The pandemic might be waning, but it’s left in its wake a fundamentally altered landscape for the food and beverage market.
A pair of new reports show just how quickly – and dramatically – consumer tastes have changed since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Ingredient company Kerry Group and spices and seasonings maker McCormick & Co. both released flavor forecasts that reveal consumers have leaned on traditional favorites, such as comfort food while seeking out adventurous new flavors. Both companies expect these trends to persist, setting the foundation for a new normal as more people get vaccinated, and lockdown orders fade away.
Kerry’s Flavor Forecast
Kerry identified seven micro trends that should drive new product development for food and beverage manufacturers moving forward.
Nostalgia: Consumers embraced childhood favorites and the comfort of home cooking during the pandemic, whether it took the form of chicken soup or home-baked goods. This movement will endure. “Comfort foods offer consumers something soothing, familiar, and nostalgic. Most Americans report their favorite foods remind them of childhood, stirring up memories of a simpler, safer time,” Kerry Senior Activation Marketing Specialist Amy Devitt explained. “Although comfort foods aren’t always healthy, 66% of people say they don’t feel guilty after indulging in their favorite comfort food.”
Seasonal Offerings: Companies typically tie limited time offers (LTOs) to the holiday season, with consumers turning to seasonal flavors, particularly when it comes to sweets. Popular holiday flavors, such as gingerbread and salted caramel, helped consumers make it through a long winter while stuck at home. “Seasonal tastes provide consumers an opportunity to break free from their day-to-day monotony, the stress of the pandemic, and to spice up their new routines. North Americans have come to expect seasonal and limited-time food and beverages that include crowd favorites such as smoke and barbecue in savory for summer, and pumpkin and apple in the bakery for fall,” according to Kerry’s Julie Beauchemin, marketing specialist of taste for North America.
Enticing Eats: Instagram and other social media platforms have elevated the desire for visually appealing food and beverages. Consumers want colorful products that photograph well. “In North America, consumers are interested in new textures, flavors, and ingredients that add to the overall taste experience,” Kerry Senior Marketing Insights Specialist-North America Sian Cunningham said. “Furthermore, innovation in emerging categories such as plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are now focusing on building back the rich and authentic taste tonalities of traditional meat and dairy.”
Taste Exploration: With travel not an option for most North Americans, they’ve increasingly looked to food and beverages as a way of sampling other cultures. Consumers have embraced Korean cuisine, for example, with 48% of salty snack consumers saying they liked the idea of a Korean Kimchi seasoned snack, according to Kerry’s research. “The level of adventure depends on the consumer – while some crave authentic representations of the international or local cuisine, others want to dabble in unfamiliar tastes but in approachable and familiar formats,” Beauchemin said.
Novel Flavors: As consumers grew tired of the routines imposed by lockdowns, they tracked down new and unusual tastes. Floral flavors, such as lavender, saw a massive uptick in new product offerings, especially in the beverage space. “Consumers are interested in new ways to engage with their food and beverages, and novel, unfamiliar, fantasy, and mystery flavors can bring newfound excitement,” Kerry Marketing Insights Director, North America Soumya Nair explained. “Classic and new fantasy flavors, such as cotton candy, birthday cake, mermaid, and unicorn, are popping up in sweet, beverage, and salty snack product categories.”
Acceptable Sweetness: Consumers continue to avoid sugar, forcing companies to offer more lower-sugar and clean-label sugar options. According to research from Innova, three out of five American consumers said they’d rather reduce their sugar intake than replace it with artificial sweeteners. “There are opportunities to utilize flavors and ingredients that shape the perception of sweetness without increasing sugar content, including vanilla, cinnamon, chiles, cloves, and other spices,” Cunningham said.
Healthy Halo: The attraction of functional food and beverages remains strong with consumers, whether they provide immune support or mental health benefits. “Consumers are interested in food and beverages that not only taste good but have perceived health and functional benefits. This interest has substantially grown during the pandemic, as consumers wish to protect their health in the short and long term,” Kerry Strategic Marketing Manager for Beverages-North America Karine Tetreault said. “Consumers are looking for products with added functionality to help improve their personal health priorities, ranging from probiotics and ginger for immune and digestive support, adaptogens including maca, moringa, and turmeric for stress support, to green coffee bean extract and cordyceps to support energy.”
McCormick’s Flavor Forecast
Spice and seasonings giant McCormick & Co. also knows something about flavors. The Hunt Valley, Maryland, based company has been publishing its McCormick Flavor Forecast for more than 20 years, revealing “the trends that transform the way we cook, flavor, and eat.”
“The pandemic sizably shifted the way we’ve lived our lives over the past year, yet food continues to be a way to bring people together, even virtually. Despite global travel restrictions, lockdowns, and logging in from vastly different time zones, it was moving to see everyone committed to our mission to study emerging trends and identify the flavors that will undoubtedly spark inspiration for both the home cook and professional chef for years to come,” Kevan Vetter, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Development for McCormick said in a press release announcing the company’s research results.
McCormick’s data reveals a quartet of flavor trends food and beverage manufacturers should pay attention to:
Plants Pushing Boundaries, which “represents how the plant-based world is now mainstream and has developed into a culinary trend that uniquely honors
vegetables, fruits, and botanicals that deliver indulgence, brilliant color, hearty texture, and delightful sensation through flora-focused eating.”
Essential flavors include ube (purple yam), Szechuan buttons (edible flower buds), and trumpet mushrooms.
Humble Nosh is “inspired by the Yiddish word ‘nashn’ meaning to nibble on and combines rising global flavors with the means to ‘travel locally’ via our plates.
It connects us with food and drinks that people have found comfort and nourishment while satisfying cravings from around the world.”
Key flavors in this space incorporate chaat masala (Indian spice blend), pandan kaya (Malaysian jam), and crisped chilies.
Underwater, Under Discovered “takes flavors from the coasts to consumer kitchens, delving into less-explored ingredients and textures from fresh and saltwater like seaweeds and algae for culinary innovation. This trend uproots underwater botanicals that infuse snacks, meals, and beverages with an earthy flavor for a new take on fresh.”
Key underwater flavors contain:
Dulse (red sea lettuce flakes).
Spirulina (blue-green algae).
Seagrapes (soft, green algae).
Physiological Eating represents “the re-emergence of mindfulness and intention, inspired by ancient practices and beliefs for mind-body balance, a sense of harmony, growth, and self-love. It also focuses on the Ayurvedic practice, which uses six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent) to achieve balance and warming and cooling techniques to provide comfort to the body.”
Essential flavors to consider:
Historically, trends move slowly, especially when it comes to flavors, but the pandemic accelerated consumer preferences dramatically. And, while some might fade away as life starts returning to normal, Kerry’s research shows that some trends are here to stay.
Food and beverage manufacturers need to respond just as quickly to capitalize on these shifts in consumer sentiment.
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