On average, flavor is the single most important factor in consumers’ food and drink choices. So it is no wonder that innovators continue to play around with taste profiles in order to deliver novelty and satisfy increasingly discerning taste buds.

Ironically though, taste is not necessarily king in the land of flavor innovation and it must share its throne with flavor’s role as a marketing tool. Flavor can be extremely useful in helping to accentuate a product’s image, mood or even health profile, so there is far more to flavor development than simply making things taste good.


New and Novel Tastes

According to consumer analysis in the new Global Flavor Trends report from Innova Market Insights, an average three-quarters of all consumers say that they ‘love to discover new flavors,” with 70% expressing interest in discovering flavors from other cultures and 62% in mixing flavors, e.g. salty and sweet combinations. Two-fifths even agreed with the statement “the crazier the flavor, the better,” so the modern world is home to an ample number of bold and intrepid taste explorers.

Generationally, it is the Millennials (ages 26-35 and some 36-45) who are most adventurous in their attitudes to flavor, while the Boomers (over 55) are most conventional. Perhaps surprisingly, Gen Zs (ages 18-25) also are less interested in mixing it up when it comes to taste.

When asked if they like new, mixed or seasonal flavors, Gen Z agreement was generally at least 10 percentage points lower than that of Millennials. When it comes to truly crazy flavors, however, the younger generation appears to be more daring, with 45% of Gen Zs agreeing that “the crazier the flavor, the better,” just slightly behind Millennials, but 10 percentage points ahead of those aged 46-55 and almost 20 points ahead of the over-55s.

Flavor seasonality also is popular with most consumers. An average of 60% say that they adjust their taste preferences depending on the season, while 68% like to try limited edition and seasonal flavors. Gen Zs are least likely to adapt their taste preferences to the season (55%), which seems to reflect the “now” culture that is emerging throughout modern society, with younger consumers more likely to expect the flavor they want whenever they want it.


Top 10 Trends

Taste and flavor are such integral parts of food and drink innovation that the key trends impacting on NPD as a whole also are affecting flavor development, and many of the Top 10 Trends highlighted by Innova for 2020 have a bearing on the directions taken by flavor developers.

For example, there is growing emphasis on more detailed flavor descriptors and improved provenance in the types and sourcing of flavor components, all of which reflects the theme of “Storytelling: Winning With Words.” Meanwhile, growing diversity in the produce and botanicals used in flavorings is part of “The Plant-Based Revolution.”

“Hello Hybrids” is another significant theme in flavor innovation as more and more flavors familiar from one category make the shift across into other areas. For example, alcohol flavors can add premium or indulgent value to many other products including soft drinks, desserts, ice cream and even sauces; while the coffee shop has been an important inspiration for diversification of coffee flavors in other categories, e.g. macchiato or cappuccino ice cream or desserts.

The “Brand Unlimited” theme refers to the growing importance of a brand’s engagement with its customers, and flavor’s role in limited edition and seasonal products makes it a vital part of this trend. As well as helping to gear a product towards a specific time of year or event, limited editions also allow suppliers to test flavors in the public domain, with some brands even running competitions to allow consumers to choose their favorites from a series of limited editions or to create their very own tastes that could ultimately end up on the shelves.

Another area in which flavor is a critical component of the product development process is health and wellness. Specific health positionings (“The Right Bite”) can be reinforced through flavor, e.g. antioxidant soft drinks with superfruit flavors or probiotic drinks with ginger for added digestive benefits. At the same time, flavor can help to mitigate the impact of altered recipes (“Macronutrient Makeover”), helping to emulate creamy taste profiles in reduced fat foods or restore sweetness to low sugar or no added sugar products.


Different Flavors, Different Categories

Although most of these trends are universally important in flavor development, individual categories tend to lay greater store by certain themes than they do others.

For example, in the soft drinks arena, botanical flavor development is significant and has been evolving rapidly, with ever greater attention being paid to herbs, spices, vegetable and even floral flavors alongside more familiar fruit tastes. Between 2014 and 2019, launches of soft drinks with hibiscus flavors rose at a CAGR of 43%, with lavender and basil flavors each up at CAGRs of 41%, jasmine flavors at 38% and turmeric at 37%. Meanwhile, ginger has jumped 19 places in the soft drinks flavor rankings since 2014 and is now positioned as the 15th most popular flavor within new product development.

Flavor trends in the salty snacks market are strongly reflective of premiumization, with greater use of type-specific or source-specific flavor elements (e.g. parmesan cheese and black truffle), plus more combination flavors (e.g. black pepper with lime or sweet and salty blends). In line with this, the fastest-growing flavors in this category include truffle mushroom (+58% CAGR in launches over 2014-2019) and Himalayan salt (+49% CAGR).

Indulgence is very much a driving force in dairy-related categories—with yogurt, milk drinks, ice cream and desserts all seeing a strong focus on more treat-oriented flavors. Biscuit and cake flavors are particularly popular in the creation of dairy-bakery hybrids, with cookie, cookies ‘n’ cream, and cookie dough all showing strong growth over the past five years. Salted caramel is another premium and indulgent taste that continues to expand its influence.

In the soups and sauces arena, smoked descriptors are becoming increasingly important as a route to adding value, with “smoked” as a flavor rising from 66th place in the rankings in 2014 to just inside the top 20 in 2019.

It is authentic international tastes that are delivering most novelty to the market, however, with flavors from the Americas and Far East Asia showing most dynamism on a global basis during the past five years. For example, between 2014 and 2019, soup launches described as “chowder” rose at a CAGR of 95% (+126% in Asia alone), while ají chili launches increased at a 92% CAGR, and launches based on Korean gochujang were up 48% per annum.


Authenticity, Diversity and Permissible Indulgence

Authenticity in foreign flavors will remain a core part of future new product development, with suppliers constantly looking for the next big flavor trend. 
For example, Thai-style sriracha was the belle of the ball for several years in North America, a position that gochujang is currently trying to usurp. There are still several relatively untapped opportunities from South East Asian cuisine, e.g. Indonesian sambal; while Korea and Japan should continue to deliver new concepts in the coming years. Latin America also offers significant potential in the likes of ají chili from Peru or chimichurri from Argentina and Uruguay, while Mexican concepts such as mole sauce or pico de gallo salsa could be waiting in the wings.

North African and Middle Eastern tastes have already had some impact in Europe, where migrant populations from these regions are well established, and these could well expand their reach to other parts of the world in the coming years.

Further exploitation of the plant world will be another strong focus for future flavor development, with fruit and spice choices continuing to diversify as florals also raise their profile. Beyond sea salt—which is a strong value-added flavor—the ocean is another relatively underexploited resource and seaweed flavors could gain ground in the coming years. Meanwhile, the vegan and meat-free revolution is helping to generate buzz around certain ingredients that could evolve from current meat replacer to future preferred flavor, e.g. cauliflower or jackfruit.

“Permissible indulgence” has become a common part of the food industry lexicon in recent years and is expected to continue to impact on flavor development in many areas (and sweet foods in particular). In products positioned on a healthier platform, the use of more indulgent flavor profiles and descriptors can mitigate the sense that the consumer has to sacrifice pleasure in the eating or drinking experience in order to be healthy.


Sustainability Messaging

Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important issue around the world and its impact will only intensify in the coming years.

While major flavor suppliers continue to work hard to ensure the best sustainability practices in their own businesses, attention should also be paid to how important this theme will become at consumer level. Products can gain a competitive edge by promoting their use of natural flavor ingredients from fully renewable sources or with claims about the carbon or water footprints of their ingredients (including the flavors). It just remains to be seen if and when the industry comes up with suitable solutions to meet these criteria and starts exploiting the value they can offer.

“Global Flavor Trends” is a new Trends Insider report from Innova Market Insights, which brings together consumer research, analysis of key drivers and a review of new flavor activity, both by key category and region, in order to identify current trends and identify where future opportunities can be found.