Flavor Trends

With each new year comes a deluge of trend reports from experts in the food and beverage industry covering a range of topics from foodservice and artificial intelligence to colors, flavors, and more. These reports are compiled using tools such as consumer survey data and new product claims and offer great insight into consumer behavior at that point in time. However, trends are not static. Some may start as a blip on the radar and quickly soar to mass market acceptance while others languish as fads on menus and then fade away.

In November 2014, I reached out to flavorists, chefs, and trendspotters to develop a list of trending flavors for 2015 that were featured in Food Technology magazine, and revisited flavor trends using the same methodology in late 2017. Most recently, in the December 2019 issue, I examined four flavor trends on the rise for 2020—florals; earthy; complex heat; and tangy, tart, and sour.

But what became of the trends from the past? I asked the industry experts to look back and offer input on how some of the past flavor trends have evolved. Here are two that have proven to have holding power:

Smoke. In 2014, smoked cocktails were beginning to garner consumers’ attention and formulators were playing around with smoky notes to add complexity to a flavor. The barrel-aged alcohol trend was also taking root and manufacturers began to explore the flavor notes resulting from using the barrel-aging process with foods such as maple syrup and olive oil. They also began to look more specifically at the notes from specific types of wood used in the process, such as oak.

The smoky flavor trend continues today. “Smoked and roasted flavors are on the rise and align well with adult tastes, especially in savory snacks,” noted Lu Ann Williams, director of Insights & Innovation at Innova Market Insights.

With the rise of plant-based meat alternatives, smoke can help formulators achieve authentic flavors. Smoke flavors “are especially becoming popular in meat analogs and foodservice where operators are looking to add a rich, freshly cooked meat flavor,” explained Scott Gilbertson, flavor chemist at Wixon.

Perhaps an evolution of the smoke trend is the appearance of burnt and charred notes being called out on menus and on packaging. Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, sees these flavor notes appearing a lot in what she calls “nuanced indulgence” products, and includes “toasted, roasted, smoked, and charred flavors” such as burnt caramel and browned butter.

While it has been five years since smoke was featured in the magazine as an upcoming flavor trend, it has staying power and is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. “I expect charred/blackened/fire-roasted flavor will continue to remain popular, especially if the flavor component is combined with visual cues and crispy texture that further stimulate consumers’ senses,” predicted Jean Shieh, director of marketing and innovation at Sensient Natural Ingredients.

Fermented. In one way or another, fermented flavors have made an appearance in each of the flavor trends articles since 2014. And while the fermentation process has been around for thousands of years, the popularity of the unique tangy, tart, and pungent flavors it creates have become more accepted by consumers in the last decade. The popularity of kombucha and interest in more regionally specific global cuisines—which tend to feature bolder, fermented flavors—has helped fermented flavors move from simply acceptable to sought after.

“Fermented tastes and products will continue to gain more acceptance with growth of alcohol-infused flavors in products like alcoholic kombucha and alcoholic seltzer waters,” forecasted Marie Wright, vice president and chief global flavorist at ADM.

As consumers interest in trying new global cuisines grows—specifically dishes from India, Africa, and the Middle East—inevitably so will their familiarity with fermented flavors. Often, a consumer’s first encounter with a new cuisine is through familiar and approachable products, such as sauces, dips, and spreads. Examples of products falling into this category include the yogurt-based spread labneh, the pickled mango condiment amba, and the fermented soybean paste doenjang.

Another attribute of fermentation is the health halo surrounding it, which will keep it top of mind for consumers who are looking for foods and beverages that can positively impact their health. “Positively processed is a trend we see continuing to develop and we see the benefits of technologies such as slow cooked, cold processed, or fermented being part of the flavor story,” noted Williams. “It adds another dimension to a product’s story and is part of the consumer’s demand for transparency. Creating these flavors in convenient foods is the next level.”

These are just two examples of how flavor trends evolve over the years. The impact of consumer desires—for new cuisines, transparency, and health-enhancing foods and beverages—can’t be understated. “As with every trend, it is a push from chefs and manufacturers developing exciting new trend forward products, and a pull from food savvy consumer purchasing power,” explained Rob Corliss, chef and owner, All Things Epicurean. “Both of these ebb and flow and evolve year after year.”

About the Author

Kelly Hensel, Senior Digital Editor, reports on the latest industry and research news for ift.org and the Weekly newsletter. She also interviews chefs about the intersection of culinary and science for the Culinary Point of View column.
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Kelly Hensel

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