By Karen Proper
Hot new flavours coupled with the drive for innovation, today’s consumers are simultaneously demanding food and beverage choices that incorporate health benefits, sound nutrition and easy-to-pronounce ingredients, while still maintaining food safety, quality and a price point that is uncompromised. new flavours and cultural influences are giving thrill-seeking consumers the intense adventure they are craving. Food is no longer about filling a need – it’s about the experience. Today’s consumers hunger for excitement and are seeking new and unusual food experiences, whether crickets, Carolina Reaper peppers or Ethiopian berbere.
Hot! Hot! Hot!
Looking for intense? Think heat! North Americans are obsessed with hot and spicy.
The endorphin-heavy neurochemical reactions triggered by hot and spicy foods are responsible for making hot foods such an adventure to consume. All peppers, including habaneros, ghost or the Carolina Reaper, belong to the genus Capsicum. The chemical compound, capsaicin, produces a burning sensation on any part of the body that it touches and stimulates nerve endings in the mouth to alert your body of intense pain. The heat of the tasteless, odourless capsaicin is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), with the Carolina Reaper currently holding the record for hottest pepper in the world, at 2,200,000 SHU. Any flavour associated with the heat-intense peppers is lost in the experience as the human palate can only experience the heat. However there are a multitude of varieties of less heat-intense peppers that range in flavour from fruity, to chocolaty, to hints of licorice or smoke.
For those with a sense of adventure, but a sensitive palate, take comfort – combining sweetness with peppers makes them more palatable. In fact, sweet heat is driving innovative flavour profiles. Sweet flavours, such as honey, fruit and molasses, are being paired with peppers, such as habaneros (ranging from no heat to fiery hot at 500,000 SHU), to evoke the fruity, citrusy flavour of the habanero.
Pairing heat with sweet adds another dimension but it doesn’t stop there – heat is also being paired with other basic flavours, including sour and salty, further satisfying consumers’ demands for bold and spicy flavours. These combinations can be found in products ranging from meats, snacks, seasonings, condiments and chocolate to gum and beverages.
The desire for the “different and delicious” is unsated – consumers want to taste the world. Thankfully, consumers do not have to travel far to satisfy their desires – immigration from other countries into North America has provided easy access to diverse cultures and ethnicities. Asian, North African, Indian, Ethiopian, Hispanic and Vietnamese are only a few examples of cultures piquing our interest in global flavours. Eyes and mouths are being opened to new tastes, flavours and cooking styles. Without hesitation, North American consumers are embracing these unique and exciting cuisines.
Spices, herbs and seasonings are the key to achieving authentic flavours associated with these cultural dishes. Understanding the combination and quantities of these ingredients helps create the desired result: African dishes typically combine cardamom, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, while Ethiopian dishes commonly incorporate chili peppers, fenugreek, ginger, coriander, cardamom, cumin, black pepper and paprika, often blended in a spice mixture called berbere. Crickets are also “hopping” onto consumers’ plates, as this sustainable, high-protein ingredient is being incorporated in sauces, crackers and energy bars.
However, consumers are also comfortable fusing ethnic cuisines – representing multiculturalism in extraordinary ways. “Flavor fusion” and “food mash-ups” such as melding Thai sriracha sauce with a Mexican condiment or mixing an Asian-infused flavour with a Latin flavour profile. There seemingly is no limit to the diverse combinations consumers are willing to explore.
Health and Wellness – What’s in it for Consumers?
While consumers are “fearless foodies,” they are also very much aware of what they are putting into their mouths. People are craving more exciting food that makes them feel good about themselves, but are also considering nutritional value and quality when making their food choices. Foods that are adventurous and flavourful must also combine an element of health-promoting nutrition to be aligned with today’s healthy and fit lifestyles.
When given the option, consumers prefer food and beverages over pills in their continuing goal of achieving a more balanced approach to health and diet. Nutrient-dense superfoods like quinoa, kale, beets, green tea and cauliflower are gaining increased popularity by providing powerful antioxidants to battle cancer and promote heart health. Veggie fries, zucchini pasta and veggie pretzels are making inroads as alternatives within these food categories. Beverages are also rising to the challenge: probiotics that promote digestive health, which had found their niche in cultured dairy products such as yogurt, are now being incorporated into better-for-you juices and drinks.
As well as addressing current health needs, consumers are increasingly aware of the heightened stress in their lives and the potential for future implications. Brain and eye health, as well as memory loss, are among the top concerns, and consumers are proactively seeking foods that provide a combative solution. Dark chocolate, sparkling beverages with green tea extract, and hemp seed extract-infused water are only a few examples of responsive products on the market. This future health concerning category will continue to see growth.
It is important to understand that forward-thinking consumers are also food-educated. The efficacy of ingredients with functional benefits will come under scrutiny – companies must ensure they have completed their homework to uphold their position on health and wellness.
In addition to demanding exciting and nutritionally dense foods, consumers want simple food ingredients that are easy to understand, authentic and easy to pronounce. Foods made with these ingredients are perceived as healthier and build on consumers’ desire for a healthy lifestyle. Clean label is a dominant trend with staying power and one with anticipated growth in the upcoming years.
However, confusion does exist around the term “clean label” for many consumers. A formal definition for clean label does not exist and as a result, many different interpretations endure. Some consumers believe that clean label means free-from artificial ingredients, allergens, chemicals and GMOs while others may include organic and natural in their definition. Confusion also persists around whether clean label pertains specifically to ingredients or whether it crosses over into the nutritional content.
As one might imagine, clean label formulating is challenging not only due to the plethora of existing perceptions but also from a standpoint of product quality, functionality, safety and price point. Ultimately, it goes without contest – the food must still deliver an enjoyable sensory experience or risk being left on the shelf.
Synthetic antioxidants, preservatives, colours and flavours all contribute to the attributes consumers have come to expect and enjoy from their food products. These ingredients extend shelf life; maintain colour, texture and flavour; address microbiological concerns and provide the functional requirements needed by manufacturers. The replacement of these ingredients with natural, pronounceable alternatives has implications that often consumers are unwilling to accept, leading to increased food waste and product cost. While some consumers are in fact looking for more natural ingredients, they are not willing to sacrifice taste.
Implications to food safety must also be considered. In the face of foodborne illnesses, including Clostridium botulinum, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, removing or replacing functional ingredients with clean label alternatives should not be considered lightly. Many chemical-sounding, undesirable ingredients, including preservatives (and even salt and sugar), influence intrinsic food safety factors such as water activity and pH. These factors are directly related to the microbiological stability of food. Caution must be taken and robust testing completed to ensure the efforts to create consumer-friendly foods result in safe foods as well.