A. Elizabeth Sloan

Flavors of the Future
Recent—and dramatic—shifts in eating patterns are changing America’s flavor preferences. Significant alterations in restaurant menus in the name of health, more theatrical and global food preparation techniques, and an unprecedented interest in healthier, natural, and fresher-tasting fare are spawning a new generation of flavor cues, criteria, and challenges.

Flavors are already changing at a frenetic pace. FIND/SVP predicts that sales of flavored dairy beverages will top $3 billion by 2006. Mintel’s ProductScan Online reports that caramel, orange, cream, cherry, and peanut butter ranked in the “top 10” flavors most frequently added to new dairy products last year. Wisconsin cheese makers have increased production of Hispanic cheese, such as Asadero and Cotija, by 38%, the largest jump in any single cheese category. Americans’ taste for chocolate has shifted from the sweeter and fattier varieties. Cola is giving way to orange, lemon, berry, and peach flavored drinks, while 7-Up sets the pace with the first soft drink—Remix—that can be customized to individual tastes.

Five major trends will drive the flavor business:
With nearly two-thirds of adults cutting back on “carbs,” the shift to protein-driven meatier, more-savory, and saucier flavors is already underway. Information Resources, Inc., reports that supermarket sales of “high protein” areas are soaring. Refrigerated poultry/meat sales jumped 12% by year ending 11/2/03, frozen meat 10%, seafood 10%, breakfast meats 8%, and frozen poultry 7%. Pork rinds were up 30%, eggs 15%, dried meat snacks 13%, snack nuts 12%, and natural cheese 7%. Smoked and roasted flavors— such as Chelten House’s Smoky Tomato and Roasted Pepper vinaigrettes or Frito-Lay’s Bistro Gourmet chips in Applewood BBQ, Smoked Cheddar, and Roasted Garlic Herb versions—are right on target.

Expect more diversity in traditional sauces: witness Hawaiian Barbecue, Buffalo with celery and blue cheese notes, and even Cajun Caesar dressings. Rich sauces like Bordelaise, blue cheese toppings, and liquor-based infusions will set the pace for meaty flavors, striking a strong but familiar savory note. Tamarind, Worchester, teriyaki, pepper, nuts, and honey remain among the most popular “meat”-paired flavors. Savory trends, like smoked-bacon mashed potatoes, are also finding a niche in high-carb foods, too. With the exception of snacks, consumers want their favorite foods and flavors in a low-carb option, not new or novel-flavored low-carb items.

A new generation of lighter but zestier flavors is fast approaching. Rooted in the health and Asian culinary movements, milder and more fragrant spices such as lemongrass, bay leaf, dill, turmeric, cilantro, coriander, and tarragon, and flavorful seeds, including poppy and sesame, are appearing on menus with greater frequency. Expect “extreme” and bold and burning flavors to give way to a more-reasonable approach turbocharged by mustards, ground pepper, wasabi, curry, onion, and pepper varietals and intensely flavored vinegars. Sweet and tangy combinations such as Eden’s Stone Ground Mustard with Apple Cider Vinegar and Annie’s Naturals’ Organic Asian Sesame Dressing are another strong direction. Hoisin, plum, black bean, Thai-style chili, sesame, and white soy sauces, such as those introduced by Kikkoman, are also riding the light and lively movement. Contrasting sweet and spicy flavors like lemon or pear–ginger, honey–lime, raspberry–fudge, and orange–gingerbread are zipping up the dessert category, as is fruit coupled with cinnamon, nutmeg, or designer honeys. Fruit and nuts are among the strongest and most ubiquitous flavor trends.

As Americans continue to seek sophistication and complexity in flavors yet stay grounded with the familiar, expect creative chefs to continue their successful strategy of coupling and contrasting familiar flavors. From papaya–poppy seed and honey–walnut to vanilla–cranberry or Vidalia onion–dill, combinations that reflect familiar flavor cues but unique taste sensations remain in vogue.

Regional and ethnic trends will remain a tried and true source for sound, but often simply trendy, flavors. Strong and authentic natural flavors, such as Asiago and other Italian cheeses, country of origin descriptors such as Greek olives or Tahitian vanilla, or varieties such as Chinese parsley or Mandarin orange, will hit both an exotic and familiar chord.

As the food and flavor world continues to change, it’s not surprising that some consumers will opt for the familiar. In fact, ProductScan Online confirms that Cheddar still ranked second on the top 10 list of flavors added to new 2003 snack products, barbecue fourth, and “original” sixth. Salty flavor is also a growing trend, reflecting the demand for less sweet and more savory offerings across the board.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]