During my early years in the industry, tasty and healthy were not often used in the same sentence. Consumer sensory expectations for healthy foods did not always include high sensory standards. To the contrary, in some categories, there was an inverse relationship between flavor and health. For instance, body builders often commented that if a high protein product tasted too good it probably would not work, since a great tasting product could not possibly provide the purported muscle-building benefit.
Today we know how important sensory characteristics have become. In every recent consumer survey in which I’ve been involved, “taste” is unanimously the number one attribute affecting consumers’ purchasing decisions. This means consumers now see taste as a more important factor than a product’s health benefit or the cost/value proposition.
New-to-the-category consumers drive much of the emphasis on taste for healthy products. With the spread of natural products into the mainstream market, a different, more demanding consumer is emerging; one that was not reared eating less than palatable health food. This consumer seeks all the wholesomeness and health benefits but demands that products taste great too.
Fortunately, healthy foods have evolved with consumer expectations. New, novel technologies and applications development (e.g., microencapsulation) and expert product developers have risen to the challenge. Label claims on new product launches increasingly tout “great taste” and “naturally flavored.” In order to succeed, these products must deliver on their promises.
This growth of the consumer base fosters an environment where traditional natural food consumers can still enjoy the unprocessed, “natural” products they desire while the emerging mainstream consumers don’t have to compromise their sensory expectations to enjoy the benefits of healthy food choices.
The Sensory Hurdle
Consumer’s sensory expectations vary depending on the product benefit. For instance, natural products may offer performance, preventative or therapeutic benefits. A higher sensory hurdle is placed on products providing preventative health benefits. This is because benefits of preventative products (e.g., cholesterol management for cardiovascular health) are often realized sometime in the future. In general, compliance with usage recommendations for preventative health products is lesser than that of products providing therapeutic or more immediately realized benefits (e.g., joint health).
If it doesn’t taste great and the benefit is not immediate, consumers are less likely to continue consuming the product. Keeping this in mind, preventative products must taste on par with similar conventional products. Conversely, when a product effectively addresses an acute health issue, consumers may be more forgiving on the sensory scale.
Considering the performance products category, sensory expectations align more with the consumer segment taking the products. For example, serious body builders are more acceptable of the off-notes of amino acids while the “weekend warrior’s” expectations align more with those of other mainstream consumers.
Scratch-Cooked vs. Convenience
Consumer perceptions of flavor trends go beyond sensory or organoleptic properties. Few would argue against the idea that scratch-cooked foods taste better than convenience foods. But what constitutes “scratch cooking”? I worked with a major consumer packaged goods (CPG) food company that was conducting quite extensive research to answer this question.
Qualitative research involved working women who were also responsible for meal preparation for their family. The question asked was: How much actual food preparation does the cook need to do for the meal to be considered “from scratch?” Surprisingly, to me, the answer was not very much. For example, if slicing and adding fresh vegetables were required for a semi-prepared meal, most preparers considered it scratch cooking, with all the associated taste and health benefits. Certainly taste has its subjective aspect, and understanding the targeted consumer is more important today than ever before.
Taste perception is not limited to sensory attributes. Increasingly, consumers are interested in natural ingredients and “clean labels.” More parents are avoiding feeding their children foods with artificial ingredients, including colors and flavors. According to a Nielsen survey, 92% of consumers are concerned about artificial colors. Of these consumers, 88% said they preferred natural flavors and ingredients. Though they have high expectations for taste, they are becoming more willing to accept foods in their natural color state. When was the last time you ate red pistachios?
More than half of U.S. consumers report being concerned about the negative side effects of artificial sweeteners. Thus the market has seen a shift from synthetic sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin to ingredients like stevia, with cleaner, more consumer friendly labeling. Of course, formulating with more natural sweeteners and flavorings presents challenges (e.g., stability); however, ingredient suppliers and food technologist are rising to the occasion. According to Innova Market Insights, use of natural flavors in new products is at an all-time high; “flavored by nature” and “naturally flavored” are among top new label claims.
A World of Flavors
There is a cadre of research addressing specific flavor trends consumers are seeking today, varying by consumer segment and a wide range of product applications. For example, adventurous consumers are seeking authentic flavors from specific regions around the world, expanding beyond traditional Italian, Asian and Hispanic taste. Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cuisines are here to stay, but cuisine from cultures like Korea and Malaysia will also increasingly show up on consumers’ pallets, and plates.
Moreover, Baby Boomers are driving renewed interest in retro flavors—those that evoke memories of simpler, happy times. Boomers can also be very demanding. They want “natural” foods that taste great, are premium quality and deliver substantiated health benefits while also fitting into their tighter budgets.
The economic roller coaster, along with conflicting demands for healthy foods and indulgent pallets, has made the art and science of forecasting organoleptic trends a real challenge. The savvy marketer will capitalize on the opportunity to deliver on expectations of a demanding yet appreciative consumer.
Greg Stephens, RD, is president of Windrose Partners, a company serving clients in the the dietary supplement, functional food and natural product industries. Formerly vice president of strategic consulting with The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) and Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Nurture, Inc (OatVantage), he has 25 years of specialized expertise in the nutritional and pharmaceutical industries. His prior experience includes a progressive series of senior management positions with Abbott Nutrition (Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories), including development of global nutrition strategies for disease-specific growth platforms and business development for Abbott’s medical foods portfolio. He can be reached at 215-860-5186; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.