Editor’s Note: In conjunction with its own feature on the topic of flavor boosting, Prepared Foods speaks with Cassandra Rouleau, Activation Marketing Specialist at Kerry Taste & Nutrition.

Prepared Foods: We have a May issue culinary creations feature on “boosting flavor.” Kerry recently released its own 2021 Taste Charts, which address many related product development trends. Can you tell us more? 

Cassandra Rouleau: As a global leader in taste, Kerry is on a constant quest to discover and translate the best taste experiences from real food foundations. In this mission, we are committed to guiding our customers on their journey to develop the next generation of tastes that will delight, surprise and excite consumers.

Our 2021 Taste Charts represent Kerry’s annual review of the food and beverage taste landscape utilizing sales performance, consumer trends, foodservice influences and endorsements from our internal Kerry culinary experts to predict taste trends for the coming year.

Kerry’s Taste Charts methodology has evolved. Today, we analyze point of sale data, product launches and menu penetration as primary sources of data to consider from the world of flavors in retail as well as from the foodservice industry. In addition, we source internal insights from our highly experienced applications experts from all over the world and industry reports and integrate these with our accumulated data in order to create the annual Taste Charts. 

There is a lifecycle of how taste and flavors evolve through time. Our predictions use historical data dating back a decade, and evaluate flavors and ingredients that are here to stay (Mainstream and Key), as well as flavors and ingredients set to create ripples in the industry (Up & Coming and Emerging).

PF: What would you say are “big picture” trends for 2021?

Rouleau: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on into 2021, consumers are still making meals at home while some are supporting local businesses through take-out, or a combination of the two. Either way, consumers are definitely experiencing food fatigue. As we look to 2021, the US and Canada Taste Charts predict flavor and ingredient themes that are trending in savory applications like ready meals, soups, sauces and sides in the separate US and Canadian markets. 

Our Kerry research has found that the five key flavor trends across US and Canadian ready meals, soups, sauces and sides for 2021 are ethnic exploration, savoring umami as the fifth taste, hint of natural sweetness, spicy specificity and comforting cheese. These are the ones that meal developers need to explore very carefully when they’re responding to consumer food interests and emerging demands during these turbulent times. 

PF: What is happening with ethnic flavors?

Rouleau: Ethnic exploration is a key trend for 2021 that is continuing from the pandemic’s start in 2020. In 2020, consumers were not able to travel very much and the same goes in 2021. As consumers experience food boredom, being able to travel with their taste buds is imperative and ethnic flavors such as marsala and harissa are popping up in more ready-to-eat meals in retail. 

According to Innova research, sauces and seasonings, soup and ready meals and side dishes have the highest percentage of ethnic launches and more than one-third of Americans say they are very interested in trying ethnic cuisines.

What can brands do to capitalize on the ethnic exploration trend? Brands can introduce regional-specific and ethnic flavors to consumers by pairing these flavors with familiar comfort foods and ready meals that don’t require much preparation. 

Some of the rising ethnic exploration flavors and ingredient trends in the US and Canada highlighted in our 2021 taste charts for both countries include butter chicken, marsala, and chimichurri in the US, gochujang and harissa in both the US and Canada and pho in Canada. Menu developers need to track these flavors carefully as they emerge in products across North America. 

Some current product examples of these include Chicken Marsala Meatballs by Open Nature Savory Skillets available at Albertsons in the US. Walmart offers a Spicy Korean-Style Chicken in Canada while Keen One Quinoa offers Harissa Red Pepper Quinoa Cup available in the US. 

PF: Is the concept of umami accelerating? 

Rouleau: Savoring umami as the fifth taste is another strong trend for meals as Datassential MenuTrends Infinite 2020 has found that use of the term “umami” has grown 43% on menus during the past four years.

Umami can be described as providing a savory taste that is characteristic of meaty dishes and broths. Ingredients like miso, soy sauce, mushroom and black garlic all help build a savory profile that imparts richness and depth of flavor in applications like sauces, soups and salad dressings. 

Some of the rising umami flavor flavors and ingredients on the 2021 taste charts include miso, soy, truffle mushroom and black garlic in the US. In Canada, the key ones on the 2021 taste charts include miso, soy sauce and truffle mushroom. 

Some umami product examples include Freshii in both its US and Canada stores offering a delicious Umamii [sic] Salad (composed of kale, brown rice, avocado, edamame, mushrooms, cucumber, cabbage, carrots, hemp seeds, ginger miso dressing). 

In the US, Target is offering Umami Mushroom Seasoning Blend under the brand Good and Gather while Cojohns Fiery Foods has Black Garlic Chipotle Hot Sauce. Another interesting product in Canada is Abokichi miso soup. 

PF: What about combining natural sweetness and spicy or savory?

Rouleau: Another key trend in meals is what Kerry calls a “hint of natural sweetness.” Here a traditional time-honored example is pizza with pineapple topping. 

For 2021 some of the US examples on the 2021 taste charts include peach, mango, strawberry, blueberry and, of course, the always favored pineapple.

Fruit has always paired well with a variety of savory applications – think Hawaiian pizza, jerk chicken with mango salsa, etc. Now, brands and operators are introducing fruit to a variety of ready meals, sauces and menu items. According to Innova’s 2020 research, pineapple is among the top 20 ingredients of frozen ready meals, showing that consumers are ready for a hint of natural sweetness in their savory dishes.

Some market product examples in the US include Kickin’ Strawberry BBQ Sauce from Gourmet Warehouse, Conagra Brands’ Healthy Choice Mango Edamame Wrap and Domino’s Sweet Mango Habanero Wings. 

PF: Are consumers ready to try different spices?

Rouleau: In 2021, there’s exceptional interest in spicy foods and menu items with consumers looking beyond jalapeño peppers for more intense heat from flavors like serrano or ghost pepper. According to Datassential 2020, specificity is increasingly important for those looking for pepper flavors or ingredients, with more generic “chili” flavors having lost ground during the past four years.

Kerry recommends that brands and operators looking to reach consumers should call out the specific pepper on the pack or menu, which can help indicate spice levels for the consumer and also attract the interest of those who are following the newly emerging spices and interested in trying them in new food items. 

Key flavors and ingredients in the 2021 Taste Charts for this area for the US and Canada include ancho pepper, ghost pepper and serrano pepper. For the US only, poblano pepper, hatch valley pepper and chile de arbol are ones to watch. 

Some interesting product examples in the US market include Ancho Rice + Beans from La Tortilla Factory
Brand: La Tortilla Factory and Kroger’s Spicy Poblano Aged Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese.

Another interesting product is Spicy Fi'ed Chicken Sandwich from BurgerFi. This sandwich is made with all-natural, cage-free, hand-breaded boneless chicken breast from Springer Mountain Farms, topped with the sweet lingering heat of ghost pepper honey, homemade jalapeño-infused pickle chips, spicy mayo and an extra kick of freshly sliced jalapeños layered inside a branded potato bun. Can you say spicy? This is mouth-watering and also eye-watering tasty food innovation. 

PF: Kerry’s Taste Charts also referenced cheese. What you can say about trends here involving heat, comfort and perhaps the rise of plant-based alternatives?

Rouleau: Consumers have turned to the comforting and familiar taste of dairy throughout the pandemic and cheese is one key part of that.

In both the United States and Canada, we’re seeing ethnic flavors such as cotija and feta rise to the forefront as well as cheese with chili peppers, which provides a bit of heat and a different but also familiar flavor profile. Some other cheeses to make the taste charts include parmesan, burrata, manchego, vegan and cream cheese. 

In the vegan area, North America has the highest penetration of cheese with a vegan (7%) or plant-based (6%) claim, compared to globally at only 1%. Consumers are looking for more sustainable options with dairy-like taste, texture and mouthfeel.