Flavor preferences may come and go, but if we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that topline trends are here to stay. In 2016, shoppers will continue seeking flavors deemed natural, healthy, and “clean,” as well as twists on oldies but goodies. But they will also retain a sense of adventure, willing to explore new regional notes.
"Mega trends” like natural and clean label reflect the new way in which today’s companies approach flavor selection, points out Anton Angelich, group vice president, marketing, Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY). Food and beverage firms aren’t primarily looking for vastly unexpected flavors anymore, he says; rather, they are more concerned with identifying consumers’ primary concerns—natural, clean label, "free from," non-GMO—and building flavor palettes around those key drivers.
“What is apparently different and noticeable this year is that companies developing new food and beverage products are less concerned about what the ‘newest in flavor’ will be that will interest the consumer,” Angelich says. “They see less of a shift from previous years in new flavors appearing that can drive larger, new-product opportunities. They are largely focusing on ‘getting the product right.’”
Without further ado, let’s take a look at what flavors within these mega trends are recommended to turn heads.
Natural, Organic, "Free From," and Clean Label
Demands for clean-label and natural/organic flavors, and flavors free of artificial ingredients, high sugar, and preservatives, extend to all aspects of the food and beverage chain. Flavors are no exception.
One example of a trending natural source? “Barks, roots, and leaves will all come back on the scene in a big way,” predicts Lauren Williams, marketing manager, beverage flavors, North America, Sensient Flavors (Hoffman Estates, IL).
Specific examples include honeyed evergreen, a pine flavor the company describes as “crisp” and “softened by honey instead of sap.” (“'Tree’ is the new ‘seed,’” Williams proclaims.) Another example is sassafras root. “This herbal plant’s flavor falls somewhere between a medicinal tonic and root beer,” Williams says. “With consumers’ interest in bitters, roots, and craft sodas, this flavor is sure to get them talking.”
Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients’ (Decatur, IL) American Oak distillate is a good example of an ingredient the company says is now catching formulators’ attention, not only for its “leathery notes, vanilla, dried fruit, and a hint of floral rose aromatics” but also for its clean-label appeal. It can be labeled simply as a distillate, “making [it] much friendlier for clean- and clear-label needs,” adds Mark Rainey, vice president, marketing, Wild Flavors (now a division of ADM).
Non-GMO flavors will also see more demand in 2016, according to Ed McIntosh, marketing manager for Flavorchem Corp. (Downers Grove, IL). “As FDA has not defined and probably will not define anytime in the near future what constitutes ‘natural,’ consumers will look at flavors and ingredients that are non-GMO, such as cocoa, coffee, orange, and peppermint,” he says. As it happens, the company just released a line of Non-GMO Project Verified flavors, including the ones mentioned above.
What’s Old Is New
Artisan flavors with homemade appeal “will be popular because artisanal is synonymous with quality and health,” says McIntosh.
According to Virginia Dare, “retro” flavors with all-American appeal include strawberry rhubarb pie, peach cobbler, blueberry pie/blueberry crumble, carrot cake, bananas foster, and bourbon bread pudding. Many of the company's 2016 predictions draw from the comfort of the bakery and dessert isle, including cinnamon bun, cherry cheesecake, strawberry cheesecake, black walnut cookie, chocolate hazelnut, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, tiramisu, caramel apple swirl, and the trending “birthday cake.” And, like last year, the company cites these flavors as continuing to rise across categories: maple (or even maple cinnamon), ginger (or ginger peach), salted caramel, and salted vanilla.
New twists on classics build a bridge between the unfamiliar and the known. Take coconut, says Sensient’s Williams. The company is now promoting charred coconut. “The coconut has become as ubiquitous as the apple,” she says. “We have combined that with another flavor that is becoming a pillar of American cuisine—smoke. Not just smoke, in fact. We’ve put the coconut much closer to the flame and let it roast there.” Flavor firm Fona International (Geneva, IL) also confirms the popularity of smoky flavors, which it now calls “everyday."
Woody notes are adding “complexity” to existing flavors for alcoholic drinks and even floral-flavored teas, says Synergy Flavors (Wauconda, IL). These woody notes are even taking a turn in confectionery products, soups, sauces, protein products, and even fruits like avocado and tomatoes, adds Synergy’s technical director, Paulette Lanzoff.
How about a new take on melon? Sensient now offers overripe melon, a flavor that also addresses today’s sustainability initiatives. “As focus on food waste comes front and center, we are bringing that to the flavor world by appreciating the melon, which is so often served under-ripe and tossed when it is truly ripe. The green notes mixed with fermentation—and, therefore, a bit of alcohol—is a biologically attractive scent and taste to humans,” Williams says.
Finally, by applying traditional preservation to cherry blossom, Sensient is proposing what it calls preserved cherry blossom. “Americans are into pickling, preserving, curing, brining, and other ways to make seasonal ingredients last all year,” Williams explains. “The notoriously short cherry blossom season is a global sensation, making the floral, fruity cherry blossom the perfect candidate for this treatment.”
As consumers gravitate toward food “interaction"—paying attention to how food is made—“how food and beverages are prepared, such as fermenting, pickling, and smoking, is becoming significant,” adds Catherine Armstrong, vice president, corporate communications, Comax Flavors (Melville, NY). “We created an array of flavors based on specific preparations to appeal to a wide audience.” These include coconut vinegar, pickled artichoke, roasted strawberry, and smoked avocado.
Many flavor firms point to growing interest in tea flavors. Drink companies have already watched matcha green tea take off. “According to the Sage Group [marketing consultant], U.S. retail sales of matcha green tea powder reached about 55% in 2014,” Comax Flavors points out. (Today, Fona International categorizes matcha as a “mainstream” flavor.)
“Tea’s healthy antioxidant properties catapulted it into one of America’s favorite beverages,” explains Synergy Flavors’ Lanzoff. She says tea flavors are now infiltrating foods such as cakes, ice creams, and sorbets, and that green tea is even appearing in breakfast foods and baked goods.
Comax Flavors is introducing its Cup of Tea collection for 2016. “According to Mintel, U.S. retail sales of tea and ready-to-drink tea grew 19.8% to $7.3 billion between 2009 and 2014,” the company says. “The Tea Association of the USA cited that 85% of tea consumed in America is iced tea, and loose-leaf tea is gaining in popularity.” The Cup of Tea flavor collection includes cascara tea, dandelion tea, matcha rose, and turmeric orange ginger.
Rainey says Wild Flavors is also seeing “strong interest in a wide range of our proprietary and market-differentiating tea essences.” He adds, “We’re seeing tremendous demand for our white tea extracts, as well as a wide variety of others, too. These are being used for a wide range of applications, including beverages, food, and snacks.” Plus, these flavors can be clean-labeled as “tea essences.”
And Virginia Dare, which suggests green tea in 2016, has another twist: lime green tea.
Alongside demand for tea flavors comes demand for coffee flavors, Lanzoff adds. “The versatility of coffee flavor is exploding in a variety of food and beverage products such as sauces, beer, candy, desserts, and sports nutrition products such as RTDs and bars,” she says.