CHICAGO — When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, many may have sung “Auld Lang Syne” a bit more emphatically than in years past. The yearning to put 2020 behind and return to some form of normalcy is widely felt. That aspiration has many food and beverage product developers cautiously approaching flavor innovation in the year ahead, because consumers have been finding comfort in classic and nostalgic flavors during the pandemic.

But there’s also the opinion that many consumers are eager to get on with life. They are craving excitement, and flavor houses believe this may be achieved through global tastes and adventurous mashups.

Many flavor forecasts are in circulation, some more relevant for certain products than others. Market researchers assist with guiding innovators in the right direction.

“Consumers may be eager to try the faddish flavor of the day — like dill pickle a few years back — to just say they have tried it and feel like they are part of the on-trend crowd,” said Kara Nielsen, director-food and drink for WGSN, a global trend forecasting company headquartered in London. “Treats, such as ice cream, seasonal candy and sweet snacks, are a good place for more experimental flavors because the purchase price is low and the eating experience is about fun.”

Limited-edition products also are a lower-risk approach to experimenting with flavor innovation. Chicago-based Mondelez International knows this well. Since releasing the Birthday Cake Oreo in 2012 to celebrate the brand’s 100th anniversary, Oreo has introduced 65 flavors, some exclusive to specific international regions. Peanut butter, mint and red velvet are some of the recurring limited-edition flavors in the United States. There also has been single-time offerings, such as root beer float and blueberry pie.

Now Oreo is taking a different approach and getting ready to launch its Lady Gaga variety that focuses on comfortable flavors and visible excitement. The brand collaborated with the pop superstar to release limited-edition cookies inspired by her new album. But during these uncertain times, the brand decided to play around with color and not flavor. The Lady Gaga Oreos are pink-colored cookies with green filling and taste like vanilla.

Conagra Brands is delivering comfort flavors in snacks with its David Roasted Bacon Mac & Cheese Jumbo Sunflower Seeds.

“Foods recognized as staples or offering comfort — for many, that’s the Oreo — may be best this coming year,” Ms. Nielsen said.

That may be true for many snacks in 2021, as working from home and remote learning continue to be the norm for much of the country, fueling the nibbling-all-day-long trend. Conagra Brands Inc., Chicago, has made snack innovation the focus of its agenda this year. But rather than being highly adventurous in flavor development, the company has cleaned up ingredient labels and is offering more varied pack sizes for many of its meat snacks. Larger formats are for those following a low-carb lifestyle, while smaller sizes satisfy savory cravings any time of day.

Savory cravings may be satisfied with some new flavors that complement the comfort and nostalgia trend. Slim Jim, for example, now comes in a Sonic Chili Cheese Coney flavor that tastes like the fast-food chain’s like-named hot dog. Conagra also decided to bring the comforts of macaroni and cheese and bacon together in new David Roasted and Salted Bacon Mac & Cheese Jumbo Sunflower Seeds.

What’s next?

Tried and true flavors will continue to thrive as the country recovers from the pandemic. But, once recovered, consumers likely will be in the mood to celebrate and experiment. Food and beverage will be a focal point of festivities and consumers likely will want to move on from the tastes that remind them of these uncertain times.

“Manufacturers are always looking for the next big thing to put them ahead of the competition, so most are looking for these inspirational (flavor forecast) lists to help them discover what’s next,” said Roger Lane, senior marketing manager, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “We look across the entire consumer landscape to understand what trends are driving consumer behavior, and then provide inspirational flavors to represent those trend drivers.”

Keera Perumbala, marketing manager at Sensient Flavors, said, “A world that is perpetually going through changes makes us all lean on the past for comfort, and for most of us, childhood favorite foods and flavors trigger nostalgia. Biologically, our brain reacts to happy memories by firing neurons that create a flood of positive feelings through the release of feel-good chemicals that is akin to being rewarded.”

She said the focus on health and wellness is heightened, and consumers are looking to food and beverage to further their goals. Brands have an opportunity to combine healthy ingredients with comforting flavor profiles. To encourage innovation in the space, flavor houses are investing in botanical flavor extraction.

"As we emerge from the pandemic, there will be bursts of exuberance and an interest in making up for lost time and lost eating experiences." — Kara Nielsen, WGSN

Spirit flavors also are gaining traction, especially with consumers who may have imbibed too much in 2020. They still want the flavors, but without the alcohol.

“As the sober curious are looking to ‘beer-less’ beers and ‘alcohol-less’ spirits, traditionally indulgent and child-friendly categories, such as ice creams and candies are being taken over by spirit flavors,” Ms. Perumbala said. “We are seeing an increased number of launches of non-alcoholic beverages that carry spirit flavors and are positioned to be as enticing as their alcoholic counterparts.”

Marie Wright, president of creation, design and development and chief global flavorist, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, said, “In the confectionery space, bourbon-infused chocolates, chocolate bombs filled with liqueur, Irish cream brownies, rosé-flavored ice cream and chocolate cake made with a rich stout are just a few examples of elevated desserts that consumers seek to treat themselves.”

From comfort to celebratory

Color trends have influenced flavor innovation. This year, Pantone LLC, Carlstadt, NJ, identified illuminating yellow as one of two “Colors of the year for 2021,” as it is suggestive of a sunshine-filled day. Flavors such as Sicilian lemon and Indian turmeric complement many trends, including color.

“These bright yellow ingredients emulate feelings of happiness, signaling optimism in the new year,” Ms. Wright said. “But developing new products goes well beyond annual color trends. The themes we see dominating the landscape for 2021 are the quest for holistic health and wellness, a desire for comfort as well as thirst for adventure.

“Refreshing, uplifting flavors that are associated with well-being, like citrus, fruits and berries, are appealing in colder and warmer seasons alike. We anticipate consumers will be more adventurous with their food and beverage choices. We expect product developers to combine comfort foods with exotic ingredients, such as frozen desserts that pair chocolate with heat-inducing spices like cayenne or ginger.”

Ms. Nielsen said, “As we emerge from the pandemic, there will be bursts of exuberance and an interest in making up for lost time and lost eating experiences. However, health and wellness will never be far from our minds, so new botanicals will emerge.”

San Francisco-based company Aura Bora, for example, recently added new flavors of sparkling water, including lavender cucumber, peppermint watermelon, basil berry and lemongrass coconut. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass., is launching the B1U line of functional infused waters. “I need a boost” is watermelon cucumber black tea caffeine. “I need rhythm” is strawberry basil fiber. “I need immunity” is lemon chamomile with zinc and vitamin C. “I need power” is peach kiwi with whey protein.

Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. has launched the B1U line of functional waters in flavors that connote health and wellness.

“Globally inspired flavors have been an upward trend the last few years, but I expect this trend to accelerate because of the pandemic,” said Holly McHugh, marketing associate, Imbibe Inc., Niles, Ill.

Guava is linked to Latin America while blood orange reminds of the Mediterranean.

Vero Gusto, a new sauce line from Barilla, is made in Italy, from beginning to end. Sauces feature a flavorful Italian ingredient that brings to life the story of its native region. The Heritage Marinara, for example, is made with Italian Datterini Tomatoes.

“With the Olympics hopefully happening in Japan later this year, expect a surge of interest and curiosity for Japanese tastes (savory umami and its partner kokumi) and flavors, such as those that arise from fermented and pickled foods,” Ms. Nielsen said. “We are seeing more miso in sweet sauces and desserts as well as in savory foods and also koji, the fungus at the root of miso, being used to generate cultured food with umami taste profiles.”

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, in its seventh annual Culinary & Cocktail Trend Forecast, summed up the savory side of flavor for 2021. Kimpton explained that while consumers cooked more than ever in 2020, they missed more elevated and complex meals. The company already has seen a shift away from comfort food toward healthy dishes with fresher ingredients and even more vegan and vegetarian options. This includes hearty flavors, with flavor notes that the average home cook cannot easily attain, such as roasted, caramelized and smoked.