CHICAGO — It’s that time of year when flavor houses forecast what will trend in the months to come. The predictions are based on customer requests and internal innovation.

Bold and defining flavors are trending, but in atypical applications. Think about a spicy dill pickle bagel and pizza-flavored string cheese, for example. Such concepts appeal to the growing number of consumers eating mini meals throughout the day. They crave satisfying “mealtime” flavors in foods that are now snacks.

“We are expecting most of the flavor innovations and product launches to take place in the snacking space,” said Sydney Byrne, marketing specialist, Sensient Flavors & Extracts, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Even traditional mealtimes are trending toward snackability, creating opportunities to either eat on-the-go or to bring a variety of smaller bites or tastes together for a shareable buffet feel.”

She cited ice cream and charcuterie as examples.

“When you walk down the grocery store aisle, more than half of the ice cream category is novelties,” Byrne said. “Snackable desserts are not only a way to indulge on-the-go, but they also create built-in portion control along with a standard flavor base to build upon.

“Charcuterie boards provide an opportunity to try new flavors that might be outside a consumer’s typical comfort zone. There is not a big commitment involved in trying a bite-size new-to-you food or flavor that encourages a bit of adventure and entertainment around the eating experience.”

Byrne’s observations support what ADM, Chicago, is calling 2024 — It’s the year of “unapologetic consumer choice.”

“We see innovation happening in all dayparts and occasions, as manufacturers address market gaps with flavor and formats,” said Jennifer Zhou, senior director flavors for global product marketing at ADM.

General Mills, Minneapolis, participated in the movement with its summer rollout of Nature Valley savory nut crunch bar in three flavors: everything bagel, smoky barbecue and white cheddar. Savory complements consumers’ growing desire to reduce added sugar intake.

“Our new technology has enabled us to solve a consumer need for convenient snacks that don’t require the use of syrups and sugars to bind the bars together,” said Ali Shaikh, senior brand manager – bars innovation at General Mills. “This has unlocked an opportunity for us to craft Nature Valley snack bars with 2 grams of sugar in surprisingly savory flavors, delivering on a whole new set of cravings.”

And just as there are more savory flavors going into traditional sweet snacks, there are sweet flavors being formulated into traditional salty snacks. Take the potato chip, for example. In the past year, new rollouts have included cinnamon sugar, pumpkin pie and chocolate dipped. Still, savory remains the most common flavor profile on salty snacks. But savory knows no boundaries.

Lisa Jackson, director of marketing, FlavorSum, Kalamazoo, Mich., said, “Interest and innovation in complex flavor profiles is increasing. Momentum is growing around combinations with smoky, rich, savory and sour tastes.”

The complex flavors know no borders. Anywhere around the world is fair game in the world of snacks.

The trend is focused on satisfying mealtime cravings in a portable snack. It’s also about experimenting with an unfamiliar cuisine in a familiar format, and in a portion that does not break the budget.

“In the new year, consumers will seek global flavors previously not on their radar, including South and East Asian cuisines, as well as African, Latin American and Middle Eastern,” said Jennifer Zhou, senior director flavors for global product marketing at ADM. “We’re seeing this trend thrive within the snack and sweet treat spaces, where bite-size formats allow for flavor exploration, enabling consumers to take a sample-sized approach to experiencing new flavors.”

She cited such examples as sweet, yet tart, blood orange Italian ice or a yuzu-flavored sake cocktail. On the savory side, spices such as shacha (a Chinese mix of garlic, shallots, chiles and dried shrimp) are being formulated into salty snack mixes.

“Some top-trending ingredients in snacks are sesame seed, ginger, jerk, spicy honey, miso and tahini,” said Cecilia Pereyra, global product marketing-flavors for IFF, South Brunswick, NJ.


Bringing the world home

The global flavors trend exploded during the pandemic when travel was limited. Consumers sought adventure through local food choices, and now they want more.

“Think beyond fusion foods and third culture cuisine to different cultures bravely inspiring each other,” said Soumya Nair, global consumer research and insights director, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Concepts include za’atar wings, birria ramen, sashimi tostadas, tandoori masala pasta, wasabi mashed potatoes and cheeseburger ravioli.”

Several flavor houses believe regional Indian cuisine is the next big thing, and it complements McCormick’s forecast for tamarind.

And as global flavors take center stage, expect to see more of a focus on regional flavors and cuisines from Africa, an entire unexplored continent of cuisine that Americans don’t know. Saying “African cuisine” is like saying “European cuisine,” which really isn’t saying anything at all.


Flavor flashbacks

While international flavors provide adventure, nostalgic ones offer comfort. That’s something many need during these busy times.

The 1990s now are considered the “oldies” to millennials, and many are fascinated with everything from focaccia to dirt cake. Such flavors may be translated into macaroni and white cheese with a flatbread crumb topping and sprigs of rosemary, or a layered chocolate parfait with sour gummies.

“As millennials age, nostalgia now stretches to include the 1990s,” said Cathy Wisloski, manager of insights, Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich. “And they enjoy enhancing their nostalgic memories with new versions of the classic.”

Flavors such as birthday cake, cotton candy and strawberry lemonade are some of the fastest-growing flavors on dessert menus, according to Datassential, Chicago.

“These childhood favorites can be brought to life in many different dessert concepts, from cupcakes to donuts to cake pops,” Wisloski said. “In addition to nostalgia, 2024 will bring a focus on contrasting textures, like the spongy exterior of a lava cake surrounded with a gooey chocolate filling. Because trends spread to adjacent categories, we are seeing chewy, gummy boba move beyond bubble tea into desserts and cakes. With a similar texture, mochi is also gaining popularity in donuts.”

Pereyra said, “Favorite cereal, confectionery and ice cream brands from the 90s are making a comeback and hitting it big with flavors. There’s a trend in taking an old flavor and showcasing it in a new medium, such as sour candy cupcakes and root beer float cinnamon rolls.”

Cinnamon sugar is making a comeback, Zhou said.

“It adds a warm and familiar flavor profile to savory and sweet dishes,” she said.

Casseroles and one-dish meals also are gaining traction on menus, according to Datassential. Beef stroganoff, for example, has experienced 176% growth over the past four years.

Said Eric Quirin, sales director, Chaucer Foods, Hull, UK: “People love comforting and nostalgic flavors, but we’re also seeing a trend that combines reliving fond memories with a healthy twist. Instead of ditching the foods and beverages they love, customers are bringing them new life by infusing and combining them with more nutrient-dense, functional ingredients. For example, instead of a chewy fruit snack filled with artificial ingredients, formulators can use freeze-dried fruit and vegetable powders to add a nutritious boost, plus natural flavors and eye-catching colors.”

The same is true of boozy flavors from the 90s, like cosmopolitan and Long Island iced tea. They are going to start showing up in mocktails and water ices.

In general, spirit and alcohol-inspired flavors are expanding across food formats, in particular snacks.

“Think about a smoky yet sweet whiskey-infused popcorn, a salty and crunchy beer-glazed peanut snack, or a vanilla and bourbon boozy ice cream treat,” Zhou said. “Consumers are also embracing unconventional flavor profiles, manifesting in products like a lychee rosé popsicle or a grape candy cordial.”