As food processors face all that 2016 will bring, some will be using new ingredients (especially sweeteners), new flavors (like seaweed and Korean spice blends) and new protein sources (plant-, algae- and possibly insect-based).
Continued demand for foods and beverages that are cleaner or "natural," more nutrient-dense and "less processed" are leading food scientists to test hundreds of combinations of fruits, vegetables and spices to discover replacements for artificial ingredients.
The consumer desire for such clean-label options is great, says Roger Lane, marketing manager for savory flavors at Sensient Flavors North America, Hoffman Estates, Ill. "Consumers are more connected to what they put into their bodies, so transparency throughout the entire process is key. Consumers are concerned not only with where food is being produced, but how workers who make it are being treated and what sort of impact it has on the environment."
"There's tremendous activity on what constitutes natural, all natural and organic," observes Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredients sales manager at McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La., maker of Tabasco products. He believes "the FDA will most likely adopt a tighter set of rules and more active enforcement for future [natural] product submissions."
"Naturalness" has been impacting the sweetener category for a few years now. The first generation of stevia, first approved at the end of 2008, was a big step in that direction, but the initial molecule targeted in the plant was rebaudioside A. In the past year, stevia suppliers were focusing on other, harder to extract, glycosides, notably reb-M and reb-D, which are said to have less bitterness and aftertaste.
Tate & Lyle's Ami Krishan, category marketing director for the company's sweeteners in Hoffman Estates, Ill., sees customers adopting a variety of low-/no-calorie sweetening ingredients in low-calorie food formulations. "Last year, stevia and monk fruit saw growth in new product launches, with stevia gaining the most momentum (103 percent increase in new launches)," he says. Tate & Lyle has been a big proponent of monk fruit, its version called Purefruit. "Sweetening combinations are also in demand. Some high-intensity sweeteners can have off-flavors when used at too high a level, so combining low levels of several different sweeteners helps achieve the right sweetness and balance."
Monk fruit was Tate & Lyle's darling of 2014, but last year the company's biggest launch was Dolcia Prima, its brand of allulose. The low-calorie sugar was first identified in wheat in the 1930s. Tate & Lyle has said it's up to processors using the ingredient if they want to call it natural. Matsutani also launched an allulose sweetener last year, Astraea.
Although it wasn't a switch to true "naturalness," PepsiCo last year replaced aspartame in its diet colas with a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium (ace-K) because of consumer concerns with the safety of aspartame. Consumer reaction to Pepsi's switch has been mixed. Meanwhile, sales of Pepsi's stevia-sweetened cola, Pepsi True, has been growing slowly; likewise for the Coca-Cola version, Coca-Cola Life.
Cultivating plant protein
Plant-based proteins have been on the upswing, and they look to pick up steam this year. "Plant proteins are an increasingly prevalent option, since plant proteins can often be both a healthier and more sustainable option than animal protein," observes Maggie Harvey, new product development manager at Mizkan Americas. "They seem to be occurring more and more as meat substitutes and in unexpected places such as edamame spaghetti," she says.
A large contributor has to do with the rise of flexitarians, or part-time vegetarians, who reduce meat consumption because of health, sustainability and animal welfare concerns.
While soy has been the go-to alternative protein for years, pea protein had a breakout year in 2015. Hampton Creek, which garnered huge media attention last year, uses pea protein as the main substitute for eggs for its vegan mayonnaise, Just Mayo.
Axiom Foods, Los Angeles, says pea protein can help formulators develop a clean label, contribute to water conservation and satisfy the need for a neutral ingredient for flavor-forward food formulations. Not only are peas 100 percent vegan and rich in iron, they're hypoallergenic, easily digestible and take less water to grow than to raise a cow, says Axiom's CEO David Janow. Pea protein is viscous enough to be used in desserts, baked goods, granola bars, pasta, mayonnaise and even processed fish, meat, meat-substitute and egg products.