Since the pandemic arrived in early 2020, product developers have faced unique challenges when it comes to anticipating consumers’ changing tastes. Fear of COVID-19, a strained economy, and social isolation drove consumers overwhelmingly to comfort food, and there’s no indication this inclination will disappear. More likely, it will simply evolve.
“To say that the pandemic has been stressful would be an understatement,” says Shannon Cushen, director of marketing for Fuchs North America. “So it also comes as no surprise that consumers have been on the lookout for foods and flavors that evoke nostalgia and remind them of simpler times. Think mac and cheese, fried chicken, and chocolate chip cookies.”
Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in human relationships to food, explains that taste is an important part of our survival mechanism, one that is hardwired to protect us. “During times of crisis, our ability to taste is often changed or altered,” she says, leading to a decreased sensitivity to sweetness and salt and even a metallic taste in the mouth, which often prompts consumers to seek out strong, particularly indulgent flavors.
The need for comfort and nostalgia for easier times paired with spiking health awareness has created a unique environment—one ready for novel food combinations, product innovation, and complex consumer tastes. All of these factors will have an impact on flavor trends.
References to comfort foods in the U.S. consumer media climbed by 25% during 2020, according to Kishan Vasani, CEO of food and beverage artificial intelligence company Spoonshot. And although they have started to taper off a bit, declining by 4% in the first six months of 2021, Vasani believes “nostalgic flavors will continue to pop up for a little longer,” albeit with a new focus on health.
For example, consumers are no longer just reaching for ice cream, they’re reaching for ice cream made with alternative sweeteners; in place of chicken nuggets, they’re reaching for plant-based nuggets. The result is a “new comforts” trend that combines nostalgic flavors with new approaches to product formulation.
“It is now a given that more consumers are looking at product labels versus any other time in history,” says Mitin Rathod, global marketing director for Sensient Flavors & Extracts. Expect classic flavors like Sour Cream & Onion and Barbecue to continue their popularity, but in the form of veggie-based puffs, not traditional potato chips. Similarly, the nostalgia of orange-flavored beverages is likely to retain its appeal, provided the beverages take the form of a tonic or seltzer rather than a full-sugar soda.
Hain Celestial, the CPG company behind labels like Celestial Seasonings, Terra, and Garden of Eatin’, launched a new line of Garden Veggie Puffs in classic flavors often found in potato chips and snack crackers, such as White Cheddar, Sour Cream & Onion, and Screamin’ Hot. The new snacks come with the kind of clean label buzzwords consumers are looking for: baked/not fried, non-GMO, and no artificial flavors or preservatives.
Similarly, Real Food From the Ground Up, a maker of alternatives to classic snack foods, has added new flavors to its line of reimagined snacks. These include Ranch Purple Carrot crackers, shaped like the classic Cheez-It, and cauliflower potato chips in Sour Cream & Onion and Buffalo flavors.
In the sweet and beverage categories, vanilla is a classic flavor that will see popularity in 2022, says Jennifer Zhou, senior director of product marketing, North America, at ADM. “Whether in a homemade treat or a store-bought splurge, vanilla is closely tied to the trending concept of purposeful indulgence to support mental well-being in times of stress, she says. “In fact, 45% of U.S. consumers associate vanilla flavor with supporting relaxation in functional food and beverages,” a feature consumers will look for in the coming year.
Though consumers will continue to crave meat flavors like chicken and beef, concerns about environmental and health risks are stoking interest in plant-based takes on comforting classics. The Good Food Institute estimates the value of the plant-based foods industry at $7 billion in the United States alone, and industry experts do not expect consumers’ appetite for plant-based products to lessen.
Zhou says the flavor bar for plant-based foods is high. To meet consumer expectations, ADM seeks neutral-tasting plant proteins—like black bean and pea—that minimize the need for flavor maskers and modulators. The company’s protein extraction process helps reduce off-notes, and balancing heat and moisture in the extrusion process helps create appealing texture.
Fast-casual chain Panda Express launched Beyond the Original Orange Chicken this year; it’s a reinvention of its classic and comforting Orange Chicken, with a plant-based protein developed by Beyond Meat, the company behind the Beyond Burger. KFC is also testing plant-based meat in some of its stores and has hinted it may roll out the new menu item nationwide. This marriage of classic, comforting flavors used in new food applications will be a characteristic of the new year.
Rathod says the fact that this category is so in demand will have a major effect on product development and innovation. Instead of new flavors, he predicts that the plant-based segment’s growth will come from new product types (think seafood dishes and desserts), technologies that deliver exceptional taste and texture, and clean label ingredients.
Effects of the pandemic have stoked an urgency to address health holistically, a movement Spoonshot calls “food as medicine.” Botanicals will be popular in 2022, as consumers seek out flavors they associate with immunity, brain function, and stress relief.
According to Spoonshot research, mentions of immunity increased 97% in the mainstream media since the pandemic began, and industry experts anticipate a long tail to the trend, with citrus flavors like orange and yuzu remaining favorites. “Exotic citrus tastes, such as yuzu and calamansi, have an excellent chance to create an absolute hit in the sweet and beverage categories,” predicts Leigh-Anne Vaughan, global strategic marketing director of taste at ingredients company Kerry.
ADM’s Zhou expects orange and lemon will remain popular among immune-associated flavors, and will be joined by dark berries like açaí, elderberry, and acerola. Ginger, a flavor consumers link with a long list of health benefits and that pairs well with other botanicals like citrus, will be a standout. The challenge for product developers, says Zhou, is the metallic off-notes that often come with nutrient-dense ingredients in the category.
“Given the link between immunity and vitamin C, interest in citrus flavors grew by about 20% during ,” says Vasani. “This demand for immunity boosters also saw a growing interest in botanical ingredients.” He says that references to botanical ingredients went up by 20% since the start of the pandemic, and credits consumer interest in the associated health benefits, specifically sleep, relaxation, energy, and focus.
Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, which uses analytics to study food industry trends, also believes product developers can expect growing interest in flavors associated with cognitive function as employees head back to the workplace and children return to the classroom. “Stress, anxiety, and depression, that’s now taken the lead,” she says. Lavender, often a key ingredient in calming teas and beverages, will shine in 2022 due to its association with better quality of sleep and decreased stress. Interest in hibiscus and turmeric is also predicted to grow, according to the Whole Foods Market Trends Council.
Consumers looking to stay healthy and mentally sharp are putting away alcohol and turning to botanical-inspired low- and no-alcohol beverages. Poppi, a prebiotic beverage made with apple cider vinegar and available in flavors like Raspberry Rose, Ginger Lime, and Strawberry Lemon, is attracting consumers seeking to give their gut health a boost, the company reports.
McCormick highlighted “underwater botanicals” in its 2021 Flavor Forecast, singling out dulse (red sea lettuce flakes), spirulina (blue-green algae), and sea grapes (soft green algae), noting their potential to infuse food and beverage products with an “earthy flavor.”
Spirulina, which has a list of nutritional benefits and is commonly consumed as a supplement in tablet or powder form, is ripe for beverage development. It already features heavily in smoothie recipes on sites like Minimalist Baker and Brit + Co.
Consumers are more comfortable than ever cooking at home, though many have exhausted family recipes and the easy weeknight backup plans. Thus, folks are stepping outside their own geography to explore international cuisines—sort of. “Consumers are looking for excitement and are drawn toward enticing and visually impactful food and beverages to disrupt the monotony of everyday life,” Kerry’s Vaughan recently commented in a company statement. “They are exploring the world through their taste buds in order to seek adventure, with authentic yet accessible cuisine choices on the rise.”
Because lingering economic and emotional stress tempers consumer hunger for extreme flavor exploration, some are gravitating toward global foods that are considered common in their countries of origin. In other words, they are embarking on safe food explorations. McCormick described this category of flavor as “humble nosh” in 2021, and says product developers can anticipate consumer demand for Asian flavors like chaat masala, pandan kaya, and crisped chilies.
Rachel Bukowski, team leader of product development at Whole Foods Market, says that since the pandemic, consumers are seeking out “elevated ingredients and unique flavors” to bring the restaurant experience home. In response, the grocery chain has developed 365 by Whole Foods Market Bulgogi Sauce and 365 by Whole Foods Market Thai Chili Sauce.
Spoonshot’s Vasani predicts that Korean flavors in particular will see “renewed interest” this year. “And not just kimchi, gochujang (or even gochugaru), and doenjang. We’re talking the hardcore stuff.” By this he means flavors and dishes less common to Western audiences, like ssamjang and jjajangmyeon. Evidence of the trend can be seen on menus, such as the Gochujang Crunch Salad available at fast-casual chain Chopt, developed as a collaboration with Mother-in-Law’s, a company that makes kimchi and gochujang.
Looking to the longer-term effects of the pandemic, psychologist Albers observes, “This period will likely have a dramatic and lasting impact on consumer taste. Periods of stress and trauma are imprinted on brains forever. If you ate something that you missed or craved during quarantine, it’s likely that the aroma or taste would bring back the memory at a later date.” Product developers may be wise to note such associations when developing the nostalgic flavors of the future.
Cushen of Fuchs believes the pandemic has speeded up the lifecycle of trends, putting new agility demands on product teams. “With less options in terms of traveling and social activities, the pandemic has essentially shortened consumers’ attention spans when it comes to flavors and ingredients,” she says. “The industry is cycling through trends faster than usual, meaning that what is trendy and popular—or going viral on TikTok—isn’t staying that way for long. With flavors falling out of favor and losing consumers’ interest more quickly than usual, food companies have had to adapt in order to innovate at an accelerated rate.”