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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Experts predict 2021’s hottest food and beverage flavors.
Among the dramatic changes in consumer behavior the COVID-19 crisis effected last year—toilet-paper hoarding, extreme bread baking—the pandemic made us both want to stay safe at home but also stare longingly out the window remembering the days when we could travel freely. These paradoxical desires showed up in the food and drink flavors consumers sought in 2020, as they embraced both familiar, comforting flavors as well as flavors new and adventurous. As the pandemic crosses over into a new year, we’re likely to see those consumer preferences persist.
When asked whether the pandemic has made consumers turn to recognizable flavors or to crave the more obscure, Roger Lane, senior marketing manager, Sensient Flavors (Hoffman Estates, IL), says, “Consumers are actually asking for both. As consumers locked down, they turned to familiar dishes and flavors to help them cope with the stress as well as make it easier for them to prepare meals at home. Tried-and-true familiar recipes were revisited and enjoyed for the nostalgia factor.”
“At the same time,” he continues, “consumers were forced to stay at home without even the most mundane travel. They were desperate for something new, and trying a new, exotic dish—with all of the flavors associated with it—was an easy way to ‘travel’ without ever having to leave the comfort and safety of home. With the monotony of cooking three meals a day, every day, consumers branched out to try cuisines and dishes that provided some excitement and global flair.”
Marie Wright, president of Creation, Design, and Development, and chief global flavorist, at ADM (Chicago), says the same. “Now more than ever, people are focused on cultivating holistic well-being, including physical, mental, and emotional health. In fact, ADM Outside Voice research finds 84% of consumers view mental health equally as important as physical wellness. Nostalgic flavors can provide comfort in times of stress. Yet, we believe consumers are willing to experiment with new flavors, especially as international travel and restaurant dining is limited by the pandemic.”
With this in mind, here are some flavor trends that food, beverage, and nutraceutical product makers will want to consider when going to the drawing board in 2021.
Comfort, Indulgence, and Sweet
The pandemic heightened our yearning for comforting flavors—especially sweet ones. “The need for comfort has taken on a whole new meaning within the current social and political climate, but flavors continue to provide a soothing constant,” states a December press release from custom beverage development company Flavorman (Louisville, KY).
Old favorites remain popular. “Sweet brown flavors that add warm notes to products, such as maple, coffee, and butterscotch, are all showing growth in launch activity according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD),” says Rebecca Davis, flavor scientist at National Flavors (Kalamazoo, MI). Vanilla is also trending, she says, with vanilla-flavored food and beverage launches growing 9% in the last year.
“Maple will gain traction this year for its diverse representation in sweet and savory flavor profiles,” predicts Becca Henrickson, marketing manager at Wixon (St. Francis, WI). “We’ve seen large growth of this flavor in breakfast cereal launches, with opportunity spanning cross-category. The caramel-like sweetness is also the perfect addition to seasonal fall and holiday flavors.”
“Honey is a trending flavor in immunity and a highly functional ingredient that is used as a natural sweetener in both dry and liquid applications,” says Rebecca Shurhay, marketing analyst at Flavorchem (Downers Grove, IL). “Cocoa is trending in the breakfast category, as seen in its flavor emergence in waffle, pancake cup, cereal, and coffee launches.”
Childhood favorites continue to skyrocket, a trend that’s been happening for years. “Consumers are stressed out, and nostalgic flavors and products provide comfort,” explains Holly McHugh, marketing associate for Imbibe (Niles, IL). “I expect flavors reminiscent of childhood favorites like cotton candy, rainbow candy, snow cone, S’mores, and birthday cake to be popular.”
Others say the same. According to Shurhay, “Birthday cake has gained immense popularity in the nostalgic sector due to its ability to evoke positive emotions, with the flavor showing up everywhere, from cookies to beverages to popcorn.”
She continues, “According to Mintel, 71% of consumers enjoy things that remind them of their childhood, as nostalgic flavors like birthday cake, S’mores, and peanut butter have gained immense popularity in a range of applications. Several brands are relaunching blasts from the past and revamping their current portfolio to provide familiarity for consumers. General Mills reformulated their iconic cereal recipes, while Skittles took their traditional textured candy and turned it into the brand’s first-ever gummies.”
And National Flavors’ Davis says, “With more than 7 in 10 consumers agreeing that they like flavors reminiscent of their past or childhood, flavors like birthday cake, S’mores, or regional favorites like Blue Moon are resonating. Consumers have the opportunity to introduce and share these tastes with their children, creating new memories and connections.”
A newer child-inspired flavor is “unicorn.” Says Imbibe’s McHugh, “Unicorn is a fantasy flavor, so it doesn’t have a standard of identity, but it’s often a sweet and/or tart flavor. Melon and berry flavors are common for unicorn-flavored products as well.”
Other popular dessert flavors are getting a twist or expanding to new applications. For instance, “Red velvet is back…in a new form,” says Megan Byrnes, marketing manager for Gold Coast Ingredients (Commerce, CA). “In past years, red velvet cake took the spotlight, and then the flavor moved into other bakery applications (cookies, muffins, etc.), dairy, and nutraceutical products. More recently, red velvet started making an appearance in hot beverages. As a result, in 2021 we predict to see red velvet infused into some of our other favorite flavors, like red velvet hot cocoa flavor and red velvet cookies ’n crème flavor.”
Even the most familiar flavors are getting a makeover. For instance, says Davis, vanilla can be made more exciting. “We’ve seen brands transforming vanilla with cherry, cinnamon, or chili to spice up this favorite flavor.”
Flavorman’s press release also touches on this reimagining. “Delivering on consumer cravings for nostalgia and indulgence, 2021 will also see the return of classic favorites, but in unexpected, more sophisticated forms.” Kristen Wemer, director of beverage development at the drink specialist, said, “When you think about childhood flavors reimagined for premium applications, you get something like a smokey vanilla cold brew, bubble gum seltzer, or a fruit punch gin cocktail. We’re experiencing a renaissance of these nostalgic flavors—peanut butter, orange creamsicle, grape cotton candy—in concepts like hard coffee, energy drinks, and craft soda.”
The growing interest in home baking has also inspired flavor creators. Comax Flavors (Melville, NY) named “Home Baker” one of its 2021 Flavor Trends and created a new lineup which includes Banana Bread, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Pizza flavors. Comax’s vice president of corporate communications, Catherine Armstrong, says, “What started as ‘stress baking,’ driven by the pandemic, has led to the rediscovery of baking and cooking. In response, Comax Flavors crafted the Home Baker collection. This comforting line can be used in a range of sweet and savory applications, including baked goods, syrups, confections, dairy, snacks, sauces, and entrees.”
Seasonal flavors offer their own sense of comfort. “Nostalgic seasonal flavors will also be widespread on LTO [limited-time offer] menus, such as lemonade in the summer, pumpkin and maple in the fall, and sugar plum and gingerbread in the winter,” says Imbibe’s McHugh.
Some seasonal flavors have become so popular that they’ve become popular year-long. As ADM’s Wright says, “Pleasant memories can be triggered by foods and beverages with flavors and aromas from the past, including pumpkin spice—which has moved out of being just a seasonal flavor—vanilla, chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, and birthday cake. Energy bars, protein shakes, and sports drinks are just as likely to use these flavors as baked goods and frozen treats.”
Then there’s the comfort of a good drink. Alcohol-inspired flavors are trending. “Spirit flavors are also gaining traction, especially with consumers drinking way too much in 2020 but still wanting those flavors in non-alcoholic products—namely, mocktails, ice cream, and confection,” says Imbibe’s McHugh. “Alcohol-inspired flavors like rosé, mojito, Moscow mule, peach Bellini, sangria, and bourbon are being used in products across categories. These types of flavors are especially common in juices, teas, and CSDs [carbonated soft drinks], but they’ve also been used in products like pre-workout beverages and sparkling waters.”
Longing for Adventure
While we mourn the days when we could travel carefree, consumers thankfully can still get a small taste of that adventure in their foods and beverages.
“Globally inspired flavors have been an upward trend the last few years, but I expect this trend to accelerate because of the pandemic,” says Imbibe’s McHugh. “Consumers aren’t traveling as much right now, but they can use global flavors to ‘travel’ without leaving their home.”
The rising popularity of Asia-inspired flavors like yuzu, calamansi, and tamarind in CPG products speaks to this, she says. “There’s been a lot of influence from Latin America the last few years. Guava is one that has popped up a lot, often combined with familiar flavors like strawberry or other tropical flavors like passionfruit. I also expect to see more products that combine familiar fruits with spicier flavors like chili, such as mango chili lime. Another up-and-coming flavor is blood orange, which is a Mediterranean flavor. I expect CPG brands will experiment with other Mediterranean flavors that I’m already seeing on menus, like orange blossom, bergamot, figs, and dates.”
Likewise, says Flavorchem’s Shurhay, “International and regional cuisine has sparked consumer appetite for flavor exploration as many crave a sense of adventure in food and drink while stuck at home. A Mintel survey showed 87% of consumers displaying interest in regional BBQ flavors, as Kansas City Style BBQ, Sweet Southern Heat, and Nashville Hot emerge in several new launches. Taste profiles from the Middle East, Latin America, and Japan are featured regions to watch for as these flavors continue to inspire snack and culinary trends.”
Wixon’s Henrickson agrees with the interest in Japan. “Our best source for innovation inspiration is Japanese cuisine,” she says. “They are inherently a culture of new-age ideas, fused with centuries of rich flavor. This includes known flavors like yuzu, shoyu, and matcha, but also lesser-known flavors like sansho, sakura, and katsuobushi. The delayed Olympics taking place this summer in Japan will only further the current interest in the cuisine.”
ADM’s Wright also sees consumers seeking exotic and ethnic flavors. “With this past year setting back many people’s plans, consumers are craving new experiences, and their palates are now awakening to more adventurous flavor profiles. In 2021, we anticipate more people pursuing global ingredients like kumquat, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, garam masala, amba, and curry of all spice levels.”
Some ethnic foods, which consumers had freer access to before the pandemic, are now comfort foods in and of themselves, points out Henrickson. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted consumer appetites for more familiar and what we call ‘comforting’ flavors,” she says. “What I think is interesting is the shift in what consumers designate as comfort food. It’s not just your macaroni and cheese and pizza; it’s also exotic dishes like pho, sushi, and tacos. This is especially true for Gen Z and Millennials. We see the comfort-flavor trend extending into exploration of different cuisine types. For example, Mexican cuisine is the most popular ethnic cuisine in America, and there is so much to be explored yet. When you layer in the consumer’s desire for comforting flavors, you land on exciting flavors like birria, Oaxacan moles, pozole, and tres leches.”
Flavor inspiration can also come from unexpected places. Sensient Flavors, for instance, is suggesting Oud, typically a scent in perfumes, as an upcoming flavor to watch. Sensient’s Lane says, “Oud is one of the most expensive raw scent ingredients in the world and comprises the base notes in many scents. Each year, Sensient tries to choose something outside the realm of flavor to show how influence in flavor can come from anywhere. Oud contains many of the same woody and balsamic notes of many other flavors in the same family. It’s an easy, but complex, substitution for any flavor that provides woody, aged notes.” He describes it as “musky, sensual, dark, warm sweetness mixed with woody and balsamic notes, and smokey leather.”
Another flavor to watch, says Sensient, comes from a French dessert called Ispahan, whose flavor notes are “well-balanced, sweet, creamy, floral fruity, raspberry, rose, and lychee,” says Lane. He explains: “Ispahan is inspired by a famous French dessert of the same name created in the early 1990s by Pierre Hermes, and it remains popular in Europe today. The dessert itself was inspired by Ispahan roses in English gardens from the 1800s, which came to Europe by way of explorers of ancient Persian gardens in what is now Iraq. Ispahan is truly a globally inspired flavor that tracks with consumer interest in products with unique, multicultural stories.”
Finally, for those vacationing at home, Comax’s new Greetings from the Tropics Collection offers classic tropical flavors of coconut, guava, mango, papaya, passionfruit, and pineapple. Comax describes it as “a vacation in a bottle.”
Manufacturers can take the edge off of unfamiliar ingredients by combining them with those consumers are already at ease with.
For instance, says National Flavors’ Davis, you could “combine an emerging flavor, like hibiscus, with a more familiar taste such as ginger to attract consumers who want flavor adventures but want a bit of familiarity to make the first purchase less risky.”
ADM’s Wright agrees. “Product developers can help consumers ease into more adventurous eats by combining familiar flavors or applications with unexpected ingredients. For instance, a recovery smoothie might combine berries and botanicals, such as strawberries with hibiscus and basil. Tart citrus is enhanced with warming spices like cinnamon, clove, and star anise. Ginger is gaining popularity in sweet and savory applications, as it is believed to support digestion. Cardamom adds complexity to a dish and is delicious when paired with chocolate or pear. Tea and kombucha have broad flavor potential and a health halo that inspires consumers to try something different.”
Hot and Cool
Spicy and tingly flavors can provide the kick consumers are seeking, too. Flavorchem’s “Flavor & Trend Forecast 2021” predicts “brands continue to bring the heat, as an emergence of fiery flavor launches will hit store shelves and menus in 2021.” Such flavors include habanero, chamoy sauce, ghost pepper, guajillo, gochujang, Nashville Hot, chipotle, and Carolina Reaper pepper.
Wixon’s Henrickson seconds growth of spicy flavors. “Heat will continue to rise in 2021 with the heightened interest in spicy food and pepper types. Jalapeno is the most prolific pepper type across category, but we are seeing interest rise in chili types that add heat and depth of flavor, including aji amarillo, guajillo, habanero, and poblano.”
There’s also interest in spicy-and-sweet blends, with Flavorchem’s report noting, “Flavor mashups like spicy hot, savory, and sweet provide multidimensional heat as sweet heat climbs the ladder, with two-thirds of Americans expressing interest in the spicy and sweet combination that includes profiles like honey siracha and mango habanero.”
National Flavors’ Davis agrees, advising the introduction of “sweeter profiles like spiced pecan into alcoholic beverages.”
Meanwhile, cool, minty flavors have their own kind of kick and will continue trending this year, say several suppliers. Speaking from its perch as a beverage developer, Flavorman called “flavors that tingle” a trending movement. The company’s chief flavorist, Tom Gibson, said in the press release, “We’ve had a considerable uptick in client requests for flavors that deliver varying degrees and styles of heat, smoke, and spice. But we’ve also seen an increase in requests for flavors with that fresh, cooling rush you’d get from chewing a stick of mint gum.”
On the drink side, Flavorman said, “Flavors like Ancho chile, habanero, and Indian peppercorn are expected to make their way into everything from ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails to tea and lemonade. Meanwhile, menthol-heavy pairings—think peppermint-mocha cream and lemon-coconut eucalyptus—will contribute a cooling element to seltzers, premium coffee, juice drinks, and more.”
On the minty side, ADM’s Wright says: “Peppermint, spearmint, and mint extracts offer awakening and refreshing attributes for a boost of energy many consumers are looking for. Mint flavors can be applied to better-for-you foods and beverages, as well as permissible indulgence.”
In the fruit realm, companies are finding ways to freshen up even the most common flavor.
Byrnes of Gold Coast Ingredients points to the transformation of standard banana to Banana 2.0. “Banana flavor has proven to be a consumer favorite for many years, and companies have taken advantage of the staple flavor in nutrition products. In 2020, we also saw high demand for banana cream flavor, banana bread flavor, and banana pudding flavor,” she says. “Due to its proven success, we think manufacturers will experiment further with banana in 2021 with flavors such as banana caramel, banoffee (a current favorite in Europe), banana cinnamon, banana peanut butter, and banana marshmallow.”
Berries are always popular—such as elderberry, which saw skyrocketing growth last year. “Maqui berry and elderberry will feature in many products,” predicts ADM’s Wright. “Additionally, other berries such as cranberries and blackcurrants will also be popular and will add bold flavor and color to foods and beverages as wholesome ingredients with associated holistic health benefits.”
Pairing fruits with trending botanicals is a fresh approach. Says Byrnes, “From 2019 through 2020, we witnessed the boom in hard seltzer beverages, which also escalated the botanical flavor trend including elderflower, mint, hibiscus, and lavender flavors. We foresee the botanical trend proceeding through 2021 with innovative botanical + fruit flavor profiles like raspberry rose, watermelon mint, citrus hibiscus, peach elderflower, and lavender lemonade.”
Another way to give fruits new appeal is to highlight where they came from, says National Flavors’ Davis. This advice applies to all kinds of flavors, in fact. “Highlight flavor provenance like Michigan blueberries or Georgia peaches to create an authenticity that increases your brand credibility with consumers,” she advises. “Wrap a story around your flavor, either through regional flavors from pure Michigan cherries or with a fun association like Wizard’s Brew, a butterscotch/cream soda flavor reminiscent of the world of a famous wizard.”
Likewise, Flavorman recommends in its press release: “Staples like grapefruit, lemon, and lime will continue to be popular, but there is an opportunity to elevate these familiar profiles by grounding them in specific locations of interest.”
And don’t forget about the novelty of lesser-known, exotic fruits. Flavorchem’s Shurhay says the sweet and tart yuzu, “an internationally trending superfruit flavor from Asia…is gaining momentum throughout food and beverage.”
Davis of National Flavors says, “Highlight intriguing flavors like blood orange or dragon fruit to connect with flavor collectors who seek out novel tastes.”
Plant-Based and Meat Flavors
Plant-based foods are seeing their own flavor developments. For instance, says Gold Coast Ingredients’ Byrnes, “As more vegan, meat-substitute products enter the marketplace, flavor innovation will follow. Manufacturers have spent the past couple years introducing new plant-based products to the market, such as vegan beef, chicken, and sausage. At Gold Coast, our most popular savory flavors include vegan hamburger, beef, chicken, and pork flavors. Next, we predict the vegan market is going to spice up their offerings with some vegan meat + heat flavors like vegan jalapeno bacon, hatch chili hamburger, and chipotle chicken flavors.”
On the meat side, chicken saw its stock rise—“soared during this pandemic,” in fact, says Comax Flavors. As a result, its popularity as a flavor is also on the uptick. Comax notes, “According to Twitter, chicken was the number-one ‘Most Tweeted about Food in the U.S.’ on Twitter’s Top-10 list, which compared tweets from March 1 to September 1 of 2019 with the same period from .” This love of chicken inspired Comax to introduce in its new Chicken Soars flavor collection comprising Chicken Vegetable Soup, Fried Chicken, and Grilled Chicken. “Whether it is real poultry or a plant-based analog, consumers love chicken,” said Comax’s Armstrong in a press release.
Drilling down to plant-based trends in the beverage sector, Björn Hermann, product manager at Doehler GmbH (Darmstadt, Germany), notes the popularity of natural flavors such as hemp, hops, or tea (including classic green, white, and black tea). Besides flavor, these ingredients offer their own health benefits and a naturalness consumers gravitate to.
Take hemp. “The traditional hemp leaf infusion is created from the dried leaves of the hemp plant,” Hermann says. "It is an increasingly popular ingredient that makes beverages more refreshing. The smooth and honey-like taste with a slight herbal note makes it suitable for drinking at any time of the day."
Hops ingredients, which are seeing growing demand in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, lends unique flavors. “Hops, with its different components, offer various bitter flavors and taste dimensions,” says Hermann. “It is the perfect consumer fit of naturalness, authenticity, and health appeal.”
Tea is always popular. “Black, green, and mate tea, as well as fruit and herbal infusions like rooibos and ginger, have an authentic and convincing taste,” he says. “These flavors are among the top-10 most sought-after flavors in the beer and spirit mix segment, or like mint they are among the fastest-growing flavors.”
And infusions, blending some of these most popular botanical sources, are gaining, Hermann says. “More and more consumers are opting for natural products with an authentic taste. Infusions such as cold-brew cocoa or cold-brew herbal infusions in combination with fruits meet this demand and will become increasingly popular. Tea and hops, hemp and tea, botanicals and hops—these flavors can also be combined very well and offer a high potential for new product launches.”
Finally, flavors that consumers associate with good health will continue to trend during the pandemic. Flavors that consumers already linked with immunity and overall health will continue to stay in the spotlight.
Here, citrus ingredients shine. “Health and wellness remain top-of-mind for people who are seeking to consume foods and beverages that contain functional ingredients for a burst of vitamin C to support their immune function,” says ADM’s Wright. “Flavors that symbolize or signal health will boom, including the traditional lemon, orange, and lime flavors. There will also be consumer interest in varietal flavors, such as Sicilian lemon and Valencia orange, and exotic citrus like yuzu and calamansi, along with fermented citrus like black limes or preserved lemons. Lemonades will also revive next year, which align well with one of Pantone’s 2021 Colors of the Year, Illuminating Yellow.”
In its “Flavor & Trend Forecast 2021,” Flavorchem highlights “Immunity Boost” as trend number-one, with associated flavor recommendations such as elderberry, hibiscus, echinacea, ginger, turmeric, and honey.
Comax Flavors features some of these in its new Immunity Boost flavor range, which includes Apple Carrot Ginger, Blueberry Elderberry, and Manuka Honey. The flavors can be used in everything from non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks to beverage syrups, plant-based and dairy applications, baked goods, confections, and nutrition and performance products.
Speaking from the beverage world, Imbibe’s McHugh forecasts that “Immunity beverages will be a top trend in 2021, and these products will feature flavors like ginger and turmeric because they also have anti-inflammatory properties.”
Beyond immunity, McHugh says, “I expect that beverages aiding with stress relief and sleep will become more prominent as well, so expect brands to incorporate ingredients like chamomile and lavender for their flavor and associated calming benefits.”
In its press release, Flavorman says, “Beverages that offer immunity, cognitive, and mood-boosting benefits will be especially significant. Expect fragrant flavors like hibiscus, elderflower, and orange blossom to be combined with other berry, botanical, and citrus elements to emphasize functional ingredient blends in naturally positioned teas, enhanced waters, flavored kombucha, and more.”
Opportunity to Explore
In 2021, consumers will continue to rely on food, drinks, and health products to meet multiple needs, whether it’s a need for emotional comfort, a need for health support, or even the need to experience the world while stuck at home. For product manufacturers and flavor suppliers, this provides an opportunity to delight, to comfort, and perhaps to capture a new wave of consumers who could remain loyal even after the pandemic’s restrictions lift.
Wixon’s Henrickson sums it up: “We see 2021 as an opportunity for a flavor renaissance. With the advent of the vaccine, there is hope on the horizon that social activities and dining out will be able to resume safely. Therefore, there is no better time to innovate around flavor.”