toasted seed flavors. Sensient included pepitas, toasted pumpkin seeds, in its forecast for hot flavors of the coming year.

Savor and smoke

Kikkoman Sriracha Suace
Sriracha sauce, named after the Thailand coastal city of Si Racha, found its way into many pantries in 2013. It's a hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic and salt.

Where there’s toasting there’s fire, and smoke seems to have permeated many ingredients, from salts and spice rubs to beverages, especially spirits like whiskey. But smoke also continues to center around the grill. However, traditionally popular smoky flavors like mesquite are giving way to alder and fruitwood smoke flavors.

And where would smoke be without smoked chili peppers? Chipotle, smoked jalapeños, have stayed at the top of popularity, but crowding their space are a variety of smoked peppers like Hatch, Big Jims and Savina Ruby Hots. These all merge with the huge pepper popularity contest that promises to grow in 2014.

“Smoked, dried and fresh chili peppers have had an influential large trend appeal over the last few years for use and with the flair and flavor of the pepper without burning the mouths of the consumers,” says Melissa’s Schueller.

Schueller sees no slowing down of pepper’s popularity. “Hot flavors and trendy recipes include the habanero, Ghost (Bhut jolokia) and even the scorpion peppers in recipes. More seasonal in the summer is continued use of the New Mexico chili pepper, especially the premium Hatch variety and in both fresh and dried forms.” Other chili varieties Schueller sees coming into their own include de Arbol, Japones, and Guajillos.

In all the predictions for 2014 flavors, Sichuan peppers keep popping up. These are an Asian spice not related to black pepper or chili peppers. They’re little seed pod shells used commonly in Chinese five-spice powder and have an aromatic, citrusy flavor (the plant is in the citrus family) and are described has being more tingly than hot. In McCormick & Co.’s  annual Flavor Forecast, they appear as part of the nod toward less mainstream influences from Asian cuisine, such as Malaysian and Kashmir. But the 125-year-old flavor company also mentions Brazil and other South American cuisines, such as Peruvian, as moving north.

Whichever of these flavor predictions sticks in the coming year or after, the fact remains that American palates are seeking out more exotic stimulation and doing so with the knowledge that the herbs and spices and fruits making their way to our food culture promise not only the excitement of exotic tastes but an element of health and well-being so often associated with them.

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