What’s so good about exotic flavors? Or to put it another way: What makes exotic flavors so good?
Ingredient suppliers say three of the fastest-developing flavor categories are ethnic flavors, fruit flavors and spices — with, obviously, some overlap between the first and the other two. To some extent, the newest entries in these categories are actually older ones getting fresh attention. But more prevalent in all three are flavors unfamiliar to most Americans, many of them sourced from far away.
In many cases, new flavors enter the American retail mainstream through the time-honored path of foodservice, especially small restaurants, often ethnic-themed. “As a flavor company that provides flavors mostly to retail, we kind of use what’s happening on menus as a forward-looking innovation tool,” says Lindsey Oostema, senior marketing specialist at Synergy Flavors (www.synergytaste.com).
Synergy has access to databases of foodservice menus that track trends in flavors before they reach retail shelves in large numbers. “Fifteen years ago, they came out with salted caramel, and it trickled down to fast-casual and then to Starbucks, and now it’s everywhere on the retail shelves,” she says. “So we’re looking to what can we take advantage of that is in an introductory stage on menus that will go into the mainstream eventually; [something] we can capture now and provide as an innovation to our customers.”
Oostema says when exotic flavors are breaking into the mainstream, they’re more likely to be in products and packages that allow consumers to try them out without too much of an investment. “Consumers feel more comfortable in trialing a new flavor in smaller packaging or single-serve,” she says. “So when I think of trying a new flavor, I think of trying it in a drink. You can get one drink, see if you like it, and then you can always go back and buy more. But if you don’t like it, you don’t have an entire case or box of something.”
Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights for the Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com), agrees beverages are a good delivery vehicle for exotic flavors. “Let’s face it, if you buy a beverage and you’re not that crazy about it, and it has acerola cherry or Peruvian lucuma in it, it’s not going to ruin your meal,” she says.
Snacks are another good delivery vehicle, Abbott says. “It’s encouraging consumers to be much more adventurous and really participate in a sense of discovery, in ways that we haven’t in years past, when we were really entrenched in the three meals a day.”
Abbott says that, in general, consumers’ tastes are getting more sophisticated, and they’re looking for subtlety and complexity in flavors.
“Consumers are looking for a little more sour, a little more astringent — we’re not so entrenched in this idea of things have to be sweet or salty,” she says. “We’re getting a little more nuanced with our palates.”
One issue that comes up with fruit as a flavor category, as with all flavors derived from actual foods, is authenticity. How close is the flavoring agent to the food it’s based on? There’s even a formal classification, “From the Named Fruit,” to denote authentic fruit flavors.
Oostema says Synergy bases its fruit flavors on extracts made from the fruit’s essential oils. A phrase like “lemon extract” looks better on a label than “lemon flavor,” since consumers are liable to associate the latter with artificial flavoring.
Donald Wilkes, president and CEO of Blue Pacific Flavors (www.bpflavors.com), says his company has “been developing authentic, true-to-fruit certified organic flavors and natural flavors based on exotic citrus and berry fruits” to cater to the rise of organic foods. These include alphonso mango, Japanese yuzu, baobab and lilikoi passionfruit.