Artisan white chocolate is just one of the many flavor trends that can be explored and analyzed when utilizing trend charts and forecasts.

Remember when vanilla was all the rage two years ago? There was Tahitian vanilla buerre blanc, Madagascar vanilla-infused olive oil or vanilla-chile crusted tilapia. In the late 90s, it was roasted garlic; the 80s ushered in the era of fresh herbs and cuisine minceur; and, during the 70s, anything with teriyaki in the description was a hot seller. Some flavors remain perennial favorites for decades. Others exhibit a meteoric rise and then fade just as quickly. The big macro-trend right now is small plates/portions. Some micro-manifestations of that trend are mini-desserts, tapas and mezze. Some national chains are offering half-sized portions on their menus. Another fast-rising macro-trend is organic/locally grown/green.

Part of the challenge in food marketing and product development is to first identify the trends and flavors that have become mainstream enough to earn a potentially good ROI (return on investment), and then, to choose those flavors that have staying power. “Offering more interesting flavors ranks as one of the most important reasons that consumers choose a restaurant over a supermarket when buying hot food,” according to a 2007 “Foodservice Opportunities” study by the IDDBA.

Flavor trends come from numerous sources--some better than others. Generally speaking, local papers and many consumer-targeted magazines are late on the scene. Research firms that specialize in trend research--like Mintel, Sloan Trends & Solutions and Technomic--are seasoned industry seers that can be trusted. Magazines targeted to the food industry can also be useful. Nation’s Restaurant News, Prepared Foods and Flavor & the Menu, to name a few, offer valuable insights on emerging flavors. At the very least, most of these sources publish a yearly “Top Ten Flavors” list. Not all these sources, however, mirror each other at any given point in time. So, how to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak? How does one identify the best trendy flavors to apply in timely product development efforts that will ensure above-average returns for several years or more?

One method is to monitor emerging chains. They are positioned between trendy independents and major chains. Many emerging chain chefs still enjoy creative freedom to some degree. However, collating and analyzing menus that generally are not included in research from the big data companies takes a lot of effort and time. A better, faster strategy is to put the top-trends lists side-by-side on a spreadsheet or on a chart.

It is often helpful to first view the macro-trends. This can often clarify the bigger picture and help put the focus on development--in order to exploit the macro-environment. (See chart “Macro-trends” for macro-trend lists from six sources.)

Using a color-coding process helps bring the chart to life. Different colors that identify common themes help the viewer quickly see the “bang-for-the-buck” trends. Thus, using colored cells helps the major themes literally “jump off the page.”

The color strategy allows the reader to scan this information and see the common threads. Using this method, the chart points to the themes of: Organic/Local/Green, Bold Flavors, Smaller Portions and Ethnic Cuisines. This same color-coding is effective in identifying flavor or geographic trends. There are many ways to sort the data to gain varied perspectives, and there are other examples.

The second chart, “Flavor Trends,” shows the common threads among trend forecasters regarding on-trend flavors. This coded chart methodology is particularly effective when giving presentations, both internally and externally. Using colors, the “Flavor Trends” chart draws the attention to combination flavors, as well as orange, spicy and tamarind. This can be used as a guide in several ways. Prototypes may be developed with some of the combination flavors listed, or given the incidence of other flavors, a developer might choose to marry spicy, orange or tamarind, in order to leverage the combination flavor effect desired.

It is also helpful to look at a different set of flavor-trend data, with two different viewpoints. In the chart, “Flavor Trends, Part Two,” the flavor styles that show up on menus and trend lists are shown. By identifying the flavors with the highest incidence, many variations on the theme can be developed that essentially play off of the trend. This is useful as a sort of “road map” in prototype development and trend-sharing.

Latin and American regional trends dominate the chart, “Flavor Trends, Part Two.” Alone, the Pepper Variants category scores well, but if merged with the preference of chile flavors within the Latin category, holistically, there seems to be a strong indicator for spicy hot flavors. This conclusion could be validated by a quote from Datassentials’ “The Origins of a Trend,” February 2008: “Even closer to reaching mainstream acceptance are the flavors of maple and peppercorn. At the midscale segment, typically one of the last vestiges of innovative tastes, you can now find Bob Evans plating a Maple-Dijon Salmon Fillet entrée and, last year, Steak n’ Shake twice featured a limited-time offering of Black Peppercorn Bacon Steakburgers. While we’re not seeing peppercorn as completely ubiquitous at this point, the MAC tells us that, since it has begun appearing on selected midscale menus, mainstream acceptance is just around the corner, and the flavor will soon be ripe for picking at retail.”

This coding technique decidedly moves the odds of success in the developer’s favor. For example, if one were charged with developing on-trend flavor profiles for proteins, it may be useful to use the information from the two “Flavor Trends” charts for the following applications:
* Beef--Horseradish-crusted; pit-smoked brisket; Telicherry black pepper-crusted; bourbon-caramelized onion; sesame-soy-ginger.
* Turkey/Chicken--Honey-mustard; herb-Dijon; rotisserie-style; soy-ginger; lemon-pepper; garden vegetable-crusted.
* Ham--Vermont maple pepper-glazed; maple-Dijon; chutney-glazed.
* Pork--Chipotle-lime; rosemary-orange; Cuban garlic-lime; carnitas-style.

There could be any number of ways to analyze the data. Another method might be to look at the geographic concentration of flavors. The chart, “Flavors, Geographically,” takes the same data from “Flavor Trends, Part Three,” but views it from a geographical perspective.

Some of the flavors identified may exhibit crossover (i.e., they could belong in more than one group). Of course, there will sometimes be differing opinions over classification. However, the major trends should be the focus.  If one looks at the geographical preferencing, it can clearly be seen that Pan Asian flavors lead, followed closely by Latin/Caribbean and American. Together, they comprise more than 60% of the listed trends. This becomes a powerful thesis to guide in product development.

One can assemble lists from 20 or more sources. But, it seems that somewhere between 10-12 is enough to illuminate the themes. Using this roadmap as a reliable guide, product developers and marketers can begin the development process with a more grounded approach. Then, creating the various flavor interpretations on any given theme, through the application of science and culinary skills, is where the real fun begins.