Some trends have lasted long enough that they’re now considered fundamental changes in the way consumers eat. The penchant for healthful, less-processed foods, including lower-sugar options, stands out as an example, as does the increasing demand for the new, different and foreign. Innovative taste combinations, created by pairing spicy and sweet or sweet and savory components in unexpected ways, keep gaining traction, with functional ingredients often added to these formulations.
“One-dimensional products are out,” observes Keerthana Perumbala, marketing manager for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “The younger generation, especially, wants not just taste but also function from their food and beverage choices. We want relaxation from our coffees—hence, kava coffees—or we want energy from our relaxation tea.”
Adaptogens—herbs and roots recognized for their healing properties in China and India—are increasingly being incorporated into food products in the U.S. “With growing knowledge of and access to Ayurveda and ancient Chinese practices, consumer interest in foods and beverages that provide benefits beyond the basics is thriving,” Perumbala points out.
Tastes of 2019
While natural and global flavors continue to surge in popularity, the specific tastes that captivate consumers vary from year to year, as Ireland-based Kerry Group made clear in its 2019 “Global Taste Trends” and “Taste Charts U.S.” reports. It's worth looking at how some of those predictions have fared over the past 10 months.
Botanicals, especially flowers, have grown stronger as food ingredients in 2019. “With vibrant colors and playful appeal, floral trends evoke Instagrammable visuals as well as healthy halos to support well-being and beauty trends,” states “Global Taste Trends.”
In the U.S., according to Kerry, the leading florals today include elderflower, hibiscus, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender, orange blossom, rose, saffron, chamomile and butterfly pea flower. These ingredients frequently flavor beverages, from waters to sports drinks to drinkable yogurt.
Chicago-based Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, known for its pure vanilla extracts, introduced Rose Water and Orange Blossom Water flavor extracts more than a decade ago. On the rise today, these botanical extracts “add the perfect pop of flavor to cold beverages, ice creams and marinades,” emphasizes Kirk Trofholz, the company’s CEO.
Botanicals provide functional attributes, as well as unique taste sensations, adds Perumbala. “Botanical flavors such as lavender are positioned to be calming and stress-relieving,” she says. “Flavors such as green tea or guarana are excellent sources of natural caffeine.”
In “Taste Charts U.S.,” Kerry identifies additional emerging flavors that are adding zest to cold beverages: goji berry, salted caramel, matcha, bitters, smoke, celery, tamarind, beet, honeydew, kumquat, date, hops, calamansi and bergamot. Popular spices in cold beverages range from cayenne, coriander and cardamom to ancho chile, juniper and star anise, the report states.
Provenance and authenticity
Consumers don’t just want to know what’s in the food they eat but also where the ingredients come from. The more exotic the better, but traceability to the source and fair-trade practices are of growing importance to at least some consumers.
“Global flavors are becoming increasingly popular as consumers seek new flavor experiences,” notes Trofholz. “To accompany this trend, Nielsen-Massey recently released two new single-origin vanillas from Uganda and Indonesia, making us the only company to offer five single-origin pure vanilla extracts.”
Based in Woodinville, Wash., SaltWorks strives to keep up with the next new flavor sensations. The company’s Fusion line of gourmet flavored salts (sea salt infused with natural flavor), which will be relaunched in 2020 with new packaging, reads like a list of the hottest trends: Ghost Pepper, Black Truffle, Habanero Heat, Espresso, Lime Fresco, Wild Porcini and so on, to name just a few of the SKUs.
“From hot & spicy to savory umami and bright citrus, our Fusion salts are hand-crafted using our proprietary infusion technique that naturally bonds real ingredients to each individual salt crystal,” explains Mark Zoske, SaltWorks’ founder and CEO. “We’re constantly reviewing our more than 20 award-winning varieties to determine which flavors should stay and which ones can be replaced with the next trending flavor.”
Besides clean labels, consumers today insist on authenticity, Zoske emphasizes. This is why the company has reformulated its collection of smoked sea salts. “We knew we had a good product, but we also knew we could make it better,” he explains, noting that SaltWorks’ research & development team spent more than a year researching the latest smoking techniques and technology.
“We invested over $2 million into custom smoking equipment and a dedicated state-of-the-art smoking facility,” Zoske says. “We never use sawdust, bark, pellets or liquid smoke. We use nothing artificial, just our all-natural high-quality sea salt and authentic real wood smoke.”
Twists on the traditional
Although ethnic cuisine and spicy flavors remain popular, Chicago-based Newly Weds Foods, known mainly as a coatings and seasonings supplier, has been struck by the recent consumer interest in traditional American comfort foods, says Richard Wester, the company’s senior marketing manager. In the quick service restaurant (QSR) market, a bellwether of retail grocery trends, Wester has seen the renascence of macaroni & cheese, meatloaf and fried chicken — but with contemporary twists.
“Millennial and Gen Z consumers are experiencing traditional flavors in different forms than in the past,” he says. For example, macaroni & cheese is sometimes flavored with kimchi, while fried chicken can be coated with quinoa, pea protein or a batter with vegetable inclusions such as broccoli. According to Wester, the plant-based protein and gluten-free movements are having a big impact on such taste preferences.
The plant-based food phenomenon in particular is driving new flavor trends, according to Brad Charron, CEO of Aloha Foods, New York. Aloha is known for its organic plant-based food products, including nutrition bars, protein powders and protein drinks.
In the past, protein drinks had to be stomached; they were not a source of pleasure, Charron observes. “They were about the nutrients you were getting, but totally missing was the experience of ‘food as culture’ or ‘food as life,’ ” he says. Today, with so many hours of TV programming now devoted to food and cooking shows, celebrity chefs and chef competitions, consumers are much more knowledgeable and want the best possible products, even in the realm of high-protein beverages.
Charron says he prioritizes flavor with Aloha’s three protein drink SKUs — Vanilla, Chocolate Sea Salt, and Coconut — and five varieties of plant-based protein bars: Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Mint, Vanilla Almond Crunch, Caramel Sea Salt, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
“This is a great time to be in the food business,” Charron notes. “We’re a food and beverage company specialized in plant-based products. It’s all we’ve ever done, and it’s all we’re ever going to do. We’re in a great spot because of the rise of alternative proteins and because consumers, especially younger consumers, are looking for something better.”