Natural Flavor Update: Making good-for-you taste oh-so-good

Plus...the latest in natural colors and the “Instagrammable boom”

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“No villains”—according to a research report from Kerry titled “Beyond the Label: The Clean Food Revolution,” 41% of consumers consider artificial ingredients, flavors, colors and GMOs to be bad guys on the ingredients list, and they want to avoid them. What consumers want instead: 41% seek “naturally healthy” foods that are low in sugar, low calorie and contain whole grains, and 18% are focusing on sustainability, favoring foods that are minimally processed, ethically/sustainably grown and sourced and responsibly manufactured (2).

$20 million
estimated value of the global food flavors market in 2025 (1)

“Today’s consumers want to live healthier, and many see a connection between products that are good for their own health and those that are good for the planet,” says Sam Minardi, VP marketing—human nutrition, Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM). “This is driving a behavioral shift among consumers to purchase products with cleaner labels, traceable sourcing, and sustainable practices, while seeking products that have functional health benefits. Consumers are looking to align their food and beverage choices with their wellness goals, which often include seeking out reduced-sugar, gluten-free, reduced-calorie or plant-based food and drink options.”

Indeed, “there is a greater focus than ever before on ingredient labels as consumers pay closer attention to what is in their products,” says Christiane Lippert, head of marketing (food) for Lycored, who points to an “increased appetite to purchase cleaner and healthier products that contain lower levels of sugar, salt and artificial additives and colorants.” She adds that research has found that clean label products are most likely to be associated with being sugar-free (46%) and associated with being healthy (61%), better for the environment (44%) and tastier (31%) (3).

Dax Schaefer, corporate executive chef/director of culinary innovation at Asenzya, Inc., sees a positive upward spiral of health taking place as consumers become more educated about what is in their food. “I’ve been in this industry as a developer for almost two decades, and the evolution of ingredient statements has been very interesting to watch,” he says. “As we learn more, we continuously modify what is acceptable, and as a result, each generation is eating a little healthier than the previous.” This view is part of what shapes the ingredient offerings at Asenzya, where no seasoning blends contain artificial colors or flavors. Schaefer expains, “We believe that nothing should go into our blends that we wouldn’t want to eat ourselves. We offer many levels of seasoning profiles from a base standard level all the way to project verified non-GMO.”

As consumers make “naturally healthy” a priority, brand loyalty may fade—instead of just trusting the name on the front of the label, they’re looking for signs that a product meets their criteria of healthy and sustainable. This is where the ingredients suppliers can help the brand stand out. “Younger consumers are less loyal to the brands their parents purchased and will instead purchase brands that exemplify their values such as sustainability and better-for-you ingredients,” says Kirk Trofholz, CEO, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. How his company is appealing to those consumer interests: “Nielsen-Massey is pursuing several initiatives to protect the environment and support the people and communities who supply our ingredients,” Trofholz explains. “We are a founding member of the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, an industry group that’s committed to promoting sustainable environmental practices and enabling farmers to earn a successful livelihood. Currently, we are investing in three projects in Madagascar’s vanilla-growing region that will provide access to clean water for thousands of villagers and improve education for more than 80 children of vanilla farmers we work with.”

As much as people want products that are better for people and for the planet, though, if the food is bland or boring, they simply aren’t going to go back for seconds. “Consumers still want great taste and are not willing to compromise on this in their quest for healthier products,” stresses Lippert. “They still want the product to be packed with great taste and visual appeal. This means that manufacturers must rise to the challenge and find novel ingredients and techniques to reformulate their products while maintaining and acceptable taste and aesthetic profile that produces umami (the fifth taste) and kokumi (deliciousness).”

Minardi also notes that flavors play a critical role in meeting consumer taste expectations. “As a result, the demand for natural flavors, organic flavors and flavor technologies to help mitigate off-notes associated with some functional ingredients, is increasing.” He adds that as meat and dairy alternatives grow in popularity, there is a greater need for non-dairy and vegan flavors and ingredient combinations that can provide the great taste and mouthfeel consumers are used to from dairy or meats. ADM, he says, offers a portfolio of plant-based ingredients that align with consumer demands. He points to the company’s expertise and offerings in flavor creation, global supply chain and product development, and notes that ADM’s portfolio includes a range of natural flavors, extract and distallates.

Beyond mitigating off-notes, Lippert says, “The use of natural taste enhancers derived from ingredients such as tomatoes, like Lycored’s SANTE, can provide a high concentration of natural compounds for a more naturally delicious taste and a cleaner label formulation thanks to a reduction in levels of ingredients such as salt, MSG and yeast. Offering no sugar or salt variants of existing brands in many categories such as condiments and sauces is currently trending. Replacing salts and sugars with more naturally derived ingredients can offer a way to clean up labels while still providing customers with the same or often improved quality of taste and texture they would have experienced with the original product, creating healthier craveability in final recipes.”

For those making gummies, there’s a new option from Viva5 Corporation and Taura Natural Ingredients. John Luebbers, VP of sales at Taura, spoke with WholeFoods at SupplySide East. He explained that the companies are focused on creating “next generation” vitamin gummies flavored with pure pieces of real fruit (no unnatural sugar or added sugar) and developed using a proprietary process that creates shelf-stable pieces of fruit and fruit pastes that don’t require additional bulking agents, flavors, colors, sweeteners or preservatives and can be customized to suit consumer preferences. And the taste? Delicious.

On the sweet side, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas recently introduced a No Sugar Added Pure Vanilla Extract for those consumers who are very sensitive to sugar. Trofholz says the company has years of experience crafting consistent, high-quality tasting vanillas and flavors. “We share this expertise with our manufacturing customers by pairing them with in-house blending specialists to create the best product solution. Additionally, our customers benefit from our unique product attributes that we emphasize with consumers. Nielsen-Massey products are all-natural, allergen-free, certified Kosher and Gluten Free, and Non-GMO Project Verified. This allows consumers with dietary restrictions and those following the trends to enjoy great tasting ingredients while adhering to dietary constraints. We offer organic and Fairtrade products as well.”

Cost and availability can also present challenges: “Products containing natural flavors are typically more expensive to manufacture and can sometimes be subject to shortages tied to weather events or shifts in grower sentiment,” Trofholz says. “However, many consumers are willing to pay a premium for products containing natural ingredients. In terms of sourcing vanilla beans and other ingredients, Nielsen-Massey mitigates its risk by working with growers across multiple regions.”

Education is key, says Schaefer. “Over the years, consumers have grown accustomed to the artificial and fake pops of flavor. Then, they want that same taste using natural flavors at the same price point as artificial flavors. Real, authentic good-for-you products often cost a little more, so consumers need more education about what it delivers and why.” Natural products retailers can help share those messages.

Trend alert for 2020

What is hot now—and on the horizon? “That is always a fun question to talk about, how many words can I use?” Schaefer jokes. Here, our experts boil it down.

Ethnic: “Global travel, as well as the influence of social media, connects consumers to the world and is responsible for expanding their palates,” says Minardi, noting that flavors associated with a specific locale are sparking interest as consumers seek global experiences. Trofholz also sees this as an area of growth. “To accompany this trend, Nielsen-Massey recently released two new single-origin vanillas from Uganda and Indonesia.”

Separating it out a bit more, Schaefer says, “The biggest profiles I see right now are Asian, Mediterranean and authentic Mexican. With the education that happens through social media, nothing is off limits, but the further out you go, the more you need to bridge it with something the American consumer is familiar with. For example, let’s say you want to do an Indian Biryani dish, you might need to make it approachable through something Americans understand, like a Biryani burrito.”

Herbal and botanicals: “In the beverage segment,” says Lippert, “flavor remains a key differentiator and the increasing popularity of plant-based diets and ingredients is introducing bolder flavor notes to the category with earthy flavors and botanical-based beverages taking off including turmeric, saffron, rose and dragonfruit.” On the floral side,Trofholz says the company’s Rose Water and Orange Blossom Water “add the perfect pop of flavor to cold beverages, ice creams and marinades.”

Inspired by the “hemp megatrend,” the German operation of Bell Flavors & Fragrances introduced a natural range of hemp flavors and botanical hemp extracts. In a release, Bell said the offerings can deliver authentic taste profiles for a variety of categories, like non-
alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, sweet goods and savory products.

Berries: Lippert points to a Mintel report that shows growing consumer interest in drinks with berry and other red- or pink-hued fruit flavors (2). There is a lot of activity with raspberry, pomegranate, rhubarb type mixes, she says, as well as citrus-based flavors. And that, she notes, presents an opportunity for ingredients that are naturally red, orange or yellow in color. “This is also particularly true in the alcohol-free mixer space; the millennial consumers show signs of less interest in alcoholic beverages over their more mature cohorts.”

Blue and greens: “With the expansion of Spirulina as an approved color additive, we see more blue, green, and lavender color shades emerging,” says GNT’s Ferretti. “We also continue to see the trend for fun, brightly colored products: ones that grab the consumers attention immediately, either through their intensity or through a color-changing process.”

Natural colors for an “Insta-worthy” finish
As the Kerry report revealed, artificial colors are also on the “to avoid” list. “Natural colors are becoming increasingly popular across multiple segments as manufacturers seek to formulate products in line with consumers’ clean label expectations,” says Lippert. “Around six in 10 consumers prefer natural products and a quarter of them associate naturalness with the use of natural colors (3).”

Linked to this, Lippert continues, “visual social media channels like Instagram, that celebrate natural food, are having an impact on the industry. Innova Market Insights claims natural colors are experiencing an ‘Instagrammable boom’ as consumers and diners look to create attractive images while maintaining lifestyle practices that focus on authenticity and naturalness.”

Along with natural, people want simple. Stephanie Ferretti, inside sales at GNT USA, Inc., explains, “We see consumers looking at ingredient statements for items they recognize and for the absence of other ingredients they may not feel comfortable with. Because EXBERRY colors have immediate ingredient recognition, they pair well with any clean-label marketing initiative. Consumers feel comfortable when seeing colors made from items like carrots, beets, turmeric, or pumpkins.”

Schaefer adds that certain spices and natural ingredients add a health halo along with flavor and color. “As an example, Turmeric adds a gorgeous yellow to products as well as many health benefits.”

For formulators, Ferretti adds, “GNT is constantly working on improving the harvesting, production, and processing of our EXBERRY products. GNT has always operated a completely vertically integrated supply chain allowing for a consistent and steady supply of high-quality crops, year after year.” This, she says, allows manufacturers to feel confident that what they are sourcing will be always available with a consistent color shade.

Addressing the challenges that can come with natural colors, Lippert says, “There is the perception that natural colors are harder to work with than artificial. We are working towards dispelling that perception. Our natural colors remain stable when exposed to a range of tough manufacturing and storage and display conditions. This includes UHT processing, varied pH and fat levels, light and temperature extremes, extreme shelf-life conditions and migration of color in some applications.” She points to Lycored’s palette of naturally sourced color solutions containing Lycopene and Beta-carotene for use in multiple applications across food, beverage and soft gels for dietary supplements. The company’s cast of colors, she says, are tried and tested in flavored waters, UHT treated dairy drinks, juice-based beverages, hard coated confections, cheeses, fruit preparations for yogurts, fortified gummies and surimi seafood. For fruit-flavored products, she adds, “Authenticity is a key element in ensuring the visual color reflects the expected berry or fruit profile, so true-to-fruit shades such as those offered by Lycored’s palette of pinks, reds, yellows and oranges are very relevant for this consumer expectation.”

Challenges associated with natural colors often arise because of a misunderstanding about what they are and how to use them, adds Ferretti. “When using a fruit- or vegetable-based color, these ingredients should be treated as another ingredient, rather than an additive. This means taking into consideration things like other ingredients as well as processing conditions. Working with natural colors, such as those from fruits and vegetables, can be straightforward if you understand the functionality of the color and the application details.” She adds that GNT has solutions to all types of formulation challenges to help manufacturers utilize ingredients properly and effectively. “Additionally, GNT has a team of scientists that study the fundamentals of color chemistry and how that relates to product application. This combination allows GNT to guide manufacturers when using them on the bench for the first time or when scaling up in the factory.”

Though achieving a very specific shade to represent a particular fruit or flavor type can be a challenge, Lippert says manufacturers now have greater opportunities than ever to color products naturally without compromising on stability or labelling requirements such as vegan or plant-based claims.

A word of caution for marketers, though: The experts at FMCG Gurus, which provides market research and insight on consumer attitudes and behaviours across the food, beverage and supplement markets, note that though consumers are paying more attention than ever to how food and drink are formulated, they also are more skeptical than ever before when it comes to better-for-you product claims (3). “However,” the FMCG Gurus add, “if brands can demonstrate maximum transparency and credibility around such claims, then consumers will demonstrate a willingness to trade-up.” WF

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