From Antioch, down the Ganges to the Han Empire, the Silk Road of the ancient world served as a conduit of cultures and tastes between nations for more than a millennium. Intrepid merchants grew rich as they fostered the exotic exchange of wares and spices between East and West — a precursor to modern, economic globalization.
Today, globalization shrinks the world, intensifies competition, and fuses cultures and tastes faster than any traditional trade route. The multibillion-dollar flavours industry seems like the perfect microcosm of this trend, as traditional flavours combine with the exotic and foreign tastes of a culture half a world away, and manufacturers seek an edge in an increasingly crowded marketplace, where modern-day merchants hawk health, organics and superfruits.
Today's suppliers are positioned to offer their customers not only materials for products but expertise in everything from market analysis to food science to final formulations. The ability to work — to collaborate, in a sense — with a customer has become more important in an industry that in recent years has seen cutbacks in staff, particularly in research and development, according to William Graham, vice president of Frutarom USA's flavour division.
"The end-users are more dependent on the suppliers to do their work for them because they don't have the staff that they had in the past," he explains. "A flavour company puts together finished concepts."
With a reported 10,000 customers in some 120 countries, Frutarom offers a variety of services, including prototype formulations that can become the property of the manufacturer. In return, the manufacturer agrees to buy its supplies from Frutarom. "To us, it's the cost of doing business," Graham says of its turnkey service.
Many supply companies offer varying levels of service, but most provide technical and scientific expertise from their own R&D departments.
"Most of our clients usually come to us with a broad concern," says Antoine Dauby, marketing manager for France-base Naturex. "We can advise in dosage levels and process incorporation, shelf-life extension, stability tests … synergies with other ingredients.... Last year, we worked on more than 600 product developments for our customers."
Jessica R Jones-Dille, industry trend manager for WILD Flavors, notes that customers "increasingly desire R&D support when applying new flavours, colours and health ingredients, with support in concept development and commercialization.
"We pride ourselves on providing industry-leading product-development services and turnkey support to our customers from concept ideation and development to commercialization and technical services at the end manufacturer," she adds.
Geneva, Illinois-based FONA International specializes in developing and pairing flavours with just the right product type, according to Barb Pugesek, market manager for FONA International. Flavours are very relational ingredients, she explains, and they interact differently based on a product's properties. For example, the fat content of whole milk may sap the impact of a chocolate flavour vs skim milk.
"Flavours, in terms of flavour types, in how they're used, are very specific to the end product — the type of flavour and how it functions," she says. "Flavour is obviously one of the most important attributes in terms of consumer acceptance. … It requires a lot of collaboration between a flavour supplier and a manufacturer to create a great-tasting product."
Naturex's Dauby maintains that consumers are increasingly looking for experiential flavours that challenge the traditional flavour palate. "End consumers want more than just tastes, they want experiences," he says. "We have noticed, for instance, in 2007, a growing demand for our tamarind and ginger extracts. They are in the trend focus, as they offer an attractive combination of health benefits and exotic tastes. For example, tamarind brings a bright taste to many dishes from Asia that Americans are becoming familiar with."
A 2007 Datamonitor report, "Creating Sensory Appeal: Sensory and Flavor Trends in Food and Drinks: Maximizing Sensory Appeal to Emotionally Engage Food and Beverage Shoppers," backs up the claim that consumers are after exotic, epicurean experiences, whether sipping a chili-infused beer or sitting down to an Asian-inspired meal (see sidebar at right).
"The broadening of consumers' palates has occurred as a result of changing holidaying trends and migration patterns. People are traveling farther around the world and are being introduced to new foods with greater frequency. These groceries are often associated with the positive experience of the holiday, and are therefore viewed in a favorable manner," according to the report.
Datamonitor research found that 41 per cent of European and US consumers have tried food with new and exotic flavours in the last 12 months.
FONA International has developed a method called Flavor Radar that tracks the trajectory of a flavour over time. The system categorizes flavours in four categories based on their prevalence and popularity in the market — novel, up-and-coming, mainstream and everyday. As the name implies, novel identifies flavours just being introduced, mainly in fine dining, while everyday items appear at the other end of the spectrum in quick-service establishments. The flavour chipotle is a prime example of this stair step to savoury stardom.
"Some flavours will have a novel or up-and-coming appeal for a long time," Pugesek says. "They would never become mainstream, and wouldn't it be a boring world if they did? A lot of flavours kind of maintain their gourmet or interesting status for a long time."
Manufacturers looking to create an upscale, Asian-inspired beverage might choose to use rambutan (classified as novel), a fruit that has a sweet, slightly more acidic taste than lychee, an up-and-coming flavour. Still in the Eastern realm, FONA considers green tea and lemon grass as mainstream while ginger and wasabi have achieved everyday status.
"It's really about choosing the right flavour based on how your product is going to be positioned," Pugesek says.
Health and wellness remain strong trends, according to WILD Flavors' Jones-Dille. She says antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids continue to spearhead consumer demand. Datamonitor also backs that claim. In 2004, it reported that there were just 72 new products around the world with an antioxidant package tag. Two years later, that number jumped to 434, according to press material from FONA International.
"However, consumers also want to balance out their health and wellness with indulgent concepts and a combination of sweet and savoury flavours," Jones-Dille says. "The demand for superfruits, such as açai and goji berry, [is] on the rise, while pomegranate is considered more mainstream now by consumers.
"Crossover flavours, such as coffee paired with wasabi and chocolate paired with mushroom, are the latest trend and are becoming 'cutting edge,' especially in the culinary world," she adds.
Organic — limited but growing
The culinary world is certainly no stranger now to organics, probably the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. Flavours suppliers have certainly recognized that trend.
Frutarom recently added 3,000 square feet of new laboratory space to its New Jersey facility, which will focus on developing natural and organic flavours. Graham says Frutarom was one of the first flavour suppliers to delve into organics. It has been certified organic by Quality Assurance International for several years, he says. "I saw that as a niche that could make us different. … It's been a very successful part of our portfolio now."
However, organics presents its own unique challenges, particularly for companies looking to develop 100 per cent organic products.
"There's an extremely limited amount of raw materials and sources," Pugesek explains. "And these materials tend to be very expensive. Because of that limitation, it creates a lot of limitations in the flavour functionality, in controlling the flavour form, the flavour impact, the flavour quality, the shelf life of the flavour."
The USDA organic label requires a product's ingredients be at least 95 per cent organic, which allows for some wriggle room, she notes, but adds, "It's also important to consider that for the organics consumers, the ones who are really seeking 100 percent organic products, flavour may be considered an undesirable ingredient anyway. Those consumers are seeking that very pure food."
Despite its limitations, demand for organic flavours will continue to rise, according to Jones-Dtille. Then it becomes the classic case of demand squeezing supply, she says.
"The demand for organic ingredients is on the rise and supply of said ingredients is low — which raises costs. Many farmers are also jumping on the biofuel bandwagon and planting corn instead of other commodity crops."
Says Graham, "You're fighting for what's available [in the organic market]." A weak US dollar and higher oil prices — which affect not just transportation costs but petro-based products — are also pressures that could affect flavour prices. In general, I think everything [is going up], unfortunately. In the regular market and the organic market."
Pugesek says companies like FONA International try to shield customers from market fluctuations by replacing volatile ingredients, such as honey, with suitable flavours that maintain a product's quality and consistency. "Our take on fluctuating markets is to ask how flavour can be of use in buffering the food industry from some of those [price increases]."