The landscape of the American food market is painted with connotations of natural, organic and wholesome. Words including natural, all natural, organic, honest, homegrown, fresh picked and old fashioned are only a few that have found powerful places on store shelves. These words weave a story to consumers, easily lulling them into a connection with flora and fauna, front porches and fireflies that exist beyond the climate control of most food markets.
With this reality in place, it should come as no surprise that “natural” remains a leading claim on new product labels. Indeed, the claim was included on 23 percent of food and beverage launches, according to a finding in the 2009 Mintel Global New Products Database.
Taking in the scenery of packaging today, this trend does not seem to have slowed down and may have helped to revisit product development paths well trodden and forge those less traveled.
In 2009, the popularity of the natural tagline, along with Michael Pollan’s demonization of high fructose corn syrup in his bestseller, In Defense of Food, may have helped consumers rediscover that sugar is a natural sweetener.
Store shelves experienced a throwback to the days when America’s favorite soda brands sweetened their prized products without the use of HFCS. For all the sports fans out there, the soda that Mean Joe Greene famously gulped years ago was most likely sweetened with sugar.
The U.S. consumer’s diet continues to demand a return to a simpler time when the “tangible material formerly known as food” as described in Pollan’s book must at minimum come from nature. The corn industry acted to remind consumers that HFCS has natural origins and launched a campaign to rename it "corn sugar." Winning approval for use in food products between the years 2008 (U.S.) and 2011(EU), stevia was introduced to consumers’ vocabularies and taste experiences. It has been described as the only chemical-free, zero-calorie, zero-carb, zero-glycemic index, 100-percent-natural sweetener commercially available.
Here are four trends driving food flavors, including the race for alternative sweeteners, the rise of organic, helping natural food stay fresh longer and ingredient transparency.
4 trends shaping food flavors
1. Sweeteners come courting
These events, accompanied with First Lady Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity in the United States, set the latest environment for product developers to create a great-tasting, zero-calorie beverage. It seems that product developers endlessly endeavor to attain this goal. Past attempts were formulated with synthetic sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and acesulfame K. Stevia offered a natural alternative.
Beverage product developers were encouraged to embrace the game-changing natural sweetener. Stevia offered significant sweetness along with some inherent taste issues including a delayed onset of sweet perception, bitterness, lack of syrupy mouthfeel and a lingering somewhat licorice aftertaste. Only by correcting these issues would the new player in the game be able to graduate from a promising prospect to star sweetener.
According to studies by various sources, taste remains the top influencer for Americans when purchasing food and beverages. With this in mind, all corners of the food industry reportedly rallied around the goal of assuaging the less-desired sensations that accompanied sweetening with stevia.
Suppliers of ingredients studied effects of adding texturizers to enhance viscosity, pairing complementary sweeteners such as erythritol and monk fruit to mimic sugar. Meanwhile, natural product managers offered sources of taste modification, and flavorists across businesses were seemingly recruited to create a panacea to moderate stevia’s less-palatable attributes.
With all of these resources at the disposal of product developers, it appeared to be a matter of time before the world tasted the first zero-calorie, naturally sweetened beverage.
In 2009, Zevia became the first beverage in the U.S. sweetened entirely with stevia. It sent a signal that the rules of the zero calorie beverage game had changed. Naturally, other zero-calorie and lower-calorie versions of existing brands followed and there are sure to be more on the way. Sachets of trademarked versions of stevia also found space on market shelves.
Truvia and PureVia beckoned consumers with images of leaves, plants, berries and hints that nature had provided a zero-calorie sweetener. The prominent packaging color of choice, green, also had the ability to powerfully communicate connectivity with nature.
2. The rise of organic
As naturally as we return to long summer days outdoors, sitting on front porches and chasing fireflies, Americans are also experiencing a resurgence of organic home gardening. Our First Lady may have also had a hand in fueling this trend. Michelle Obama revived the idea of planting a White House garden.
Previous to her residence, a Victory Garden was last planted when Eleanor Roosevelt lived at the White House. The purposes for each garden were critical to conveying important messages for campaigns of each First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt’s to encourage healthy eating in a time of scarcity and Mrs. Obama’s to inspire cost-effective, healthy, organic eating in a time of plenty.
The appetite for organic is one that has grown at a rapid pace over the past 20 years. Whole Foods Market dominates the natural foods segment, offering natural and organic choices at their stores. In addition to FDA and NOP regulations that define ingredients allowed in natural or organic food items, Whole Foods Market demands that suppliers adhere to their own list of unacceptable ingredients for food.
In some cases, food scientists and flavorists who reasonably believed items developed within government standards could also be sold at Whole Foods Market had some reformulating and additional paperwork to do. One can easily predict a continued need to meet custom food requirements for specialty retail grocery stores built on niche markets.
3. Pressure, not heat, for longer shelf life
While the positioning of zero-calorie sweetness from nature continues, a report from NASA recently claimed that it had developed a formulation and processing methodology that allowed a four-year shelf life on bread pudding. While this development seems to contrast consumer penchant for fresh, natural products, it highlights advancements utilizing natural processes that may help food stay fresh longer.
If one recalls that orange-flavored Tang was developed by General Foods and popularized with the help of NASA, imagining that lengthening shelf lives for most food items might not be surprising to encounter in the future. It may become a new natural.
Innovations in natural processing that exist in supermarkets today include the method of High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP). In the days when Mean Joe Greene played for the Steelers, the commercially common manner of sterilization of food was to heat it to 250F for 30 minutes.
As most people know, heating changes the taste of food items. HPP relies instead on subjecting food to 87,000 lbs. of pressure per square inch to effectively kill bacteria. The taste of the food item is allowed to be free from effects of heat or preservatives.
For flavorists, who often struggle to create flavor profiles that survive heat treatment or play well with preservatives, the future may hold exercises in longer shelf stability and increasing demands to deliver tastes that mimic nature.
4. Information, transparency is power
Advances and innovations in the food we eat are often accompanied with curiosity of how the item traveled from existing in nature to being packaged on shelves. Information technology assists with satisfying inquisitiveness about sources and preparation of natural foods consumed.
One only needs to consult the latest app, Facebook page or brand-supported website to understand the origins of food items in question. As information becomes more accessible, consumers may hold increased involvement in knowing what we eat, why we eat it and why we love it.
Natural origins and processes may ease acceptance and development of affection. Food Scientists, flavorists, brand managers, retail grocers, food entrepreneurs and social media experts will productively interact in order to innovate and deliver naturally satisfactory sensorial experiences that inspire nutrition, devotion and love.
Cathianne Leonardi is senior flavorist at Allen Flavors, Inc.