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Keeping Up with Changing Tastes

October 2, 2013


IBM has been trying to demonstrate how its Watson computer can be useful in a number of fields. Earlier this year, it delved into the realm of cuisine. Watson ingested notes taken by IBM researchers during a collaboration with James Briscione, a chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, along with “20,000 recipes, data on the chemistry of food ingredients, and measured ratings of flavors people like in categories like ‘olfactory pleasantness’,” and created a breakfast pastry called a “Spanish crescent.” [“And Now, From I.B.M., Chef Watson,” by Steve Lohr, New York Times, 27 February 2013] Lohr reports:

“Watson’s assignment has been to come up with recipes that are both novel and taste good. In the case of the breakfast pastry, Watson was told to come up with something inspired by Spanish cuisine, but unusual and healthy. The computer-ordered ingredients include cocoa, saffron, black pepper, almonds and honey — but no butter, Watson’s apparent nod to healthier eating. Then, Mr. Briscione, working with those ingredients, had to adjust portions and make the pastry. ‘If I could have used butter, it would have been a lot easier,’ said the chef, who used vegetable oil instead. Michael Karasick, director of I.B.M.’s Almaden lab, had one of the Spanish crescents for breakfast recently. ‘Pretty good’ was his scientific judgment.”

The point of the story is that a lot of analysis goes into making great dish (generally by human brains). Watson used both food chemistry and human opinion to help it in its analysis. As I’ve pointed in out in past posts, all of our senses come into play when we eat. While it comes as no surprise that taste is king, our sense of taste can be fooled by how something looks or feels (see my post entitled Sensing Food: The Role of Color. John Stanton, Contributing Editor of Food Processing magazine, writes, “It’s no shock that taste is important to consumers; however, the surprise is that in many cases, we find taste takes second place or worse to other factors” when producers create new products. [“Taste Remains Consumers’ Top Preference for New Foods and Beverages,” 6 September 2013] Stanton laments, “Many of the initial efforts in producing healthy foods failed because the packaging tasted slightly better than the product.” He discusses a number of “healthier” products that were introduced only to fail because they failed the taste challenge. You can almost hear him asking, “What were they thinking?” One of the challenges, he notes, is that food is a lot like fashion. As super model Heidi Klum would say, “One your day your in; the next day you’re out.” Stanton writes:

“The changing tastes of consumers have vexed food marketers for years. Changes in ethnic composition, attitudes of different age groups, health issues and the need for convenience have led food marketers to invest heavily in consumer insights and research to determine what consumers want.”

One example of a company trying to keep ahead of changing tastes is McCormick & Company. For over a dozen years, it has been publishing a Flavor Forecast. Stanton indicates that getting the taste right is also good for the bottom line. “Better taste means better profits,” he writes. “Most of the really good tasting foods often have the highest margins.” So let’s examine some of what’s happening in the world of food and senses.




Mark Garrison reports, “Sour foods and flavors are riding high at the moment, and our growing desire for them is changing the food industry.” [“More Sour to You,” Slate, 20 June 2013] He continues:

“If Katherine Alford says sour flavors are having a national moment, pay attention. A vice president at the Food Network, Alford runs its expansive test kitchen in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Recipes and ideas that make the cut here will find their way into kitchens across America through the network’s TV, Web, and magazine content. Alford’s job is to stay in front of America’s ever-changing palate without alienating a mainstream audience. Right now, Alford is finding that audience increasingly hungry for sour foods.”

Ellen Bryon agrees flavors with a bit tang and sourness are becoming more mainstream. “No one says, ‘I feel like fermented food tonight’,” she writes. “But pungent, tangy flavors — all results of fermentation — are increasingly sneaking into grocery-store aisles.” [“Mmm, the Flavors of Fermentation,” Wall Street Journal, 10 April 2013] She continues:

“Packaged-food makers, grocers and chefs say more Americans are developing a bigger taste for fermented foods. Flavor experts even envision a world where spicy kimchi replaces pedestrian sauerkraut on American hot dogs. Already, fermented flavors are popping up on snacks and condiments such as Lay’s Sriracha potato chips, Heinz balsamic vinegar flavored ketchup and Trader Joe’s Spicy Seaweed Ramen noodles. The Subway sandwich chain is testing a creamy Sriracha sauce. Demand is especially strong from baby boomers, who face a weakening ability to taste and are drawn to stronger flavors, and the 20-something millennials, who seek new and exotic tastes.”

Garrison reports, “Both sour and spicy flavors have ridden to popularity on a wave of new international cuisines that reflect the nation’s growing diversity.” Stephanie Strom agrees that American tastes are expanding and that demographic diversity is playing a major role. “The growing influence on America’s palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been … subtle,” she writes, “even as grocery shelves increasingly display products containing ingredients like lemon grass and sriracha peppers.” [“American Tastes Branch Out, and Food Makers Follow,” New York Times, 8 July 2013] She continues:

“For years, multinational food companies have been experimenting with ingredients, often being unable to find appeal broad enough to start or sustain a new brand. But as the buying power of Latino and Asian consumers expands, fruit flavors, hotter spices, different textures and grains and even packaging innovations are becoming essential for big food manufacturers trying to appeal to diverse appetites, according to company executives. From 2010 to 2012, sales of ethnic foods rose 4.5 percent, to $8.7 billion. The Mintel Group, a market research firm, estimates that between 2012 and 2017 sales of ethnic foods in grocery stores will grow more than 20 percent. Mintel predicts Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods will increase the most in that time in terms of dollar sales.”




Candice Choi reports, “Companies are tossing out the identical shapes and drab colors that scream of factory conveyor belts. There’s no way to measure exactly how much food makers are investing to make their products look more natural or fresh. But adaptation is seen as necessary for fueling steady growth.” [“Food Companies Work To Make It Look Natural,” Manufacturing.net, 18 June 2013] Another way that companies use sight to appeal to consumers is through the use of color. Recently, however, use of artificial colors has drawn a lot of scrutiny. Eliza Barclay reports, “We’ve grown accustomed to choosing our food from a spectacular rainbow — care for an impossibly pink cupcake, a cerulean blue sports drink or yogurt in preppy lavender? But there’s a growing backlash against the synthetic dyes that give us these eye-popping hues. And now scientists are turning to the little-known (and little-grown) purple sweet potato to develop plant-based dyes that can be labeled as nonthreatening vegetable juice.” [“Purple Sweet Potato A Contender To Replace Artificial Food Dyes,” National Public Radio, 9 September 2013]


Natural color plays an important health role according to some pundits. The Epoch Times reports, “Over 3,000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor wrote in his classic book on internal medicine, Huangdineijing, that if people wanted to obtain health and longevity, they should eat food with ‘five colors, five tastes, and five fragrances’.” [“Food With ‘Five Colors’ Benefit Health,” 29 August 2013] The article continues:

“The benefits of a color-rich diet are also recognized by Western nutritionists. In the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, some of the recommendations include adding the following color-rich foods to one’s diet: dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat milk products. The guidelines were released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. … According to [Marla Caplon, nutritionist and supervisor for the Division of Food and Nutrition Services for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland], yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, rich in beta carotene, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C contain powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Green vegetables are rich in phytochemicals and are good sources of iron, calcium, vitamins K, A, and C. Blue and purple fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants that help the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer. The red group contains lycopene, an antioxidant that can help protect against cancer. … The white group contains allicin, which has been known to help lower blood sugar and have amazing anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. This group also contains powerful antioxidants, which help to protect against cancer and heart disease.”




Catherine Alexander, Vice President of Corporate Communications with Comax Flavors, told Hank Schultz, “One particular challenge … is to incorporate echoes of texture into the flavor matrix. … Texture is a huge part of what imparts pleasure to food … and can impact how flavor is perceived.” [“If spiciness is king, texture might be queen, and strawberry rules its own realm,” Food Navigator, 29 August 2013] Alexander also indicated that she had “seen a study that says texture is becoming almost more important than flavor.” I’m skeptical about that last point. I agree with Stanton that taste will always trump the other senses when it comes to food enjoyment.




Back in the days when every main street had a butcher and baker, smart bakers vented the aromas of baking bread out into the street to attract customers. Aroma continues to be an important part of eating experience. PepsiCo is one manufacturer that certainly believes that to be true. It recently filed a patent for “a method of encapsulating aromas within beverage packaging to entice US consumers with ‘favorable aromas’ before they drink … juices or coffees.” [“PepsiCo seeks US patent to encapsulate beverage aromas within packaging,” by Ben Bouckley, Beverage Daily, 10 September 2013] Naijie Zhang and Peter Given, inventors of the technology, told Bouckley, “Research has shown that aromas can in some instances have substantial impact on consumer perception of the taste of a beverage or other food, trigger a favourable emotional response, elicit a favourite memory, and/or otherwise improve overall product performance.”


Undoubtedly, research will continue within the food industry about how the senses work individually and together to make eating the most pleasurable experience it can be. I believe that cognitive computers, like the Enterra® Cognitive Reasoning Platform™, will be solicited to help with this research.

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