Savoring the Possibilities

by Laurie Gorton
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Stepping out of the ordinary gets new products noticed. As a marketing tactic, it certainly attracts attention. So why pick an expected sweet flavor for your next bakery project when a savory alternative might be just the spark to ignite new levels of excitement?

After all, the tactic works wonders in other food categories. For example, Jones Soda Co. earned news coverage throughout the mass media with its 2003 launch of a turkey-and-gravy-flavored soft drink. In its 2011 holiday pack, the company offers Ginger Bread soda. Adding magic to the confectionery business, Jelly Belly Candy Co. turned Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, under license from the Harry Potter books and movies, into a market reality and a mouth-popping experience.

“Novel flavors draw customers’ attention in a crowded grocery market,” said Rudy Roeskin, general manager, corporate vice-president of food ingredients, QualiTech, Inc., Chaska, MN. “By incorporating savory flavors into food categories that traditionally use sweet ingredients, food makers have exponential options in product development.”

With a lot of legs, these emerging flavors can walk between categories, and developments already show up on store shelves. “Savory flavors are getting attention for bread, biscuits and wraps,” said Phil Sprovieri, vice-president of sales and marketing, Flavorchem Corp., Downers Grove, IL. He described Mediterranean herb blends, black pepper, seafood spice, Middle East, sweet fennel, Italian oils, habanero pepper and Jewish deli spices such as those used to pickle corned beef. “We developed these for artisan bread use, but the tortilla makers really like these, too.”

Consumer foods keep getting more exotic and gourmet as people’s palates become worldlier. Rising ethnic influences set the stage for today’s popular Hispanic, Italian and Asian flavors. “People crave bigger, bolder and more exotic flavors in their everyday food choices,” observed Bruce Murphy, vice-president, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Greensboro, NC. “Sweet baked goods are common, but the savory side changes the dynamic and adds an unexpected taste that consumers want.”

Multiple trends involving food, societal changes and demographics now converge to create opportunities for savory flavors to find their way into baked foods. “Americans are realizing that they enjoy flavors outside their time-tested comfort zone,” Mr. Roeskin said. “Also, the ‘foodie’ community has taken a cue from the celebrity chefs and is embracing new and unexpected flavor profiles; it’s become cool to substitute savory for sweet.

“Americans are becoming more conscious about what they eat,” he added. “Not only are they seeking to satisfy their palates, but they also want to satisfy their soul. This means consumers are looking to indulge with snacks that are either healthier, produced locally or both.”

The emphasis on snacks marks a change in American dietary patterns. “Snacks have evolved into the fourth meal of the day for consumers,” said Claude-Emilie Martimbeau, operational marketing manager, North America, Bio Springer, Montreal, QC, citing figures from an NPD Group report that stated consumers say the eat 21% of all meals as snacks.

SNACK IMPACT.

Snack foods account for 24% of all savory flavor use, according to Mintel statistics quoted by Mr. Sprovieri.

Three basic savory styles characterize most flavored snack foods, according to Dave Hays, marketing director, snacks, Givaudan Flavors, Cincinnati, OH. Cheese accounts for a 50% market share, mostly in cheddar (often called plain cheese) or nacho, based on cheddar. Barbecue comes in at a bit less than 10%, and sour cream and onion ranks a little more than 5%. He explained that the rest combined — mostly hot and spicy styles such as salsa and Buffalo wing — amount to less than 5%.

“There are some more mellow, but complex, flavors such as French onion, ranch, tomato-basil and honey mustard,” Mr. Hays explained. “We’re starting to see Mediterranean and ethnic flavors coming forward, experiencing some growth, but the classics are still the strong performers, although with more diversity.”

Many emerging flavors add twists such as sautéed onion, according to Mr. Sprovieri. For example, barbecue has acquired additional complexity with wasabi, garlic, cheese and tandoori accents. He reported that potato chips, corn snacks and popcorn continue to be the main users of savory flavors. “But even for these products, flavors are changing,” he added and cited the use of cracked pepper, chili lime and Buffalo wing (a combination of hot sauce and blue cheese) flavors on seed and nut snacks.

“The crunchy snack segment is overrun with umami flavors,” Mr. Roeskin said.

There’s a reason that snack food flavors exhibit so much diversity: the high incidence of new product launches.

“The highly developed snacks market drives manufacturers to push their point of difference from other products in the marketplace,” said Jackiedra Wilson, marketing communications manager, flavor systems, Cargill, Wayzata, MN. Seasonal and limited-time promotions also drive this trend. (Cargill’s flavor business was recently acquired by Kerry Ingredients & Flavours, Beloit, WI.)

“Many new product launches incorporate nuances inspired by restaurant dishes and ethnic influences,” she observed. “The expansion into bolder and more robust flavor profiles allows developers to provide the consumer with a truly customized eating experience.”

The next front? “I would say desserts are getting the most play,” said Sean Craig, senior executive chef,
Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings (a brand of ConAgra Foods, Inc.), Omaha, NE. Savory flavors in these applications take an item usually served at the end of the meal and move it to the front in the form of appetizers. “The savory flavors that do well are chilies, basil, cilantro, regional salts and thyme, to name just a few.”

TASTE QUEST.

A certain sense of adventure comes from combining the familiar with the unusual, observed Agneta Weisz, vice-president, R&D, Comax Flavors, Melville, NY. This applies not only to sweet and sour or hot and cold but also to new ethnic tastes. “Some of our customers are experimenting with Chimoy (apricot and chili pepper) flavors in cookies, black pepper flavors in orange fruit fillings, and Chinese five spice in snacks and muffins,” she said.

Another unusual request was for horseradish flavor for muffins. Comax Flavors also reported calls for adding fruit flavors to savory dustings such as apple smoke for potato chips and raspberry flavor in a
ketchup-flavored dusting.

“The most significant flavors for baking are still the old standbys: vanilla, butter, orange and lemon,” Ms. Weisz said. “But new choices bring in the condensed milk, goat milk and pandan flavors of ethnic cuisines.”
These ethnic patterns often suggest blending sweet and savory, with plenty of inspiration coming via growing population segments from Latin America and the Far East. Mr. Sprovieri described Flavorchem’s work with Hispanic flavors. “In some cases, we put a bit of sweetener into the flavor instead of salt. Guava, tamarind — both provide sweet-and-sour characteristics.”

Other parts of the world contribute to savory trends. “International and ethnic flavors are expanding beyond Hispanic,” Mr. Hays said, noting Mediterranean choices such as Parmesan or feta cheese with herbs or roasted garlic and red pepper. “These are more prevalent in snack crackers but are becoming popular in chips, too. And some Thai flavors are turning up in multigrain snacks.”

A different flavor can transform an ordinary product into something extraordinary, including high-value snacks made with whole grains or formulated for high fiber. “Why not take this a step further?” Ms. Wilson asked.

“For instance, Mediterranean ingredients are perceived as healthy; developers can leverage this by creating formulas that use other base flours like lentil, quinoa or chickpea to create a full profile flavored chip. Topical and in-dough ingredients — such as garlic, basil, rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes or jalapeño peppers — can add a premium spin.”

Consumer demands for diversity and authenticity drive familiar flavors to the next level. “People want foods to taste like the real deal,” Mr. Hays said. He pointed to Hispanic foods moving into more diverse ranges of flavors. For example, pepper is going beyond jalapeño to habanero and ancho.

“This is also true for cheese flavors,” he added. As restaurants use more types of cheeses — Parmesan, blue, Swiss, Asiago — these varieties have leveraged their way into snacks. Many snacks employ cheese flavors, but those tend to be mild or American styles that lack strong identity. “People want the cheese flavor to taste like the authentic cheese.”

Mr. Murphy singled out such savory flavors as gorgonzola and brie. “The use of these cheese flavors provides authentic and exotic taste without having to use the actual cheese product, saving manufacturers money,” he explained. Because the flavors reduce the actual amount of cheese required for flavoring purposes, they can lower the sodium and fat content of the finished product.

Running counter to the emerging taste for the exotic, comfort foods represent a popular consumer trend.

“Nostalgic and retro flavors are in the big time right now,” Mr. Murphy said. “Classic flavors from childhood provide consumers with the avenue to indulge in a small reward to help them get through the day.”

These classic flavors drawn from the kitchen cupboard — olive oil, sea salt, vinegar, mustard, cracked pepper and such — offer inspiration for new products as well as meet consumer demand for cleaner ingredient labels.

“Kitchen-staple flavors provide the consumer with a sense of comfort and provide a wholesome and indulgent eating experience,” Ms. Weisz said.

By twisting a classic flavor such as pairing raspberry with barbecue or chili with chocolate, formulators can satisfy consumers wanting new tastes while providing a familiar component. “In the bakery category, product development has always had nostalgic sweet flavors available,” Mr. Murphy said, “but the addition of nostalgic savory, fusion and sweet-and-savory combination flavors has generated a great deal of product development projects for flavor manufacturers.”

SPECIFIC SPICES.

Growing preferences for ethnic flavors prompt a shift toward herbs and spices in bakery applications, especially artisan bread products. “But herbs and spices are finding their way beyond bread to chips, nutrition bars and even cakes,” Mr. Roeskin explained.

Spice blends from Asia, Mexico and Italy now turn up in bakery and snack formulations because these ethnic flavors satisfy consumer desires for exotic tastes. They also accent the natural flavors present. “Herbs and spices are like salt in that they help highlight the other flavors in bread, doughs, bars, sweet goods and other baked foods and snacks,” Mr. Murphy said. “Unlike salt, herbs and spices provide flavor but are low in sodium. They fill the flavor void left when cutting salt.”

Specifically, chilies and cayenne pepper add subtle heat and smokiness to baked foods, giving consumers the bigger, bolder exotic flavors they crave, Mr. Murphy noted. The versatility of onion and garlic, which can be roasted, sautéed or fried, makes them popular in baked goods, too. “They add a dimension of spice and heat but are also familiar to most people,” he added. “These flavors also have health benefits and are low in sodium — making them great flavor enhancers.”

Meat flavors such as beef, pepperoni, ham and bacon define the term savory for many consumers, and they can add a distinctive character to baked foods. “Meat flavors provide an authentic savory flavor that consumers know well but have not enjoyed yet in these product categories,” Mr. Murphy said.

INSPIRED CHOICES.

Where should product developers look for inspiration in flavor choices? Nearly every expert recommended keeping an eye on the food service market.

“What is new in restaurants today is what is going to become mainstream in a few years,” Ms. Weisz explained. Although current economic conditions prompt many people to eat at home, a plethora of do-it-yourself meal kits bring these flavors to the family dining table.

The many food trucks now common to urban centers represent another source of inspiration. Mr. Craig noted that these businesses start many taste trends. “These operators also take common foods and add a twist, merging American platforms with Asian everyday foods, creating, for example, pastrami eggrolls,” he said.

Sauces and dips, especially those making up a component of the meal, continually generate new savory profiles, Ms. Wilson noted. “They expose consumers to bolder flavor profiles with minimal investment,” she said.

A renewed focus on regional foods shapes another set of flavor choices. “For instance, many snacks mimic flavor profiles of popular regional foods, ingredients, and seasonings, such as Philly cheesesteak, Louisiana hot sauce, Cajun spice or St. Louis barbecue,” Ms. Wilson said.

Then there’s the health-and-wellness influence. “Sweet is associated with unhealthy,” Mr. Roeskin stated. And foods with less salt are seen as better-for-you alternatives; however, people seeking healthier snacking options don’t want to sacrifice flavor. Artificial ingredients and monosodium glutamate (MSG) also “scare off” consumers, he noted. “Savory ingredients have the ability to ramp up the taste profile of snacks or breads or cupcakes in a way that seems better for you than sweets,” he said, and they add flavor without use of MSG or other additives.

In the end, however, food must taste good for it to enjoy market success. With consumers becoming more adventurous in their choices, the world of savory flavors can inspire just such bakery and snack applications, even if it means tempering the wilder exotics with something familiar. Both strategies promise a lot more choice in store for consumers.    

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