Consumers eat with their eyes, which is why inclusions, particulates and other eye-catching ingredients are important to bakers. But oftentimes, these visually appealing additions lack the power to fully convey the tastes they represent. That’s why flavors come to the rescue.

What’s a flavor ingredient?

Flavors are created through careful manipulation of substances identified in the FEMA GRAS program. Established in 1959 by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), it identifies generally recognized as safe (GRAS) flavor ingredients as described in the 1958 Food Additives Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This list is now in its 26th publication and includes substances that can be combined to make natural and artificial flavors.

“Natural flavors are ingredients that come from natural sources such as a spice, fruit or vegetable,” said John Cox, FEMA executive director. “They can even come from herbs, barks, roots or similar plant materials. Natural flavors also come from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Flavors are only used to add taste to foods; they are not nutritional.”

If a baked good is labeled as “naturally flavored” in the US, it must fit the definition of “natural flavor.” Different countries define what it means for a flavor to be considered natural. Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have definitions of natural flavor in their regulations.

“Artificial flavors are flavorings that don’t meet the definition of natural flavor,” Mr. Cox said. “There isn’t much difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings. What is different is the source. For example, an artificial strawberry flavor may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.”

Consumers only see the words “natural flavor” and “artificial flavor” on ingredient statements, but at the industrial level, natural labels fall into one of two categories. Continuing the strawberry flavor example, if the flavor is made solely from substances extracted from strawberries, then it is labeled “strawberry flavor, natural.” If it contains natural substances extracted from strawberries, as well as substances from other natural sources, it must be labeled as “strawberry flavor WONF, natural,” with WONF standing for “with other natural flavors.”

“With other natural flavors or not, there is no question that today’s consumers are increasingly reaching for naturally flavored baked goods,” said Phil Sprovieri, vice-president of sales and marketing, Flavorchem Corp., Downers Grove, IL. “Such products have a ­better-for-you positioning and are the future of the baked grain-based foods business.”

Beverage trends

Chocolate, followed by vanilla, remain the Top Two flavors in the baked goods category. But what’s next? Inspiration comes from all over and drives innovation in everything from breads and crackers to cakes and ­cookies. Snack foods, too.

“Bakers have started adding sophistication to products buy using ‘mocktail’ flavors, which are alcohol-inspired flavors for non-alcoholic applications,” said Devon Edmonson, marketing coordinator, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Greensboro, NC. “These flavors add an exciting twist to familiar taste profiles.” Examples include margarita cake, champagne cookies, gin-and-tonic tarts and bourbon brownies.

Complementing popular spice-enhanced beverages and sweets, the flavor of speculoos, a cookie from The Netherlands, is starting to become popular in the States. “Speculoos is a short-crust cookie with a sweet butter-and-spice profile,” Ms. Edmonson said. The traditional spice blend in speculoos includes cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg.

Updating this traditional taste, today’s innovative bakers are adding their own twist to speculoos through coatings or inclusions, usually caramel, chocolate or nut based. Speculoos crumbs are also being used in pie crusts and streusels.

Ginger, which is an important flavor in speculoos, is driving all types of innovation because it provides two types of heat, one that’s refreshing and another that’s spicy. “There’s also a healthful halo surrounding ginger, and it has strong ethnic associations,” Ms. Edmonson said. “Ginger can be incorporated into so many baked items. It can provide a refreshing heat to sweet tastes and a spicy twist to classic desserts.” Think crystallized ginger cheesecake.

In many food categories — bakery included — a leading-edge trend favors botanicals, such as ginger, because many have healthful associations. “Floral botanicals, such as lavender, orange blossom, honeysuckle and elderflower, add sweet, subtle, aromatic and unique flavors to baked goods,” Ms. Edmonson said.

Relaxing tea, lavender

The same is true of tea. “Tea is not just for sipping anymore,” Ms. Edmonson said. “Tea can bring a flavorful twist to foods and is starting to be found in desserts and cakes. If you add tea extract to melted butter, it will enhance the flavor of the bakery product.”

Döhler Group, Darmstadt, Germany, offers tea flavor profiles that range from the spicy taste of the Orient to the flowery notes of Darjeeling to the sweet and aromatic character of Ceylon. Also, the company most recently introduced a line of blossom flavors, including jasmine, lavender, rose and violet. Lavender makes sense in a bedtime biscuit because it is considered to have a relaxing effect while rose complements berries and can add an element of surprise to a fruit pie.

Mint has long been widely used for its medicinal properties and fresh taste. Flavorchem recently partnered with renowned growers of mint to produce peppermint and spearmint oils that are pure and natural with a smooth, crisp, cool flavor profile.

“We offer a wide range of mint profiles, from cooling agents to candy-like notes,” said Ed McIntosh, marketing manager at Flavorchem. They can be used in all types of baked goods, in the actual batter or dough, or in other components, such as coatings, fillings and frostings.

Heat and smoke

In the past year, the hot-sauce trend omnipresent in many other food categories made its way into baked goods and especially snacks.

“Hot-sauce-type flavors are in demand and are currently saturating the market, so there is potential for more brand extensions focusing on what hot sauce is made of, such as vinegar,” Ms. Edmonson said. Think bagels with sea-salt-and-vinegar flavor.

Kalamazoo, MI-based Kalsec developed a line of ingredients that combine heat and pungency with unexpected flavor elements such as savory, sour, sweet and tangy for a unique sensory experience. Examples include tangy sweet ginger, spicy orange, herbal jalapeño and sweet-roasted chipotle. 

“These products are a logical extension of our heat-management platform, which will enable customers the ability to provide consumers with a surprising new depth to their heat experience,” said Gary Augustine, executive director, market development, at Kalsec.

Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, IL, now offers chili pepper flavors from around the world. “The line includes African Peri-peri, Peruvian Aji Amarillo, Mexican Guajillo and Indian Bhut Jolokia, also known as ghost pepper,” noted Jean Shieh, marketing manager, savory flavors. These could be used in everything from savory granola bars to crackers to tortillas.

Smoke and barbecue flavors are right up there with hot sauce and vinegar. A little smoke flavor adds a lot of character to baked goods, typically bland products. With so many smoked flavor options, it’s an easy way to differentiate a product. Think Carolina barbecue crackers. And instead of a traditional pepperoni topping on a pull-apart artisan bread, why not particulates infused with Kansas City- or Memphis-style BBQ rib flavor?

Such regional flavors, as well as ethnic flavors, continue to gain traction in the baked goods category. “Oftentimes, ethnic flavors are paired with a more familiar flavor. This is exemplified in the trend of ‘sweet heat,’ ” Ms. Edmonson said. Examples include combining Asian or Hispanic heat flavors such as chilies, peppercorns or wasabi with caramel, chocolate, honey or maple.

Ms. Shieh agreed that sweet-and-heat is a trendy flavor combination. “We are seeing interesting products, such as sriracha brownies, in the market place. The hint of heat and savory from sriracha, a hot sauce native to Thailand, takes the sweet brownies to a different level of complexity, which appeals to today’s consumers who are more sophisticated and adventurous.

“We recently developed a chicken, lemon and thyme flavor combination for the snack segment,” she added. “The combined savory and citrusy flavor is a great topical addition to baked chips or other snacks.”

Ethnic, vegetable influences

International tastes continue their popularity, and Ms. Edmonson added, “With Mediterranean cuisine perceived as healthier to many consumers, the flavors of this region are gaining traction in common foods.” Increasingly popular flavors include honey, fennel, olive and yogurt.

Lemon, too, has a Mediterranean association. “According to research, lemon is currently the third most popular flavor in baked goods, right behind chocolate and vanilla,” Mr. Sprovieri said.

Growing interest in the cuisines of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia are driving demand for tropical fruits, according to Ms. Edmonson. But a counter trend is forming. “In baked goods, consumers are also moving away from exotic fruits and returning to home-grown favorites, such as tart cherries and wild blueberries,” she explained.

Vegetables are trending, too, because they suggest better-for-you qualities. “Bell pepper extract imparts a green and earthy flavor to savory baked goods, whereas cucumber extract adds a subtle, fresh flavor,” Ms. Edmonson said. “Other vegetable flavors that work well in baked goods are carrots, onions and zucchini.” Usually, these flavor extracts are added in conjunction with real vegetable bits to enhance the flavor and eye appeal for a more satisfying eating experience.

Some vegetable flavors do not require that boost. For example, both kale and tomato can hold their own in a bread or muffin. But for practical reasons, others do. “We offer a spinach flavor that lifts the important notes from the real spinach,” Mr. Sprovieri said. “A baker cannot add enough real spinach to a bread to have the flavor come through because too much spinach has a deleterious ­effect on the quality and texture of the bread. Flavor is needed.”

Yes, bread flavor, too

Some baked goods simply need to taste bready.

Sourdough is a natural leavening agent for bread and other baked goods, including bagels, crackers and pretzels, and it provides a distinct flavor, unlike the more commonly used bakers yeast. Often referred to as a starter, sourdough is made from three components: flour(s); water or other liquids, such as juice, milk, yogurt, etc.; and two types of microorganisms, lactic acid bacteria and yeast, usually a wild variety rather than conventional bakers yeast.

“With the introduction of bakers yeast some 150 years ago, many bakers stopped working with sourdough,” said Nithya Hariharan, product manager, bakery, mixes and flavors. Puratos, Cherry Hill, NJ. “However, in recent years, as a result of the trend toward more ­authentic-tasting baked goods, sourdough has made a convincing comeback.”

Sourdough fermentation takes longer than with bakers yeast. “You could say that time is the most important ingredient to make great-tasting bread,” Ms. Hariharan observed. “Using sourdough as a leavening agent gives bread a very distinctive taste, and depending on which sourdough you use, the results can be very different. This is because the taste and the flavor of sourdough depend, among other things, on the microorganisms present, and they vary around the world.”

To assist bakers with attaining the desired sourdough flavor profile, the company started collecting sourdoughs in 1989. Its current sourdough library, housed since 2013 at the company’s Center for Bread Flavor in St. Vith, Belgium. It houses 37 Italian, three Hungarian, two Greek and one US sourdough cultures, among others. These unique sourdoughs represent more than 700 different yeasts and 1,500 lactic acid bacteria.

The library is a noncommercial project to support biodiversity in sourdough cultures. “We collaborate with research institutions around the world and visit traditional bakeries to bring their knowledge and sourdough cultures to this library,” Ms. Hariharan explained. “These sourdough starters are kept and grown in controlled conditions, preserving their viability.

“Sourdough bread is actually more nutritious than the grain from which it is made,” she added. “This is because sourdough microorganisms help release the nutrients and minerals present in the bread, making them easier to digest and more accessible for the body.” This aspect of sourdough especially appeals to today’s health-and-wellness-seeking foodie.

The company applies its knowledge of fermentation technology to enhance the flavor of all types of baked goods. “We have a collection of ready-to-use flavors in both liquid and powder form,” Ms. Hariharan said. “They are based on natural fermentation and capture the taste of traditional breads. Combined with a baker’s specific requirements, they allow a baker to differentiate products, making breads with a unique taste signature that is consistent over time.”

The company also offers a presoaked blend of grains and seeds, including flax, millet, oat, sunflower and wheat, which are infused with a mild fermentation flavor along with molasses and brown sugar. “Bakers can add this directly to dough at the end of mixing to achieve a touch of sweetness in multigrain baked goods,” Ms. Hariharan said.

Regardless of the flavor ingredient, to economically and efficiently obtain the best flavor in any baked good, it is critical for bakers to work closely with their flavor supplier. “When looking at flavor combinations, bakers need to consider the intensity of each flavor to make sure that the flavors are complementary, while allowing each flavor to shine through in the final application,” said Julie Clarkson, senior applications technologist-savory flavors at Sensient.

Ms. Clarkson concluded by advising, “Be adventurous. Don’t be afraid to pair flavors and evaluate. Try to take a flavor out of its traditional role and play with it. For example, our mole flavor was originally developed for a sauce, but we learned that it can be a great topical flavor for a savory snack.”