The Food Industry Looks to Deliver Bold and Spicy Flavors

Stephen DeAngelis

June 3, 2014

The head chef at McCormick’s technical innovation center in Hunt Valley, MD, Kevan Vetter, is always looking for new recipes that will satisfy “Americans’ growing preference to both cook with and consume bolder, adventurous flavors.” [“Let’s Eat!: We’re hot for chilies,” by Hadley Malcolm, USA Today, 7 May 2014] Despite America’s reputation as a fast food nation, Malcolm reports that bold and spicy flavors are finding their way into dishes that appeal to “increasingly sophisticated palates.” According to Malcolm, “We’re obsessed with chilies, riffing on Indian curry at home, and can’t get enough of anything that combines Mexico’s tangy limes and smoky spices.” She goes on to note, “McCormick predicted as much in its 2014 flavor forecast, an annual report the company releases that predicts the food trends that will soon find themselves on restaurant menus and in home pantries.” To learn more about the predictions made in the McCormick® Flavor Forecast®, read my post entitled “Predictions for the Coming Year: Food, Part 1.” That post also contains predictions from Campbell’s initial Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute (CCBI) Culinary TrendScape report. David Landers, senior chef for the CCBI, told Keith Nunes, “The Culinary Trendscape is a way of looking at experiences in the world and makes it translatable in the world we live in. This is how I do my job. It is how I make sure what I am finding in the world is relevant and interesting to the Campbell Soup Co.” [“Inside Campbell Soup’s product development process,” Food Business News, 17 March 2014]

Food is big business and companies that can identify and adapt to changing tastes are the ones that are going to thrive. McCormick and Campbell’s are not the only organizations trying to figure out how tastes are changing. The National Restaurant Association, restaurant trade magazines, and restaurant-research firms also map food trends. [“12 Hottest Food Trends for 2014,” Forbes] According to Forbes, one of those growing trends is eating food that is locally sourced. The article explains:

“American diners increasingly crave food grown in their own region, rather than delicacies trucked or flown in from far-off locales. The National Restaurant Association’s recently released ‘What’s Hot in 2014’ chef survey found local sourcing figured in four of the top ten trends. The hottest trend NRA identified: Locally sourced meats and seafood, followed closely by locally grown produce.”

The following National Restaurant Association video is packed full of interesting tidbits about current and past food trends.

Malcolm’s article reaches some of the same conclusions found in the video. She writes:

“With the help of social media, a growing appreciation for locally sourced and fresh food, and dining experiences such as food trucks and fast-casual restaurants that make good food more accessible, a country that was raised on meat and potatoes, jello molds and fried chicken has experienced a global awakening when it comes to influences in the kitchen. ‘The normal paradigm where it starts with the elite chefs is totally broken now,’ Vetter says. ‘People are experiencing food and new flavors at a much faster rate.’ You may know McCormick as a spice company, populating grocery stores with its iconic red-topped bottles, but it would describe itself more as a flavor company.”

I was surprised to learn that there are enough chefs like Vetter and Nunes that a Research Chefs Association was formed to support them. According to the Association’s website, “The Research Chefs Association is the leading professional community for food research and development. Its members are the pioneers of the discipline of Culinology® — the blending of culinary arts and the science of food.” One thing I’ve really come to appreciate during the work that Enterra® does with McCormick is exactly how much science is involved in creating flavors that appeal to changing tastes. Of course, there is a lot of art involved as well. Monica Watrous reports, “Culinary matchmaking requires skill and instinct, but experimentation is a key.” [“Mastering the art of flavor matchmaking,” Food Business News, 3 April 2014] Researchers at McCormick’s innovation center would certainly agree with that. Malcolm reports:

“At the innovation center, chemists can spend all week analyzing the molecular makeup of cinnamon or oregano, determining whether a new source of the spices is of high enough quality or comparing McCormick’s version with competitor brands. Trained panelists spend hours sipping spice-infused teas to determine the best version of a new smoked paprika; another group trained in the art of responding to and describing senses helps McCormick measure emotional responses to food. The constant testing not only lets McCormick ensure it’s sending the best spices to grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens, but is also often contributing to one of the company’s many brand collaborations. Chances are good that something you’ve eaten in the past couple of days was influenced by McCormick. McCormick partners with nine of the top 10 multinational food manufacturers and eight of the top 10 global food service restaurants — that includes everyone from fast food chains to fine dining establishments. While it won’t disclose who it works with specifically, a slide from a 2014 shareholders meeting presentation, available on the company’s website, lists Wendy’s, McDonald’s, General Mills, Kraft, Subway, PepsiCo, and Kellogg’s. Think about that new flavored chip you can’t get enough of, or the flavor of natural lemon in a yogurt. McCormick probably had a hand in creating it.”

Watrous’ article focuses on another company in the flavor business, Comax Flavors, of Melville, NY. Agneta Weisz, vice-president of flavors and technology for Comax, told Watrous, “When combining flavors with different profiles, such as sweet and spicy, it is very important to give each flavor a chance to shine. Blending isn’t the answer, but allowing each flavor to contribute equally to achieving a balanced synergy is best. … There are so many individual factors that impact creating flavor profiles.” Watrous agrees with Malcolm that our palates may be getting more sophisticated. “More than ever,” she writes, “consumers crave diversity and dimension. Widespread acceptance of nontraditional pairings is growing, with such complex combinations as Sriracha and salted caramel surging in popularity over the past year.”

Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at the market research firm Technomic, Inc., told Watrous, “Tradition isn’t guiding flavor applications anymore. There is so much opportunity right now with consumers being so open to experimentation. … With the emergence of more ethnic cuisines, people are really looking for more, a complex depth of flavor that you get from pairing one or more types of flavor or two similar flavors.” Vetter told Malcolm that young Millennial consumers are fueling this new willingness to experiment with tastes. “Millennials, whose family meals growing up were more likely to include sushi or tacos than meat loaf and mashed potatoes,” Vetter asserts, “are especially influencing grocery aisles and chefs with their willingness to experiment.” He went on to note, “To celebrate and build on its heritage, McCormick plans to release several new products this year ahead of its [125th] anniversary in September that cater to the country’s new-found appreciation for rich and tasty foods.”

As consumers’ willingness to try new flavors increases, you can expect to see more exotic foods and flavors gracing tables. Watrous, for example, reports that Sensient Technologies Corporation predicts that more consumers will be introduced to “green coconut, juniper berries and tayberry, which is a red raspberry-blackberry hybrid” and to “burnt calamansi, … a cross between a kumquat and mandarin orange with a sophisticated flavor profile similar to that of a sour orange or slightly sweet lime with caramelized notes.” Marianne Gillette, McCormick’s vice president of applied research, told Malcolm, “From the anticipation to the preparation to consuming, you can’t underestimate … the emotion (associated with food).” From the list of new flavors coming down the pike, it looks like our palates could be on an emotional roller coaster ride of bold and spicy flavors in the years ahead.