In today's marketplace, flavors are characterized by one or all of the following: the relationship between liking an item and aroma, the rising popularity of Hispanic flavoring ingredients and technologies that lengthen the stability of flavor.

At the 2005 Research Chefs Association's (RCA, Atlanta) annual conference held in Montreal earlier this year, chef Dean Fearing of The Mansion on Turtle Creek restaurant (Dallas) said flavors are addictive.

Taste and aroma are key aspects of flavor; that is, taste and retronasal interactions converge to make flavor. In the 2005 Prepared Foods “R&D Trends Survey: New Flavorings Systems,” manufacturers indicated popular flavors have a Southwestern flair; these include passion fruit, mango, chipotle, smoke flavor and other flavors with potent aromas.

Manufacturers hoping to find the next big flavor sensation should take into consideration that flavor is more of a hedonic experience than once thought. According to Rachel Herz, a sensory perception educator at Brown University (Providence, R.I.), the hedonic (pleasure) perception suggests that, unlike the ingrained associations of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami), individuals learn to like food flavors because they are based in aroma, the desirability of which is dependent on experience.

“Odors are meaningless by themselves,” Herz explained at an IFT Chicago section dinner meeting in February. “Only after being associated [with emotions] do they become liked or disliked.” Odors alter thoughts and behavior, because in the amygdala, a region of the brain, odor is connected to emotional memory more tightly than any of the other senses.

“It is important to understand the emotional significance of a flavor during product development,” says Herz. Therefore, because odor is a learned behavior, culture should always be top of mind when flavor is concerned. “One man's meat is another man's poison,” proposes Herz.

As an example, Herz explained the phenomenon of wintergreen, which has been hugely popular in the U.S. for decades, but largely shunned by older generations in the U.K. This is because, during World War II, wintergreen was associated with the topical analgesics used to treat wounded soldiers in Britain. Memories of war, pain and fear are evoked when U.K. citizens, who were alive at that time, smell the herb. “Emotions related to smell can last a long time,” says Herz.

“On the other hand, taste is hardwired,” explains Herz. For example, sweet tastes will naturally produce powerful pleasant emotions, and bitter tastes will elicit the opposite response--this is the same for everyone. Most sweet fruit flavors are universally liked and when sweet is mixed with sour or bitter, such as with citrus fruit-flavored drinks or coffee, an individuals' tolerance of bitter or sour increases measurably. Sour has been extremely successful as a flavoring agent in recent decades, but that quality is found more in some regions or ethnicities than others.

Lime on My Mind

At 54% and 51%, lemon and lime are neck and neck as the ingredients that manufacturers (respondents to the PF survey) were most likely to consider for use in products for which they are responsible. “Lime is a huge part of the Hispanic flavor profile,” says Doug Renfro, co-owner of Renfro Foods (Fort Worth, Texas), a salsa and relish manufacturing company.

Hispanic flavoring trends and ingredients are becoming widely prevalent beyond Hispanic populations. As a result, in recent years, large tortilla chip companies have added lime-flavored chips to their inventory.

Chips are not the only application where limes have become popular. While limes have long been a welcome addition to soda in Mexican restaurants, lime flavor is now drawing huge success in the Coca-Cola Company's (Atlanta) Diet Coke and Coke with lime, and PepsiCo's (Purchase, N.J.) Pepsi with lime. “Non-ethnic people like me are buying it weekly,” says Renfro.

It is likely that more than half of the exhibitors at the RCA trade show sold an ingredient related to Hispanic and Southwest cuisine or used a Hispanic application to display their ingredient. In addition, the winner of the RCA's 2005 Culinology Tradeshow Award, Del Real Foods (Mira Loma, Calif.) served traditional pork carnitas, beef barbacoa, Mexican rice and refried beans. Arturo Barragan, a sales manager for the company, commented that for a period of time, customers lost interest when Del Real Foods attempted to make their products less authentic. Now, after resuming their traditional style, their foodservice products have increased in distribution and are sold nationwide at Costco Wholesale (Issaquah, Wash.).

Ethnic specialties are broadening tremendously. Even a year ago, chipotle, made from dried and smoked jalapeño peppers (with a barbecue-like flavor), was not well recognized. Now it is the “in” ingredient. “Ancho pepper is also rising in popularity. It is to poblano what chipotle is to jalapeño,” says Renfro. Chipotle and ancho peppers are available in several forms, as a puree or dehydrated, and ground as a powder to be sprinkled on food or grilled on meat.

“The ancho could be the next chipotle in terms of a new dried pepper with a smoky aroma,” opines Renfro. “Fire-roasting just about anything, if it's done properly, imparts flavor.”

Holy Molé

Manufacturers can look to different communities as a better indicator of what is on the cutting edge in flavors. The top three flavoring trends that surveyed manufacturers wanted to know more about were: flavoring trends in baked goods (34%), flavorings typical of authentic foreign foods (29%) and flavoring preferences of ethnic groups in North America (33%).

Cross-usage of ingredients between cultures has been popular lately because consumers are more likely to purchase flavors when they have been exposed to them in one way or another. “By eight years of age, children mimic the hedonic responses of adults in their culture,” says Herz.

“Younger generations don't have many [food] prejudices because there are so many races and ethnicities in their classes. They share each other's sweets, snacks and drinks,” says Renfro. He suspects that children will provide manufacturers a large base to market good-tasting foods, and heritage will not be an issue. “People want options. They don't want just ketchup and mustard. They want all of the flavors of the rainbow to put on their food,” says Renfro.

If selling products is the goal, national brands need to make products that taste good to people everywhere. For example, raspberry chipotle already was known as a flavor for dipping sauces or marinades before Renfro reinvented it as a salsa. “We took a known concept that had been really successful and made it into a cool salsa,” acknowledges Renfro.

Tamarind, a fast-encroaching ingredient appearing in chutneys, curries and sauces, is used in some brands of Worcestershire and barbecue sauce. Spiced tamarind beverages like “tamarind-ade,” a widely popular soft drink in Spanish-speaking countries, was found only in ethnic aisles a year ago, but variations now are cropping up in more stores nationwide, notes Renfro.

In addition to its already popular lime drink, Pepsi will launch apple-flavored Manzanita Sol and orange-flavored Mirinda in heavily populated Hispanic U.S. markets this summer. According to a Knight Ridder article, the drinks already are ranked second and third behind Pepsi in Mexico.

Paul Walker, director of sales at a dried fruit supplier, offers that molé, featuring unsweetened chocolate or cocoa mixed with peppers, has been popular for quite some time in Hispanic communities. However, many caution that if a customer has no prior emotional attachment to it, the product will not last. “A chef can create an ancho ice cream dish and be proud of it, but try and sell it,” says Fearing, who is popular for his interpretations of Southwestern cuisine. “You want people to be excited about ordering it. Everything has to sell.”

Flavors Heat Up

Regionally, Renfro has found there is not much difference in the amount of heat that customers prefer. “We had a preconceived notion that our habanera pepper salsa, which is extremely hot, would only sell in certain areas, but it has been our number-one red salsa across the entire country for about eight years,” he reveals.

“There is a 200-store retailer in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont that will, out of our 25 Renfro items, buy the three hottest salsas every month,” says Renfro. “You'd think ketchup might be spicy up there, but [a desire for heat] is truly all over the country now.” On a gradual basis, the tongue is able to tolerate more heat, and it seems that--collectively--Americans are tolerating more heat.

Srirachi, an Asian hot chile sauce, is becoming a staple in American delis and submarine shops when it would have been an unlikely sight outside of an Asian restaurant. “It is starting to be a nouveau Tabasco (Avery Island, La.) sauce. It's not just a hotter jalapeño; it is a totally different heat source,” offers Renfro.

Fearing implores that it is really important to understand chili peppers, but it is most important to understand the customer. “You want hot and exciting, but not five-alarm chili fires. The customer's reaction is my temperature gauge,” he says. Even though the American palate adapts, there always will be consumers that want a pepper flavor, without as much heat.

Forever Flavors

Renfro's Salsas are natural but not organic. If they were to go organic, Renfro says that sourcing ingredients outside the normal parameters would be a challenge. “The pricing tends to be higher. If you find the ingredient, you have to make sure you don't run out, so you have to contract a year in advance. Maintaining the paperwork and audit trail can be difficult,” says Renfro.

Healthful is fast becoming an attribute that all manufacturers seek to create in their foods, but in consumer circles, flavor will almost always trump health. Products with soy may be bitter, while oxidation can cause rancid flavors. Some 50% of manufacturers ranked flavor technologies (or attributes) that modify taste perception as having been or having the potential to be extremely useful in their food and beverage formulations.

Flavor stability led, with 54% selecting it as the flavor technology that has been or has the potential to be extremely useful in food and beverage formulations. The survey participants, of whom 61% worked in research and development, were very interested in learning more about encapsulated flavors, flavors that minimize rancidity and flavors that maintain stability during processing and shelflife.

“Flavors that are truly encapsulated and separated from the rest of the product until home preparation have the ability to remain stable over the finished product's shelflife,” says Suzanne Johnson, R&D director at a flavoring ingredients company. Depending on the choice of encapsulation matrix, flavor can be released on exposure to cold water, or remain protected until the water is heated.

Companies are using aroma to their advantage. Catherine Zenner, a senior R&D chef on the development team behind Barilla America Inc.'s (Bannockburn, Ill.) Restaurant Creations line, stated that she had aroma in mind as the team developed the product, which commandeered Prepared Foods' 2004 Spirit of Innovation Award. “I wanted the aroma to fill the kitchens and capture the family's appetite,” she says. By separating the ingredients, like pesto from the base tomato sauce, the flavors and aromas are layered in a natural way, just as a chef would layer ingredients by simmering tomatoes, then adding herbs and spices.”

Some 53% of survey respondents wanted to know more about flavorings that are stable to processing conditions. “'Controlled release' is a patented technological trend in encapsulation technology that releases the flavor only when desired conditions are met,” says Johnson.

Controlled release products can offer extended dissolution (up to six minutes in hot water) and, therefore, the optimum balance between released aroma and retained flavor. “Imagine warming soup on the stove--and although some of the flavor/aroma is released into the air in the kitchen, most will remain in the soup for tasting over the time it will be consumed,” says Johnson. This technology can be made applicable to steam table products where much of the flavor/aroma can evaporate on sitting.

The specific conditions that must be met for flavor release to occur make encapsulation technologies ideal for fried and batter-coated products, as well as in dough and topical applications, says Johnson. They offer proven retention to moisture and will prevent flashing off or scorching of flavors in fried, grilled or baked foods. “Unfortunately, the flexibility of flavor profiles becomes more limited as encapsulation becomes more specialized for various applications,” says Johnson.

Some 35% of respondents chose frozen foods as the types of products under development that needed flavoring the most. Extreme conditions, product longevity and freeze-thaw cycles are challenges. Flavors that last through processing, remain aromatically stable over time and elicit an emotional response will forever stay on the roll call of remembrance for the consumer appetite.