Bland and common flavors are as fashionable today as poodle skirts. A surge of interest in flavors that are foreign, fiery and fabulous is underway, thanks to media sources like the Food Network andBon Appetitmagazine, and a tendency for innovative food concepts to trickle down from fine dining to fast food. The “2006Prepared Foods'R&D Trends Survey: New Flavoring Systems” provides insight into the types of flavors, technologies and cuisines that fuel America's newfound flavor enthusiasm.

According to the 2006 PF flavor survey, 54% of manufacturers say they currently use fruit flavors or believe these flavors “will be in significant use in the next three years.” The variety of fruit flavors in use or being considered has expanded. For example, one noted flavor supplier hailed pomegranate, blood orange, acai berry, fig, Meyer lemon and kaffir lime in its 2006 annual flavor list. But not all fruit flavors fared equally well. Lime and lemon received lower marks in 2006 than in the 2005 survey, when Hispanic cuisines became more of a mainstay than a fad.

Interest in a flavor can grow depending upon the amount of exposure it receives in restaurant menus, new products and food and lifestyle magazines. According to Cara Newkirk, senior marketing manager for a flavor company, a flavor featured in a retail product can progress into the mainstream by first being introduced as a premium specialty product, then appearing in a regional niche brand and, finally, by appearing as a nationally distributed product.

Many products found favor first as dietary supplements. The pomegranate fruit, a native of the Middle East and Asia, first hit the big time in the natural products' industry when studies revealed its antioxidant capabilities. Cutting-edge chefs later added it to menus, and pomegranate quickly became an “it” ingredient and a flavor in vogue.

Nowadays, pomegranate can be found in the Blueberry Pomegranate variety of Anheuser-Busch's 100% natural flavored PEELS, a line of premium alcoholic beverages flavored with 100% fruit juice (also available in Strawberry Passion Fruit, Pear Lemon and Cranberry Peach).

Flavors like lychee (also litchi) or mangosteen (which originated in Asia) also first became popular in dietary supplements but, at this stage, experience a novel popularity enjoyed by culinary enthusiasts in the know.

Nevertheless, according to Mintel's Global New Product's Database (GNPD), lychee awareness increased enough to spawn six new product introductions between February 2005 and February 2006, which amounts to 21 new product introductions containing lychee in the U.S. since 2000. Comparatively, the GNPD calculates 107 new products that contain the word pomegranate have been launched since 2000.

“The beverage category has traditionally been ahead of the curve from a flavor perspective,” says Newkirk. In addition to beverages, gourmet chocolates and sauces can also be considered categories of flavor experiencing an upward trend.

In February 2006, Naked Juice introduced two new acai juices, pomegranate acai and rainforest acai, to its antioxidant line to help consumers maintain a heart healthy diet. While there have been numerous acai product introductions, Newkirk reports there has been minimal exposure of acai on restaurant menus.

The acai berry, a nascent flavor from the rainforests of the Amazon, grew in popularity like pomegranate because it is a good source of antioxidants and flavonoids. With some foods (like dark chocolate) containing flavonoids, manufacturers can consider ingredients for more than just flavor.

After fruit flavors, butter flavor trounced the competition, with 49% of manufacturers considering significant use. Brown butter flavors, a high-end chefs' butter that is cooked until it turns nutty brown and then served as a butter sauce over fish, has produced a following in some circles.

PEELS, 100% natural alcoholic beverages, recently launched nationwide in several flavors, including Blueberry Pomegranate, Strawberry Passion Fruit, Pear Lemon and Cranberry Peach.

¿Puedes Decir Queso?

Of the manufacturers surveyed, 68% currently market or plan to market in the next three years consumer products considered to be distinctly Mexican cuisine.

At 40%, Italian flavorings systems also placed high among ethnic cuisines that interest manufacturers. The popularity of Italian spice fennel gives testimony to a rebound in all things Italian, as well as Mediterranean diet claims.

Ethnic flavor write-ins that manufacturers are using or plan to use also include: Cajun, Caribbean, Hawaiian, soul food, kosher and vegetarian foods. Certain companies are considering making investments in these cuisines, while others already have.

The impetus for developing ethnic cuisine derives in part from the abundance of food programming. “There is an explosion of chefs on television. They have become today's celebrities,” states Harold Plein, corporate chef at a dairy flavor company.

As a result of the popularity of food programming, the public is being introduced to different types of ethnic food products, cheese being one of them.

With 48% of the vote, cheese tied for third place with lemon and vanilla as a flavor that manufacturers responding to the PF flavor survey use or plan to use significantly in the next three years. An even more interesting dynamic is the increasing recognition of authentic Hispanic cheeses as a manifestation of America's growing interest in Latin food—one result of an increased Hispanic population. “From the dairy flavor aspect…we've been getting a lot of requests for Hispanic flavor profiles,” observes Plein.

“The Hispanic demographic is enormous, and it is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Plein. Nearly 40 million people in the U.S. claim some Hispanic heritage. Those roots could be Mexican, Caribbean, Spanish, Latin American, South American or Afro-Cuban. Since there is no single homogenous Hispanic cultural group, the opportunity for niche marketing is huge.

Hispanic cheese flavors like Chihuahua, Panela, Oaxaca, Cotija and Manchego now are competing with the more familiar Parmesans, cheddars and mozzarellas. In February 2006, V&V Foods launched Supremo Chihuahua White Natural Melting Cheese, described as 100% authentic Mexican-style. Cajeta, a goat's milk caramel, is another Hispanic flavor in hot demand.

“Additionally, more and more artisanal cheese flavors are being requested,” says Plein. Historically, the U.S. market has not been very adventurous when it comes to cheese, with most of the offerings concentrated in the familiar Parmesan/cheddar/mozzarella areas. Emmental, a variety of Swiss cheese, is one up-and-coming cheese that is receiving more exposure. “Gruyere, a combination of the finest Parmesan, cheddar and Swiss you've ever tasted, is also trending upward,” says Plein, who also cites Italian Gorgonzola and French Roquefort as two intensely savory blue-veined cheeses that deserve attention.

Even fictional characters, like the title characters from the Academy Award-winning animated movie Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, are plugging cheeses such as Wensleydale, a mild crumbly cheese promoted by a Yorkshire, England, dairy. The Wensleydale Creamery attributes the sudden demand to the movie's popularity.

The Stability Standard

An overwhelming 91% of surveyed manufacturers rank flavor stability as the top flavor technology that has been and has the potential to be extremely useful in food and beverage formulations.

“A customer that has a high percentage of cheese [in their product] may have problems with price and stability,” says Plein. “I've seen a big push in the industry to reduce the amount of real cheese in formulations and replace it with commodity ingredients such as milk, butter, cream powders, whey, maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract (AYE) and other flavor components that mimic those found in real cheese.” Cheese prices are driven by several factors, but raw milk prices and the costs associated with processing, aging and storing the cheese until it matures are most significant.

“Some of the costs associated with storing and aging a natural cheese to maturity can be mitigated through the use of enzyme modified cheese (EMC),” says Plein. “The addition of enzymes to young (non-aged) cheeses accelerates the naturally occurring enzymatic breakdown of cheese proteins, which leads to full flavor development. Unfortunately, EMC tends to be unstable, and unwanted enzymatic activity may continue in products to which EMC has been added.”

Food products that require baking or frying pose some of the greatest difficulties to adding flavor, offers Plein. Flavored coating systems, such as batters and breadings that spend time in the deep fat fryer, pose the biggest challenge, while baking, low-fat, soy-based, trans fat-free, retort and microwave applications also require a special approach.

No matter the protective coating, flavors begin to break down immediately when they hit the hot fryer oil (typically 350°-400°F). “It is rare to find fat-based coatings that are stable above 200°F. They melt instantly and release the flavor into the oil or allow it to volatilize,” explains Plein. He recommends adding the flavor into the [product] substrate as opposed to the [exterior] coating. “The more you isolate it from the hot oil environment, the more flavor delivery you will have after it comes out of the oil,” he advises.

Flavor stability is also very dependent on how thick the product is. “The more flavor you can bury in the center of the product, the more flavor will survive,” says Plein. “If a very thin product is subjected to very high heat, you typically have to put in a very high flavor load to get it to survive. That is not always cost effective.”

“Butter flavor survives much better than cheese flavors, but trans fat-free bases can cause major flavor delivery issues,” warns Plein. “Masking trans fat is a lot of trial and error. It can be maddening trying to flavor some of the trans fat-free bases.”

There has been a lot of success with spray-dried encapsulates in baking. A starch coating seals flavor in and releases it at appropriate times in the baking process or during mastication.

“Encapsulation is important because, if your flavor has no protection from the heat, the flavor will volatilize and fill the room with wonderful aromas, but it is not going to deliver on the palate when the product is ready to eat,” says Plein.

World Peace and WONF

The 2006PFflavor survey reports that 65% of surveyed manufacturers have experience adding more emphasis on natural flavors.

The use of natural or artificial flavors can be category-driven. For example, beverages looking for a more true-to-fruit fresh profile would lean toward a natural flavor compared to a confection intended to feature a high-impact fantasy flavor that would require an artificial flavor.

“Artificial flavors are cheaper, but they are just as effective and—in many cases—more effective than natural versions,” states Plein. “It's just that a lot of customers don't want to see artificial flavor on that label.”

One survey participant noted that flavoring trends in cereal products was something he wanted to learn more about, while others mentioned salt reduction as a concern. Thirty-nine percent of food processors believed sweetness enhancers had been or would be useful to them in the future. These acknowledgements support the idea that as dieting trends change, new flavors are introduced to mask, enhance or reduce the incorporation of one ingredient or another.

According to the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA), “sweet spices” such as cinnamon, anise, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom and fennel are helpful in reducing sugar.

“These flavors are not really sweet themselves, but are grouped as sweet spices because they become most appealing when combined with sweet flavors,” instructs Judith Wylie-Rosett, professor and head of the department of Epidemiology and Population Health, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “The natural sugars of unsweetened fruits can be sufficient to bring out the best in [sweet spices],” she wrote.

Formulating low-fat products can create difficult challenges, as the less fat in a product the harder it is to carry the flavor. “Fat is the best flavor carrier. Everything else is a pale second. Disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, MSG, yeast extracts and salt (the ultimate flavor enhancer) can be used to punch up flavor when fat is reduced.

“Masking a base that has inherent off-notes is another common task for flavorists and application scientists,” observes Plein. “The blander the base that the flavor is put into, the more the true flavor profile is going to come out.”

“Flavor customization requests are commonplace,” says Plein. “Our flavor lab is busy reformulating flavors to remove unwanted compounds; primarily the big eight allergens, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (HVPs) and AYE, which is tough because a lot of flavors are based on AYEs.” GMO-free requests also have increased, he says. “This requires careful attention to raw material sourcing.”

According to the PF survey, 29% of those surveyed are in need of flavors for products that are organic-certified. However, as a result of the shifting definitions of organic, certifiably organic and 100% organic as it relates to the flavor industry, not many companies are certifying their flavors. “Honestly, I have not experienced a lot of requests for organic flavors, but I do believe these types of requests will slowly increase in the future,” says Plein.

“One day I'm going to get a request for a flavor that has no calories, no fat, none of the big eight allergens, is 100% organic, 100% natural, GMO-free, is fry-stable, makes water taste like Parmesano Reggiano, contributes a penny a pound on a cost-in-use basis and cures bad breath. That day is coming. We are going down that road,” he wryly jests.