The Future is About Flavor

Stephen DeAngelis

April 11, 2013

With 30 percent of consumers’ food, grocery, and personal care budgets being spent on fresh food, seasonings that enhance the flavor of fresh foods obviously remain important. [“Fresh Maintains Footing Amid Economic Uncertainty,” Progressive Grocer, 18 March 2013] The Progressive Grocer article included the attached graphic that shows what portion of consumers’ fresh food budgets are spent on different food types.

 

Bruce Axtman, President of Nielsen Perishables Group, told the staff at Progressive Grocer, “Fresh is becoming more complex with greater variety in products and package sizes, more private label/brand options and increased value-added products, such as diced vegetables or pre-marinated meats. Understand your shoppers’ generational and health needs to tailor offerings and implement programs that best meet their changing demands.” Axtman makes an important point about knowing the differences between generational tastes and shopping habits. To learn a bit more about that subject, read my post entitled Changing Tastes in Food are Challenging Food Providers.

 

If having to worry about taste differences between age groups was not a difficult enough challenge, a 2011 study determined that taste preferences also change with the seasons. The study “found seasonality plays a part in consumers’ flavor preferences, with almost two in five consumers (38%) saying their flavor preferences shift according to the time of year. In addition, certain flavors are more appealing to consumers during particular seasons. For instance, pumpkin and cinnamon flavors are often associated with the fall, while tropical fruits tend to be of particular interest in the summer.” [“Consumers’ Flavor Preferences Tied to Seasons,” by Darren Tristano, Prepared Foods Network, 24 January 2012]

 

Rachel Zemser reports that the fresh food sector is not the only sector concerned with changing tastes. “Over the past 20 years,” she writes, “food companies have experienced increasing pressure to be more flavor-competitive, especially now that Food TV-savvy Americans are demanding authentic ethnic cuisine. Food processors recognize the need to bring on culinary expertise to meet the demands of this more culinary educated consumer.” [“Corporate Research Chefs Combine Health and Science With a Dash of Culinary Genius,” Food Processing, 8 March 2013] Zemser indicates that many food companies are combining art and science to ensure that their customers are able to purchase great tasting food products that contain authentic ethnic flavors. She explains:

“Companies began bringing in chefs to create gold standards and to help the food scientists understand how the final product should taste. While chefs brought great ideas, they didn’t always understand the food scientists’ requirements. But as the two types worked together, a new kind of food developer emerged: the Research Chef. While the roles of research chefs in the different arenas of food product development are relatively similar, processes (and stresses) will differ depending on the area of industry focused on. … The focus of the research chef developing retail products is defined almost exclusively on consumer trend information provided by internal marketing departments. ‘As a food scientist with culinary training, my role is to work closely with the marketing and R&D teams to ensure we are creating foods that consumers will not only crave but that are also good for them,’ says Andrew Moltz, corporate executive chef for Quaker Oats Co., Chicago. ‘This means closely following consumer eating trends going on in and outside of the home, and ensuring we’re incorporating these concepts into great tasting, oat-inspired products that are easy to make.'”

Another group that is trying to help identify food trends is a company called Food Genius. The company created “a powerful piece of enterprise software that [can] pre-chew big data for the restaurant industry.” [“Food Genius Scours Menus To Turn Food Trends Into Infographics,” by Mark Wilson, Fast Company, 7 February 2013] Wilson continues:

“By indexing 14,000 different ingredients from multiple restaurant menu databases, Food Genius can tell you not just how prevalent beef is in American restaurants, but the average price for a filet in New York, or the popularity of venison paired with sage and apples in Kentucky. Is your dish unique? Is it competitively priced? That’s what Food Genius wants to tell chain restaurants and packaged food manufacturers through instantaneous market analysis.”

You’ve probably heard someone say, “It’s an acquired taste.” For some foods, that is an absolutely true statement. According to scientists, however, other tastes are developed in the womb. “The taste sense … forms and matures at an early stage, with the first taste buds appearing at eight weeks of gestation. Aroma compounds in the amniotic fluid stimulate the foetal taste receptors as soon as the foetus starts swallowing (around 12th week of gestation).” [“Tastes differ – how taste preferences develop,” European Food Information Council, February 2011] The article continues:

“For newborns, the taste sense is the most important and most developed of all senses. Numerous experiments with newborns show a high culturally transcending acceptance for sweet taste. They even react to a highly diluted sugar solution with a comfortable and satisfied facial expression. In contrast, the sour taste of citric acid is rejected with pursed lips. No response is seen with diluted bitter our salty solutions, but bitter flavours are rejected in high concentration. A change in accepting bitter tastes is seen at the age of 14-180 days. The evolutionarily sensible preference for sweetness (‘safety taste’) can be explained by the fact that the sweet taste indicates a source of energy (carbohydrates) which is non-poisonous and thus safe to eat. A bitter taste in turn warns us of toxic foods. Similar evolutionary programming is assumed for the other tastes; an acidic taste may for example warn against spoiled food, whereas a salty taste may hint at minerals. The taste quality ‘umami’ (= savoury) indicates a good protein source as it naturally occurs in animal foods. … The taste of breast milk may also impact on the later preferences of the newborn.
American researchers, for example, showed that neonates whose mothers had consumed carrot juice during pregnancy and weaning, preferred a carrot-flavoured cereal during infancy when compared to a control group whose mothers had not consumed carrot juice.”

Jamie Hale reports, “The preference for specific flavors [is] determined by: Innate factors, environmental influences, learning, [and] interactions among these.” [“The Development of Food Preferences,” Psych Central, 2011] He further explains:

“Taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory) preferences have a strong innate component. Sweet, savory, and salty substances are innately preferred, whereas bitter and many sour substances are innately rejected. However, these innate tendencies can be modified by pre- and postnatal experiences. Components of flavor, detected by the olfactory system (responsible for smell), are strongly influenced by early exposure and learning beginning in utero and continuing during early milk (breast milk or formula) feedings. These early experiences set the stage for later food choices and are important in establishing life-long food habits. The terms taste and flavor often are confused. Taste is determined by the gustatory system, located in the mouth. Flavor is determined by taste, smell and chemosensory irritation (detected by receptors in the skin throughout the head; and in particularly in regards to food receptors in the mouth and nose.”

The fact that we like some flavors and dislike others, doesn’t explain how we come to acquire a taste for foods that we might otherwise reject. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University, believes that “you get to like certain flavors because they are paired with other flavors that you already enjoy.” [“Professor Talk: What Attracts Us To Certain Foods?” by Mike D’Onofrio, Montclair Patch, 17 February 2013] In other words, you condition yourself to like them. “You can [take] what is considered an unattractive flavor and … pair it with something good,” she states, “and you will eventually like it.” She also asserts that presentation and color can affect how we react to food and drink.

“When it comes to beverages, for example, people seem to enjoy drinks that are colored appropriately because it helps them to identify the beverage. But, strangely, when a beverage is colored, people say it has less flavor when it is compared to the exact same beverage without color. It is counterintuitive. Colored beverages are perceived to smell stronger. But when people drink it, it tastes weaker. It is what is called a contrast effect, where people are expecting something that is stronger than what they get. … How a food is prepared on a plate can [also] have an effect on a food’s taste. We did an experiment where we used the same chicken salad but prepared one neatly on a plate, and the other unbalanced and messy. People tasted both plates said the chicken salad on the neatly prepared plate tasted better, so presentation also matters.”

With so much to consider when it comes to flavor and taste, you can understand why science and art must partner together to help consumers enhance their eating experience.