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Emerging Taste Trends for New Functional Foods and Beverages

Albion Minerals®
Taste Trends Taste Trends

In today’s fast-changing food and beverage environment, even the savviest AI would likely scratch its head trying to decide how to create a new hit product. Sustainability, climate change, health and wellness, new botanical flavors, plant proteins, immune support, sleep and relaxation—all are product-development variables that must be taken into consideration in the race to develop tasty products.

Today’s product developers have their hands full in weighing these many factors and rising to the challenge first requires building a strong team, including partnering with an experienced ingredients supplier. Applications expertise and creativity, combined brainpower and real-life experiences—all are critical human intelligence components of success.

What’s also needed right out of the gate? Quite simply, focused research on ingredient and consumer trends. Exploring the impressive new range of flavor and ingredient possibilities is ground zero in terms of integrating all these factors into winning new products. The challenge can seem daunting, but the upside potential is tremendous: a new product offering that will resonate with consumers.

The pandemic changed everything: Its effect has been to raise consumer awareness of immunity and health issues as they pertain to foods and beverages. This burgeoning consumer focus on health shows no signs of abating, with the public actively reading labels and asking questions about the sources of the ingredients that compose the foods they find on grocery store shelves.

Today, with new technological refinements in both taste and texture ingredients and processes, consumers now expect sustainable nutrition that deliver the same taste experience and flavor intensity of established foods and beverages—if not more. Consumers want reduced-sugar or sugar-free products with full flavor and pleasant mouthfeel, plant-based alternatives that taste “real,” and alcohol-free beverages with the full taste and bite of alcohol. And they want all of this at a reasonable cost.

Product developers have responded with a wide array of functional innovations. Taste is always king, but the calls for functionality in foods are clearly getting louder. This article delves into the main taste trends driving product development in today’s changing environment—a world in which consumers want appealing taste but more than just taste alone. The question to answer: How do food and beverage manufacturers best meet the moment?

Lighter, Tastier Botanical Flavors

Consumers have already spent the last few years enjoying energy-focused, functional beverages and foods that deliver better flavor and benefits. Lately, they’ve begun expanding their interest toward the lighter-tasting premium emerging botanical tastes. Luckily, there are many exciting options out there for smart product developers.

Botanicals are a familiar favorite and already used widely in a variety of foods and beverages, particularly soft and alcoholic drinks with a 5 percent CAGR between 2012 and 2022 (Innova 2022). In recent years, however, the popularity of botanicals has skyrocketed: They offer appealing tastes and are natural—a unique and desirable combination. Botanicals can also help to meet rising consumer demand for foods and beverages that address their health goals. Kerry’s deep-dive report, Botanical State of Mind, examines the public’s personal and emotional relationship with botanicals, and is valuable guidance for product-makers seeking to understand how to apply botanicals’ special attributes.

Building on consumer familiarity with time-honored botanicals, today’s emerging options continue to receive an enthusiastic response. Herbs/herbals are strongly favored botanicals globally, while mint continues to be the most popular flavor. Some extracts that have performed well in recent years include guava and passionfruit in alcoholic beverages, and acerola and ginger in soft drinks.

Kerry’s 2023 U.S. Taste Charts highlighted many up-and-coming botanicals—among them lavender, hibiscus, chamomile, guava and basil—as resonating with consumers. Specifically:

• Basil has become an interesting new option for beverages that delivers equal hints of sweet and savory.

• Guava is about balancing the fruity, fleshy and floral components with sulfur, sweet and creamy notes in both beverages and sweets.

• Ginseng and Gingko biloba are two emerging functional ingredients with growing profiles.

• Lightly flavored clear waters in lemon, orange, raspberry or peach can offer a premium, healthier alternative to soft drinks.

• Combining lighter botanicals with added functional ingredients—such as immune support or plant-based proteins—could be the winning ticket for new beverage products.

Nostalgic Notes

The Taste Charts highlighted dulce de leche as another flavor to watch, mainly for its perceived comforting attributes—mostly in ice cream, sweets and yogurts but also with significant potential in other foods. Sesame is another one that ticks the box on comfort, nostalgia, authenticity and even nutrition. Not only can sesame be used to add a savory twist to sweet treats like brownies, but black sesame can also be used as a coating for breads, cakes and chicken tenders.

While simple tastes thrive in a recessionary environment, the draw of nostalgia, i.e., comfort and familiarity, dictate that “simple” never really goes out of style. Age-old recipes, practices and ingredients are experiencing a revival as consumers search for authentic, wholesome experiences. Adding a touch of comfort to a new offering can make a big difference.

Hint of Healthy

While taste remains critically important, health is no longer just a secondary concern. Innova Market Insights found that nearly 45 percent of global beverage and drink launches in the first year of the pandemic had some form of on-pack health claim. In a post-pandemic world, rising consumer attention to health and diet is driving a need for functional ingredients and balanced nutrition to support both health and cosmetic goals. Products that come with a healthy halo—from functionality to “forward flavors” to a subtle implication of healthfulness—continue to resonate with consumers. Potential products include alcohol-free protein-packed beer and vitamin-infused candies, gummies and cookies.

Another consumer focus is cognitive health, a factor that continues to attract the interest of manufacturers. For example, more beverages are being made with “nootropics”—natural or synthetic substances thought to have a positive impact on cognition—and “adaptogens”—natural substances, such as ashwagandha, believed to help the body respond to stress, anxiety and fatigue. For the current year and beyond, cognitive health and immune-supporting ingredients will only continue to grow.

One challenge worth noting in terms of successfully incorporating these add-ins revolves around their strong flavor profiles. Ensuring that functional ingredients—such as ashwagandha—are paired with masking agents or more flavorful ingredients is a must. Adding one or two functional ingredients can draw additional attention of consumers in a crowded marketplace, but their use must always be predicated on maintaining a product’s intended flavor.

The gritty taste and mouthfeel of many plant proteins in beverages is a case in point. Luckily, product developers can now source proteins that are clean-tasting, and some even become invisible in liquid form—a benefit to shelf appeal. Kerry offers a number of research reports on the topic of improving taste in plant-based beverage, meat and cheese products. Finally, since consumers tend to be instinctively wary about health claims, it’s vital to review the science behind all new functional ingredient claims and work closely with the ingredient manufacturer’s R&D team to ensure proper dosages that will deliver the promised results.

Sugar Reduction

Cutting sugar from one’s diet is of extreme importance to health-conscious consumers everywhere. It’s a top product-development trend of late, and one unlikely to wane. In fact, a ConsumerFirst study found 87 percent of consumers globally are trying to reduce their sugar consumption. Of course, reducing sugar content can greatly affect a product’s taste—especially in beverages—and may be quickly flagged by consumers. That’s because sugar adds more than just sweetness: It also delivers mouthfeel and texture benefits that have an outsized impact on a product’s total profile. Using natural sweetness “modulators” in a new product can help maintain taste and appeal while reducing the sugar content.

Less Sodium

In 2021, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) issued voluntary guidelines for sodium reduction to manufacturers to begin the process of reducing sodium content in food and beverage products. The objective is to improve public health, and the guidelines could presage a future (non-voluntary) mandate for lower-sodium products. Like sugar, salt adds significant texture and mouthfeel benefits, meaning that consumers start to notice changes when reduction begins to exceed 10-15 percent. Beyond that level, products must be reformulated to match the tasty salt experience many consumers love and expect.

There are two main targets for sodium reduction: added salt and the sodium-based preservatives used to extend product shelf life. As with sugar, salty taste replacement solutions can be an invaluable asset in the salt-reduction effort. Another way to allow more salt in a product’s sodium “budget:” replace sodium-based preservatives with proven acetate-based products. A net reduction in salt content can be achieved through savvy use of the available substitutes. Note to product developers: Cutting sodium intake is a trend that will reverberate for years to come, so it’s not one to ignore.

Stocks and Broths; Umami and Kokumi

In savory foods, one effective way to add more flavor without more salt is to use natural stocks and broths. Concentrated through a traditional cooking process, the results can provide impressive flavors that raise the healthy halo index of a product and keep ingredient labels “clean”—a big draw for discerning consumers. Ready-to-drink broths for consumption at any time of day are gaining flavor—add an extra punch by incorporating functional ingredients such as plant-based proteins, probiotics or vitamins, as well as botanical flavors. Adding umami- or kokumi-rich ingredients are another way to add taste without adding salt.

Low- or No-alcohol Beverages

Consumers are concerned about alcohol consumption, as evidenced by an indisputable trend toward low-/no-alcohol drink purchases. The key success factor is sourcing premium-quality distilled botanical flavors that closely mimic the genuine article: that is, the tingly bite and taste that accompanies traditional alcoholic drinks. Ingredient developers are improving their low-/no-alcohol offerings all the time, leading such beverages to rachet up their consumer loyalty. Smart producers can tip the scale further in their flavor by adding in light-tasting plant proteins or immunity-supporting ingredients.

Sustainable Flavor Sources

Sustainability is now a watchword that stands alongside taste, nutrition and price. It’s no longer enough to have more natural sources, e.g., botanicals, to build new products: Consumers also want the products they consume to be made from natural, sustainable ingredients, and many want to be able to research the origins of all ingredients. With such heightened awareness of what’s contained in products and how they’re manufactured, it’s more important than ever for brands to strive for transparency. These days, “sustainability” also means that the farm sources are supportable and observable, i.e., that the farmers and community providing the ingredients are well compensated, with an eye to building durable communities and long-term prosperity. During the important early stages of formulation and production, your ingredient supplier’s team of experts needs to be able to provide detailed answers about provenance and sustainability claims.

Build a Winning Product Development Team

AI is not nearly ready yet to help develop products, but human intelligence and experience can play a vital role, and product developers can apply it to advantage by including ingredient suppliers in early-stage planning discussions. Harnessing their expertise and brainpower for use by the formulation team is the type of targeted help that can lead to market success in a crowded field. Fortunately, as consumers become more discerning—not to mention willing to spend time and money to ensure tastier food and beverages purchases—the efforts expended to draw their attention hold potential to be richly rewarded. NIE

Alexandra Boelrijk PhD, has extensive experience in science-based concept ideation, product development, clinical evidence generation and digital health. She joined Kerry in 2022 as senior director research and Development for ProActive Health where she leads an international team of scientists that drive strategic programs related to digestive, immune, cognitive and women and infant health. Before joining Kerry, Boelrijk led large and diverse international innovation teams for Danone Nutricia in Europe and Singapore.

Albion Minerals®