Healthy food brands are throwing all sorts of curveballs at flavor and color companies, such as clean label requirements, simpler ingredients, natural and organic standards, sweetener restrictions, and more. These demands are stemming directly from the rising popularity of products, such as plant-based concoctions, fermented foods and drinks, and even the most talked about nutraceutical darling, CBD.
According to Christopher Naese, vice president of business Development, Florida Food Products, Eustis, FL, the growing distaste for artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives across the food and beverage industry has an even firmer foothold in products formulated for the health and wellness market.
Healthy, Clean, Simple & Sustainable
In the case of flavors, there is a tendency to kill two birds with one stone by choosing flavors that also have function. Philip Caputo, marketing and consumers insights manager, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, believes that, because they’re often perceived as healthier, “There is an increased interest in flavor profiles associated with active ingredients that have health and wellness claims, such as green tea, ginger, tart cherry, turmeric, lime, and cascara.
Some examples of flavors by functionality include peppermint, ginger, and fermented ingredients with sour profiles like kombucha, which all cater to gut health, as well as blueberries, bilberry, black currant, cherries, grapes, dark chocolate, turmeric, celery, and green tea, which all have anti-inflammatory properties.
Focusing on cleaner labels and ingredient transparency, Ray Hartman, master flavorist, food and beverage, Prinova USA, Hanover Park, IL, said that new flavors getting the most traction across all categories of food and beverage are those aligned with the simple-label trend. “A short and simple ingredient statement that reads like a recipe card for a homemade meal is resonating with today’s consumer,” he commented. “Consumers want to be in control of their diets and there is a growing public mistrust of complicated, chemical sounding ingredient statements.”
In fact, according to Innova Market Insights, 91% of U.S. consumers believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier, Hartman noted.
“Beyond the perception of naturalness, consumers yearn for authenticity and wholesomeness in their foods,” Hartman explained. “They hope to understand how the product they are purchasing is made, how it compares to real food, and is it made with genuine farm-to-fork ingredients with minimal processing. As a result of these consumer motives, we are observing increased requests for organic, non-GMO, and pure and natural flavors.”
Because there is no real definition for what constitutes “clean label,” Heather Young, account manager, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Inc., Greensboro, NC, said defining what this means on a client-by-client basis is imperative prior to development. “Consumers are looking for products with ingredient statements that align with their dietary goals and beliefs. Unfortunately, the term ‘clean label’ can mean different things to different people.”
“We understand the challenges that come with formulating healthy foods and beverages,” Young continued. “With our catalogue of natural and organic flavors, as well as our Bitter Blocker and Bittermask ingredients, we are able to work with our clients to develop healthy foods and beverages that don’t compromise on flavor while maximizing the health profile of the finished product.”
Functionality, sustainability, plant-based innovations, and snacking are trends that continue to influence the flavor market, according to Anu Fisher, marketing analyst, Flavorchem, Downers Grove, IL. “Consumers are looking for fortified and functional foods that promote gut health, fuel their brains, and benefit their physical appearance, while not wanting to give up taste,” she said. “They not only want food that is nutrient-dense, but also sustainable. More than millennials, generation Z consumers are ‘clean-eaters’ that have a strong interest in transparency, product sourcing, and social responsibility.”
Speaking of clean eating, Innova Market Insights noted that products featuring flower flavors increased 132% between 2015 and 2017, and continue to go upward with the plant-based food trend on the rise. “Consumers’ desire for clean, natural, and real ingredients has fueled the use of floral flavor applications in the food and beverage industry,” Fisher said. “Trending floral flavors in nutraceuticals include elderflower, rose, and lavender.”
Prinova’s Hartman agreed, pointing out that botanicals and florals have moved center stage in 2019. “They embody the natural diversity of flavors found in nature, and have potential to meet consumers’ increasing demand for new and novel product offerings. Botanicals like lavender, rose, jasmine, and orange blossom have a rich heritage in the world of fine fragrance and personal care.”
Hartman feels this strong association with beauty and wellness works well in all categories of functional foods, with new entrants like elderberry blossom, sakura (cherry blossom), and hibiscus generating a lot of excitement. “Fruit/floral combinations are also becoming more relevant. We feature many of these exciting new flavor combinations in our own portfolio of trending flavors. Pairings like Grapefruit Rose and Lavender Lemonade are creating a lot of interest among our ‘good-for-you’ functional food customers.”
Kayla Blanding, applications technologist, Synergy Flavors, Inc., Wauconda, IL, noted flavors such as florals, herbs, name of origin flavors, and superfruits are very popular because they tend to fall under the “health halo” and have a natural association. Flavor examples include lavender, rosemary, chamomile, citrus, and hibiscus.
In contrast to pairing botanically-inspired flavors with plant-based products is a trend toward what Fisher called “childhood indulgences.” She said consumers are looking for a balance between exploring new taste experiences and grounding themselves with nostalgic flavors of the past.
“Novelty flavor profiles such as apple pie, cookie dough, and s’mores are making their way into health and wellness products as consumers look to modernize their daily diets with familiar flavors in unexpected applications,” she said.
One ingredient that is a shining example of both flavor and functionality is turmeric. “A trend that we are facing in the market—and we see no slowing down—is an increase in flavors where the ingredient has associated health benefits,” said Alexandre Massumoto, marketing, Synergy Brazil. “Turmeric is one of the best examples of that and has earned its status as a superfood in recent years thanks to its active ingredient curcumin, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties.”
“We saw a great interest in turmeric last year and it is starting to appear not only as an ingredient/spice but as a flavor in products like beverages, bars, and cereals—up 51% last year in product launches in North America, according to Mintel,” Massumoto added. “Matcha and tart cherry are also good examples of flavors that showed growth in product launches for their antioxidant properties, which are both up 520% and 220%, respectively, in the last five years in North America.”
Hartman believes adventurous consumers are looking for flavor discovery, and that tropical fruits are a means of exploring beyond the boundaries of their ever-expanding palates. “Tropicals are increasingly paired with mainstream fruits, creating an abundance of taste impressions that are pleasantly familiar with a novel twist,” he said, adding, “Turmeric and ginger are being paired with staple fruits, particularly citrus. These pungent spices add a touch of heat and a small measure of thrill that often accompanies the unfamiliar.”
Speaking of adventure, Florida Food Product’s Naese, considers fermented foods part of a larger shift in the food and beverage industry toward authentic, natural ingredients that provide health benefits and unique experiences. “As consumers eschew sweets and crave the savory, umami, and other flavors commonly associated with fruits, vegetables, and active ingredients with health and wellness claims, fermented flavors have found a wider appeal, especially among consumers under the age of 40 who are seeking novel, multisensory food experiences,” he said.
As cultural influences and the desire for diverse flavor options increase, consumers will look to global flavors for exploration. This year, Massumoto sees consumers looking toward Asian-Pacific flavors, putting flavors like yuzu (citrus fruit native to central China and Tibet and popularized by Japanese cuisine) in a prime position to innovate beverage, confection, and nutrition products.
He also said unusual and innovative flavors are expected to make their way into food in 2019, including taro, acai, and pitaya (dragonfruit), which have seen a lot of action in the Latin American market recently, and have shown great potential to cross into U.S. product development.
Up to the Challenge
To solve some of the challenges inherent in natural products, be it clean-label requirements or major ingredient off notes, Flavorchem offers a flavor system called Nature’s Best Combinations. “Nature’s Best Combinations are those botanical flavors that come from nature, creating a natural taste that is true to the plants, florals, herbs, and roots from which they are derived,” said Flavorchem’s Fisher. “Satisfying the millennials’ adventurous palates and clean-label criteria, the trend will be to create unique botanical flavor combinations.”
Symrise has also been hard at work satisfying the needs of millennials who are looking for cleaner products. In response to this demand, it has launched a new collection of organic-certified and non-GMO flavors under the umbrella of Code of Nature, a new positioning that offers taste solution platforms to food and beverage brands that want to meet the demand for more nutritious food while still delivering on flavor.
“Millennials are the fastest-growing demographic of consumers who want what’s best not only for themselves but their families, too. So, when it comes to foods and beverages, organics are on the top of their grocery lists,” explained Emmanuel Laroche, vice president of marketing and consumer insights, and global marketing leader for Symrise.
Currently, millennial parents constitute 52% of all parents buying organics for their households. Due in part to the trend of healthy indulgence by millennial consumers, the organic snack market alone is projected to grow over 60%, or $745 million, between 2016 and 2021.
This category of consumers is turning to organics in order to find healthy options for the whole family across all food and beverage categories that taste better and have a greater nutritional value than their non-organic counterparts. By developing Certified Organic flavors across a spectrum of traditional flavor profiles, Symrise aims to help satisfy millennial demand for better-for-you (BFY) choices with organic and sustainable ingredients that fit the needs of growing families concerned with leading a healthy lifestyle.
Switching gears a bit, one of the most high-profile newcomers on the nutraceutical scene is cannabidiol (CBD). This is the non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant, which has been blazing a trail in the industry for the last couple of years. The light on CBD has grown brighter alongside new regulations regarding its legal status. The legalization of marijuana in some states has also added to the popularity of CBD, allowing many to cash in on the cannabis craze.
One company that has spent quite a bit of time researching this market for solutions to the off-notes frequently posed by CBD infusions is Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, IL. “There is a lot of fantasy about what CBD can do, which is driving a lot of the activity in the healthy ingredients market today. So we’ve been doing a lot of work around CBD to identify what the flavor opportunities are,” said David Banks, marketing director, Bell Flavors & Fragrances. “There are more than 200 terpene compounds in the cannabis plant, so you will get piney notes, as well as citrus. We are working with these characteristics to pinpoint the right flavor combinations.”
Currently, the most popular applications for CBD from a flavoring standpoint include beverages, gummies, and shots. With the latter, dosage can impact how to flavor that application. “Our flavorists have several tools they can use to mask the off-notes. They can also use flavors that complement the inherent flavor of CBD. Or they can use a concentrated flavor to both cover up and complement the CBD flavor,” said Jenna Schowalter, sweet lab manager, Bell Flavors & Fragrances.
Playing with Proteins
Plant-based protein continues to dominate the conversation in healthy foods, according to Virginia Dare’s Caputo, with a third of protein consumption anticipated to be plant-based by 2054. While this is good for the health of consumers and the planet, proteins from pea, rice, and soy can introduce a musty off-note to an application, creating challenges for formulators.
“Understanding the variables causing undesirable taste in plant-based products allows Virginia Dare to develop successful flavor masking systems and techniques. We have identified specific proteins, fatty acids, and enzymes that contribute to off-flavors and texture, and we understand how preparation or processing methods contribute to these challenges,” Caputo explained. “By assigning taste descriptors to each offending variable in plant-based ingredients, we know which components are deemed offensive and how to selectively mask those off-notes.”
William McCormack, business development manager, Nutrition, Synergy Flavors, Inc., also considers plant-based proteins challenging from a taste and texture standpoint. “To overcome these challenges Synergy utilizes a combination of sensory and analytical chemistry to understand the inherent flavor profile of the protein or proteins contained in the finished product. Once the sensory and analytical data is matched, we then pair flavor profiles with the base that enhances the positive attributes that a plant-based protein may have while also mitigating the inherent off-notes that the base may contain,” he said.
Mother Murphy’s also has a solution for plant-based products. “Plant-based proteins serve as a sustainable protein replacement. Unfortunately, the flavor profile of plant-based proteins poses problems in terms of functionality as well as off-notes in the final product,” Young offered. “Through extensive internal testing, Mother Murphy’s developed Bitter Blocking ingredients specifically to deal with the challenges of these plant-based proteins and the unique off-notes they contain. This enables developers to create a finished product that meets the consumer demand for plant-based proteins while delivering the taste they desire.”
Some of the popular flavors for proteins include brown sugar, maple, and coffee. “We look at the nuances of the product when unflavored and then try and find a flavor that complements it. For example, if the protein is pretty bitter, then we might add coffee flavor because your brain associates coffee with “bitter.” Certain flavors like berry and citrus don’t work very well with protein products. Sweet, brown profiles are the best fit for these applications,” Bell Flavors’ Schowalter said.
Similar to the popularity of proteins, companies have been launching essential amino acid (EAA) products, which bring their own set of challenges, according to Angela Skubal, applications lab supervisor, Prinova. “Unlike branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that mostly contribute a bitterness, the EAAs bring a savory note to the table that has been hard to cover up with a flavor like lemon lime or orange mango,” she said. “Luckily, at Prinova we have developed a masker that is specifically formulated to help block the savory off-notes of EAAs. With that masker, the customer is able to get a beverage with a healthy dose of EAAs, while maintaining a refreshing sports drink profile.”
Sugar Reduction Showdown
Sugar has been taking it on the chin for the last several years, which has caused upheaval in many corners of the food and drink market in the form of massive reformulations. At the same time, adjusting to this new normal has spawned some interesting innovations.
Finding a replacement for sugar is one of the biggest challenges flavor companies face today. In addition to providing sweetness, sugar also provides mouthfeel, which is hard to come by with many low- and no-sugar options. However, new technologies are paving the way for flavor combinations to help healthy food
Synergy’s Blanding said sugar reduction trends have made it necessary to review and revise the formulations of existing products, which usually involves rebalancing the flavor and strength in order to maintain the desired profile. “We may need to provide a flavor that compensates for lack of sweetness in the base or flavors that complement natural sweeteners,” she said. “As consumers’ taste for sweetness continues to change, we may see less indulgent profiles and more natural profiles such as fruits, citrus, herbs, and botanicals.”
Prinova’s Skubal agreed that sugar reduction remains a tricky area for flavorists. “With keto being a huge buzzword as of late, everyone wants low-carb, high-fat products. This means that whatever sugar was in your product either needs to be taken out and replaced with a high intensity sweetener, or complemented with dietary fiber to make a net-carb claim. Either way, there are going to be formulation challenges that come about,” she said. “In beverage, the removal of sugar not only changes the sweetness, but also the mouthfeel, which has a large impact on flavor perception.”
Luckily, natural, high-intensity sweeteners have come a long way, Skubal said “So we not only have Reb A as an option, but we can also use a blend of stevia products that imparts the most sweetness, while minimizing the off-notes and ‘stevia’ aftertaste. With this new technology, we have been able to use our most common flavors without having to compromise on taste, but will always struggle with the ultra-indulgent flavors that the consumer expects to be super sweet,” she explained.
In other applications like nutritional bars, Skubal said this has been a bit more of a formulation struggle because of how crucial sugar syrups are in the binding and texture of bars. “Without sugar, a lot of bars come out either too dry and crumbly, or too sticky. It has been interesting trying to find the best balance of sugar syrups, fiber syrups, and other ingredients like nut butters to create an optimal nutritional bar that hits the low-carb claim.”
Caputo of Virginia Dare said sugar—like salt, fat, and acid—enhances flavor, mouthfeel, impact, and overall taste. He attested to the taste preferences that have shifted from overly sweet products to those with natural or balanced profiles, sour and bitter flavors, lightly sweetened or complex sweetness (from sources like raw sugars, maple, honey, molasses, etc.), and texture-focused experiences.
“Traditionally, sugar was used to cover-up off-flavors inherent in healthy ingredients like grains, seeds, vitamins, and minerals. Reducing sugar affects taste, so refining or improving product formulation after removing sugar may require a combination approach of boosting flavor impact, creating greater complexity of flavor and texture, or boosting the perception of sweetness through modulation,” Caputo said.
“Our sweetness modulation typically employs a low amount of existing sugar in a product combined with natural alternatives like stevia, monk fruit, or sugar alcohol, and changing other attributes like texture and aroma to boost the perception of sweetness. Instead of using sugar to hide off flavors, we use taste-masking solutions to improve the taste of a formulation,” Caputo added.
Key consumer trends from the broader nutrition market, such as transparency and traceability, are increasingly important when considering the inclusion of color in healthcare products such as dietary supplements, according to Barri Sigvertsen, senior marketing manager, Lonza Consumer Health & Nutrition, Greenwood, SC.
Lonza’s proprietary research, conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) with 2,000 U.S. consumers, showed that 80% of survey respondents wanted to know the sources of the ingredients in the products they use, while 54% said they would prefer to buy dietary supplements derived from natural sources—an increase of nearly 60% compared to 2013.
Just as it has impacted flavors, the clean-label trend has also influenced the color market, according to Cori Satkowski, product development technologist, California Natural Color, Fresno, CA. “Companies are switching from synthetic colors to colors from natural sources because consumers are asking for products with ingredients they understand,” she said. “An example is using either radish or black carrot color in a fruit punch beverage instead of Red 40 to give the product a vibrant red color.”
At California Natural Color, food and beverage colors are selected based on the flavor, type, and market of a product. And for these applications, the company produces liquid and crystal colors that come from nature and help companies meet the demand for clean-label products.
Christiane Lippert, head of marketing (food) for Lycored, Orange, NJ, believes clean label has transcended trend status to become a standard consumer expectation. “Around 80% of consumers want to know more about a product’s ingredients before making purchase decisions as part of their quest for healthier products and greater ingredient transparency,” she said. “As a result, there has been an increase in demand for non-artificial ingredients, including colors, with a third of consumers stating that a product being ‘free-from artificial colors’ has a major impact on their purchase decisions.”
Lippert referenced a recent Mintel report which identified a marked rise in the use of non-artificial colors, increasing penetration to 6.4% in 2018 within the beverage segment, including meal replacements and juice. She said Germany and the U.K. were the two most active countries in this area with the most launches using these types of colors.
The sunshine spectrum—bright yellow through to deep orange—will stimulate colorful food and beverage development as consumers seek out products that inspire upbeat, positive emotions, and unite people with a feeling of joy, according to GNT Group, Tarrytown, NY.
Shoppers—particularly younger ones hailing from generation Z—will gravitate toward food and drink colored with natural yellow and orange shades in order to tune into the optimistic sentiments they convey, the company said.
Maartje Hendrickx, market development manager at GNT, said consumers today prefer food and drink that can arouse a sense of freshness and light, qualities that yellow and orange shades deliver. “Just as pink was embraced by millennials, generation Z will channel the positivity of sunshine shades to sprinkle cheerfulness into their lives,” she said.
The Sunshine Shades range has been developed as part of GNT’s new Love Color with EXBERRY initiative for 2019, which will explore how color can influence mood and deliver feelings of excitement and contentment, while also satisfying adventurous, curious consumers who are keen to discover new experiences.
Hendrickx added: “Natural yellow and orange coloring foods fit perfectly with the desire among consumers to reconnect with the natural world. We are planning some exciting activity in 2019 to maximize engagement with Sunshine Shades, with innovative product concepts and technical information in the pipeline.”
One area Lycored is active in is plant-based proteins for use in meat alternatives, which can be difficult to work with as both the raw and cooked appearance needs to be considered during formulation. “The heating process and time on display on shelf in typical meat type conditions (such as chiller cabinets) may also impact on color and visual appeal,” said Lippert. “The intended format also has an impact. For example, for a burger-type alternative the raw meat may need to have typical color effect of beef (red) when raw but brown when cooked, while deli meat types like ham will need a different shade.”
Speaking at last year’s IFT Show, Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at Mintel, highlighted ingredients such as algae, purple yam, and matcha because they add a pop of color and flavor to foods and beverages. The purported health benefits associated with these ingredients, she said, adds bonus appeal.
About the author: Becky Wright has 20 years of experience in the nutritional field as a writer and marketer. She previously worked for companies such as OmniActive Health Technologies, Aker BioMarine, and Rodman Media. She currently runs Wright On Marketing & Communications, a small independent agency that offers related services to clients. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.