Predicting future trends in food flavors is becoming ever more crucial as consumers become more experimental in their tastes, and fashion cycles speed up. Yet when one research company surveyed technical experts and marketers in the savory food manufacturing industry, it was discovered that choosing flavors is still largely part science and part art. So, where does the industry look for its sources of inspiration?

Research from Datamonitor's (London) new report, “Trends in Savory Food Flavors 2005,” found the following groups of people all are seen as being of above average importance in providing manufacturers with sources of inspiration. Ranked from most to least important (by technical expertise), they are:

1. Development chefs,

2. Other people in manufacturers' NPD teams,

3. Flavor experts from flavor companies and the

4. General public.

Other factors that are important sources of information are shown below. It should be noted that the most important sources of inspiration are derived from actively seeking out flavor trends, which demonstrates the importance of being first to market with flavors. Technical experts base key findings on the top six most important sources of new ideas:

1. Cultural trends,

2. Travel,

3. Tracking flavor companies' innovation,

4. Visiting foodservice establishments,

5. Tracking manufacturers' innovation and

6. Experimenting with old/existing recipes.

Both technical experts and marketers view tracking cultural trends as the most important source of new ideas for flavors, eclipsing even travel and visiting restaurants. This has become a far more prominent source in recent years, as flavor cycles speed up and are influenced more by fashions and fads. Cultural trends reflect consumers' interests and, hence, can influence their attitudes and consumption behavior. For example, according to certain commentators, some of the increasing focus on Hispanic flavors can be attributed to the popularity of--or at least, fascination with--such Latino entertainers as Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and Ricky Martin. Cultural trends also can signify the emergence of a trend or fad in areas likely to have a direct influence on flavor in the near future, such as cooking techniques or dieting. For example, the upsurge in interest in low-carb diets over the past two years has driven meaty and other protein-based flavors into greater prominence.

The importance of being first to market with flavor trends can be seen in the significance both technical experts and marketers give to actively seeking out travel destinations for new cuisine and flavor ideas. Consumers are becoming more widely traveled--there has been a 15%-20% increase in travel among U.S. citizens over the past 10 years. Generation X (25- to 35-year-olds) is gaining more power in the consumer market. They are better traveled than any other generation and have been exposed to a much broader range of cultures and cuisines. Therefore, they will embrace a broader range of cuisines in their cooking. Manufacturers are responding by investing in trend-spotting programs that seek to visit the destinations consumers are visiting, and exploring the flavors they encounter there.

Taste, the Most Important Attribute

Why all the fuss about tracking flavors in the first place? Surely people are more concerned these days about their health or saving time when it comes to food? Well, actually, no. Consumers continue to place more importance on taste than any other attribute associated with comestibles, simply because eating is one of the pleasures in life. Numerous consumer and industry surveys demonstrate that taste is still the primary factor influencing food choice, despite people's rising health concerns and their need for convenience. When Datamonitor asked European and American consumers in September 2004 what the most important factor was in their choice of a meal, taste was overwhelmingly chosen first. Furthermore, some believe the flavor of a product can be more important than its brand. Research results by J. Inman (2001, Journal of Consumer Research, June, pp.105-120), found that “consumers consistently switched more between flavors than between brands.” Since consumers seek greater variety in regards to flavor than brand, a manufacturer whose line lacks a full breadth of flavors will lose consumers when they switch to flavors not offered by the manufacturer. The researchers concluded “it may make more sense in many categories to expand the number of flavors under a successful brand than to introduce new brands.”

U.S. chefs are in the enviable position of being able to experiment with the elements of the world's most popular cuisines. They are not bound by strict culinary traditions or geography, as are, for example, the French. As a result, they have greater freedom to create and innovate according to their desires. The unconstrained nature of the U.S.'s culinary heritage means it tends to lead flavor trends which are then exported to the rest of the world--often through more “trend-receptive” countries such as the U.K.

The fact that the U.S. is more experimental in trying new flavors than other regions of the world is reflected in the fact that, in 2004, the highest proportion of ethnic flavor claims made by manufacturers in savory food new product development was among U.S. launches (12.6% of newly launched savory food SKUs, compared to an average of 10.7% for the rest of the world).

“Trends in Savory Food Flavors 2005” found that, for U.S. consumers, the “big three” cuisines are Chinese, Italian and Mexican--65%, 42% and 51% of U.S. consumers eat these three cuisines more than twice a month, respectively. However, although most Americans still crave these cuisines, this might slowly be shifting, because their palates are now more sophisticated and the cuisines are viewed as mainstream. The use of ethnic flavor claims by manufacturers is moving in the direction of greater authenticity. Increasingly, these cuisines will manifest themselves as more authentic regional variations, such as Oaxacan instead of Mexican, Szechwan or Hunan instead of Chinese, and Tuscan instead of Italian.

Datamonitor consumer research also reveals the enthusiasm American chefs demonstrate in experimenting with flavors is matched by U.S. consumers. A high number of U.S. consumers are very willing to try a variety of other cuisine types beyond the “big three.” The accompanying table reveals that Indonesian and Malaysian, Middle Eastern and North African, and South American cuisines are ones for manufacturers to watch. (See the chart, “Willing and Able.”)

An analysis of five years' worth of new savory food product launches (or 90,000+ SKUs) in “Trends in Savory Food Flavors 2005” reveals which three types of flavors dominate savory foods in the U.S., and they are, in order of greatest importance:

1. Vegetable,

2. Spice and

3. Fruit.

Spices are the second most important savory food flavor type, accounting for 16% of flavor claims in newly launched savory food SKUs in the U.S. Spices impart a wide variety of flavors in savory foods, with varying degrees of dominance and intensity. Spice flavorings are undergoing significant trend evolution. In the past two to three years, providing ever-hotter, spicy, savory foods was the trend. However, “extreme” and bold, burning sensations are giving way to a more reasonable approach with discernable flavor behind the fieriness. For example, there is heightened use of chipotle, ancho or guajillo chili peppers that impart smoky, earthy or sweet flavors behind the heat. Meanwhile, lighter but zestier spice flavors, such as turmeric, lemongrass, poppy seeds and sesame seeds are being driven by health and Asian culinary interest. In addition, people are becoming more conscious of the health benefits of spices--they are a good way of imparting flavor without adding calories, carbs or fats.

Fruit flavors in savory foods are very dynamic and are being combined with a variety of other flavors to create exotic and unusual combinations, hence their strong placement as the third most important flavor type in U.S. savory foods. Sweet fruit flavors were the most widely used type by savory food manufacturers in 2004, followed by citrus and tart fruit flavors. The use of fruit flavors in savory foods is benefiting from the trend towards light and zesty flavors, due to their strong health associations. Both marketers and technical experts predict strong growth for fruit flavoring in savory foods. (See “Top Ten Flavor Claims.”)

How does the trend in flavor usage in savory food new product development compare to what flavors technical experts and marketers believe will be shaping the savory foods industry in the future? According to Datamonitor's industry panel, the rising stars of savory food flavors over the next two to three years will be:

  • Spices--all types will do well,
  • Fruit flavors (especially tropical and berry),
  • Herb flavors,
  • Seasoning flavors,
  • Meat flavors (especially pork and chicken), and
  • Smoked flavors.

    By contrast, alcoholic, cheesy and buttery flavors are predicted to have low growth potential. This reveals a general shift in emphasis to healthier, less indulgent flavor types and to a focus on providing consumers with more adventurous and sophisticated sensory experiences.

    Dominik Nosalik is a managing analyst at Datamonitor (London). Nosalik is responsible for the production and management of a series of reports that examine the latest consumer trends and how they affect consumers' spending on consumer packaged goods (CPGs). Content for this article is expanded upon in Datamonitor's new report, “Trends in Savory Food Flavors 2005: Identifying New Opportunities.” For more information, contact Datamonitor at