Consumers’ flavor preferences are divided between two trends, one based on experimentation and intensity and the other on familiar, comforting traditional flavors. These are not mutually exclusive; consumers will migrate between the two based on individual needs and external factors. Flavor choices are influenced by occasion, psychological state and life stage.

Flavoring has long driven the success of new products. Increasing evidence shows consumers choose flavor over brand loyalty.

Different, but Still the Same

Datamonitor has identified three “mega-trends” that drive consumers’ flavor preferences: health and wellness, sensory indulgence and homing/comfort. The desire for more adventurous and different flavor experiences is closely connected to the health and sensory indulgence mega-trends. Regarding health and wellness, consumers are attracted to more intense or strong flavor solutions; these can make healthy options more enticing and compensate for any loss of flavor due to the exclusion of ingredients that are bad for you. Natural and fresh are qualities associated with healthiness, as are lighter, zestier flavors often seen in various ethnic cuisines.

The sensory mega-trend is the most important in driving the interest of more striking flavors. It underpins the desire for more pleasure and sensation from products, and it is about seeking new experiences and taking risks and the associated emotional benefits. Healthy products may “do good,” but consumers also crave products that make them “feel good.” In addition to intensity, authenticity is a factor and intrinsically tied to consumers’ desires for more sophisticated, higher quality products. Foods that deliver sensory gratification are likely to make consumers willing to trade up. The growing market for gourmet indulgences such as super-premium and luxury dark chocolate is a key example.

In contrast to the first two mega-trends, the homing/comfort trend is a driver behind the persisting fondness for traditional, more straightforward flavors. It emphasizes safety and a retreat to one’s “comfort zone” and a sense of nostalgia. In food flavor terms, it consists of both the strictly traditional and the newer, relatively mild reformulations that introduce non-traditional flavors at a level deemed acceptable and unobtrusive. At the same time, it is enough to differentiate a product and inspire interest among even relatively conservative consumers. Comfort foods are also strongly associated with self-indulgence, whether in the form of everyday snacking and sweet flavors or the consumption of more overtly indulgent products.

More flavorful experiences are associated with quality. Consumers expect more from their meals, have a more sophisticated appreciation of flavor and are willing to trade up in order to accommodate these factors. This is a product of rising affluence, proliferating product choice, attentionseeking “me-centric” marketing messages and an increasingly individualistic society that has directed consumers’ focus towards getting the best. Higher quality and authenticity are associated with health. Authentic is also associated with natural, which is often expected in premium offerings.

The success of ethnic food has been driven by a willingness to experiment. Ethnic food’s cemented role in the modern marketplace in the U.S. and Europe is probably the primary indicator of consumers’ willingness to branch out and embrace new flavor experiences. The success of ethnic foods is bringing hotter, spicier and more striking flavor profiles into the mainstream experience, thus encouraging development of the next level of flavor differentiation. Of the three consumer mega-trends, health/wellness and sensory indulgence are strongly associated with the ethnic food trend. Ethnic foods are often oriented around fresh ingredients and can offer lighter but more fragrant flavors that appeal to those seeking a healthy but satisfying eating experience. They offer sensory indulgence based on bolder flavors and the desire for premium food with greater authenticity. The U.S. is the largest market for ethnic food, with sales rising at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5% between 2000 and 2005. Ethnic foods now account for around 12% of U.S. overall food sales. At a value of U.S.$2.6 billion, the U.K. accounts for over half of ethnic food sales in Europe, and Datamonitor forecasts a relatively similar picture by 2010, although sales’ growth will be stronger in other European markets.

Traditional flavors remain popular, often with a twist. Despite a rapidly broadening market and a more inquisitive and discerning consumer base, there is a firmly traditional flavor culture largely resistant to change. The homing/comfort mega-trend is suggestive of the trend clash in flavor preferences. Authenticity is also an important factor in traditional flavors. Authentic ingredients and flavors bring nostalgia to consumers. One attitude connected with comfort is that there is too much choice when making purchase decisions; some consumers find too much complexity in shopping. The reaction to this is to seek greater simplicity with roasted, smoked, grilled and other flavors commonly associated with a homey, straightforward feel.  

Novel twists on the traditional offer a “safe risk.” The market is benefiting from the continuing emergence of “bolder staples.” This shows the tension between the desire for comfort and familiarity with a simultaneous willingness to experiment and sample the more unusual. Consumer interest is growing in comfort foods with a novel twist, as they offer subtle variations on the familiar, without undermining the essential nature of the product.

Increasing the sensory intensity of traditional flavor combinations adds an edge of contemporary flair to the product in question. Potato chips are essentially a staple snack in Western markets with typical core flavors such as cheese and onion, ready salted, and salt and vinegar. In catering to an increasingly premium-focused audience, producers are introducing non-traditional flavor influences. Walker’s Sensations range of potato chips is a good example of such flavors, which offer augmentation of ranges rather than replacement of traditional flavors, which may risk alienating some consumers. Some of the varieties in the line are: Vintage Cheddar & Red Onion Chutney; Oven Roasted Chicken with Lemon & Thyme; Slow Roasted Lamb with Moroccan Spices; Gently Infused Lime & Thai Spices; and Thai Sweet Chilli.

The Wm. Wrigley, Jr. Company’s new Mint Mojito-flavored Orbit gum “provides an exotic cooling sensation that is recognizably different from existing gum flavor profiles,” yet still retains a basic familiarity for consumers. [Photo courtesy of Business Wire]

The Time of Your Life

Life stage has an impact on consumers’ flavor choices. It would be easy to assume that younger consumers are most likely to be adventurous in their food and flavor choices and to automatically associate older consumers with more traditional flavor trends, but this is not the case. Ethnic foods are now sufficiently mainstream to encompass the whole of society, while traditional flavors have equally widespread appeal with strong emergent patterns of consumption among younger consumers.

Recent scientific research has found that children’s flavor preferences are genetically influenced, with preferences for sweet flavors often prevalent. This adds to the difficulty of promoting healthy eating in children. However, children’s flavor preferences and resistance to certain foods change with maturity, while culture and other outside influences also begin to have more impact on overriding genetic/physiological reactions to flavor.

In contrast, adults’ flavor preferences tend to be influenced by cultural norms. Many common tastes are accepted with age and over time. For example, men’s flavor preferences typically orient towards hot, hearty foods and more savory flavors (steaks, etc.). This could be due to the macho stereotype, with choices influenced by the cultural norm of the male image. It has also been suggested that upbringing plays a role; men gravitate towards these flavors and foods because they are used to having such meals prepared for them. Women, on the other hand, tend to prefer sweeter flavors and are more likely to desire snack-like comfort foods that are more convenient and less preparation-intensive—possibly a reaction to their traditional involvement in food preparation.

Datamonitor research has found that young adults are one of the most conservative demographics and the least likely to try new flavors, with 18-24 year olds consuming one third less ethnic food than the average adult. They are most likely to see ethnic foods as part of the mainstream, having been exposed to a wide range from an early age. Seniors, however, are recognized as needing stronger and more exotic flavors, and the expansion of the 50+ demographic group in the West could fuel flavor development. Furthermore, a decline in taste and smell sensations with age means that flavor is an important consideration—foods that younger consumers perceive as tasting fine may appear bland to seniors. On the other hand, they also represent a significant market for the “bolder staples.” A heightened need for stronger but not extreme flavors suggests that enhanced versions of traditional comfort foods would be well received.

Trading Up

Food flavors and the polarized trends for traditional versus the adventurous are strongly related to occasion. Although indulgence and trading up are becoming more associated with everyday occasions, there are still occasions and locations that trigger premiumization. Consumers are more likely to embrace premium products when entertaining at home, on special occasions or when vacationing. They also tend to premiumize in the evening, and aligning products to these occasions can enhance the cachet credentials of brands. Flavor becomes more important in these settings, as it comes under greater scrutiny and is subject to higher expectations. This is true for more traditional flavors and more intense or newer ones.

Consumers are eating out with growing frequency, and foodservice is still the key environment in which to expose consumers to new flavors and eating experiences. Diners are more open to experimentation, and success through this channel can filter down to retail sales. Time-pressed consumers seek more elaborate and flavorful meal solutions, and there is a common belief that consumers cannot achieve foodservice quality and taste at home.

Convenience food is the obvious solution, but is often viewed by consumers as weak on taste and quality. More effort is needed to challenge this perception. Frozen food faces a particular challenge in this respect, as it is  often viewed as more “processed.” Recently, it has lost ground to chilled food, which has been marketed as and is widely perceived as fresher and more premium. However, evidence suggests that marketers can push frozen food as being more flavorful based on the idea that the freezing process “locks in” the flavor, making premium positioning possible.

It is important for marketers to consider likely meal occasions and target audiences and differentiate between them, adjusting flavor profiles accordingly. Family settings encourage consumption of comfort foods or homey, traditional flavors. Meal events with wider socializing aspects are likely to encourage experimentation.

Healthy and with Good Taste

Many consumers equate healthy with bland flavors. Consumers generally want to eat more healthily, which is a pattern embraced increasingly in recent years. However, consumers often lack the willpower to stick to their good intentions. Even in the face of health, consumers will not purchase a product if it does not taste good. A Datamonitor survey in the U.S. and Europe revealed that 80% of men and women agreed that companies need to enhance the flavor and tastiness of healthy products. Therefore, achieving a balance between health and taste is often seen as a key challenge for manufacturers. Consumers often find “good-for-you” foods with less flavor do not satisfy them enough and therefore find themselves turning to less desireable, but more flavorful alternatives. Ethnic or spicy foods can offer a better solution, as they tend to offer lighter, zestier flavors based on fragrant herbs and spices. There is also a strong focus on fresh vegetables and meat, and the sensory indulgence associated with ethnic foods offers compensation for loss of flavor or premium experience associated with many healthy reformulations.

There is increasing evidence that consumers are choosing flavor over brand loyalty. High expenditure on brand marketing is undermined if the product does not actually taste good compared to its peers, or the range under that brand name lacks variety. This is particularly relevant where healthy products are concerned.

The food market, both retail and foodservice, has widened in scope in recent years. This increasing diversity is being driven largely by consumers’ desires for an enhanced flavor experience, higher expectations of what food should provide in terms of satisfaction and a variety of related factors. The trend is set to continue, placing the onus on producers and marketers to understand consumers’ motivations and respond flexibly.

Showcase: Flavors for Baked Goods and Beverages

Production challenges from dealing with thick syrups may be eliminated with a new line of honey, maple syrup and molasses natural sweeteners in powder form. Mastertaste’s free-flowing powders deliver genuine flavor from the original ingredient, while allowing for higher concentrations of sweetener solids in dry mix applications such as topical seasonings, dry bakery mixes, marinades and coatings. Mastertaste, Nancy Lawrence, 201-708-9264, nancy.lawrence@mastertaste.com, www.mastertaste.com 



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For a flavor modifier that enhances the sweetness of foods and beverages containing sugar, but reduces their overall sugar content, look no further. A new product from Wixon Inc. does just that and more. Mag-nifique Sweet Lift allows food scientists, chefs and food manufacturers to

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A company well-known for its concentrated cheese, butter, milk, cream and cultured dairy flavors has even more to offer. Edlong also provides an outstanding variety of sweet flavors for beverages, desserts and baked goods. Creamy and milky dairy notes are evident in most, and many forms and solubilities are available. Amaretto, butter pecan, butter vanilla, butterscotch, cajeta, caramel, cheesecake, chocolate and Irish crème are just a few of the flavors that can be sampled from Edlong. Edlong Dairy Flavors, David Booth, 888-MY-TASTE, dbooth@edlong.com, www.edlong.com