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Flavor Innovation on the Horizon for 2021

Consumers will seek snacks that provide comfort and balance during uncertain times.

Consumers will seek snacks that provide comfort and balance during uncertain times.
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Much of the culinary innovation in 2020 centered not around new flavors and ingredients, but rather the form of the dishes themselves. Chefs focused on streamlining menus to make them more efficient to execute, creating sharable family meals for families quarantining together at home, and rethinking dishes to make them more portable for delivery and takeout.

Those trends may continue in the near term, but industry experts from Datassential, af&co and others expect operators to focus in 2021 on creating new menu items that incorporate trending flavors and ingredients.

“With the possibility of a vaccine and life getting back to normal on the horizon, we expect innovation around flavors and ingredients to drive growth in 2021,” says Mike Kostyo, a trendologist at Datassential. “Consumers tell us they miss exciting, craveable options. They want to be ‘wowed.’"

Consumers will likely source more of their snacking occasions outside the home in 2021, he adds. “It will be a year for consumers to celebrate a return to normal life, and they may be looking to treat themselves to a dessert or sweet—particularly anything they didn’t make at home in 2020.”

Given that “a health crisis was top-of-mind for a year,” Kostyo anticipates that consumers may also gravitate toward more healthful options in 2021. Those that “give consumers the best of both worlds—such as a snack or dessert with a plant-based swap or a functional benefit—will allow them to feel better about their choice,” he explains.

In fact, the growth of plant-based global cuisines is one of several trends the consulting firm af&co and its research arm, Carbonate, have predicted for the year ahead. “Plant-based foods are so mainstream now that we’re seeing entirely plant-based restaurants specialize in world cuisines,” said af&co/Carbonate’s Andrew Freeman in a recent webinar.

Another 2021 flavor and ingredient trend on af&co and Carbonate’s list: quesabirria, a taco-like dish made with beef stew and cheese (already popular in Los Angeles and San Francisco) that has the potential to be the “Food of the Year.” The firms also pointed to Chinese-American as the Cuisine of the Year and cited regional Indian, Afro-Caribbean, Singapore/Malay and Jewish cuisines as “on the rise” trends for 2021.

Other Trends to Watch

Meanwhile, Datassential’s Haiku machine-learning engine predicts these flavors and ingredients will gain traction in 2021:

Nut butters: Almond butter’s menu penetration has increased 78% in the past four years. But almonds aren’t the only game in town. “We're also seeing an interest in richer options like pistachio and cashew butter, particularly as an everyday indulgence,” Datassential’s Kostyo says. “Nut butters work particularly well in chocolate treats and desserts, which are always a winner with consumers.”

Alabama white sauce: This variety of barbecue sauce—usually made with mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, horseradish and sugar—has been popular in Alabama for years (hence the name) but is little known outside the South. But as barbecue has grown in popularity around the country, chefs have begun introducing Alabama white sauce “as a next-level, more adventurous option,” Kostyo says.

“When you consider that consumers are already familiar with options like ranch and blue cheese dressing on savory foods, you can see how Alabama white sauce could make it to the mainstream—even being used as a flavor in the same way that barbecue has become a flavor in snack foods,” he continues.

According to Datassential, only a small percentage of U.S. consumers have tried Alabama white sauce. But 58% of those who have say they love or like it.

Cookie butter: Cookie butter continues to appear on an increasing number of menus and could be “the next birthday cake” in terms of its potential growth, Kostyo says. Datassential predicts cookie butter will grow 27% on menus in the next four years.

Several large restaurant chains have incorporated cookie butter as an ingredient in milkshakes, coffee drinks, ice creams, bars and cakes in recent years. Cold Stone Creamery, for example, has offered Cookie Butter Obsession ice cream, which is combined with cinnamon and graham cracker pie crust, while Olive Garden rolled out a Cookie Butter Cake dessert, which includes layers of vanilla cake topped with cookie butter frosting.

“It’s a great option if you want to target younger consumers, as it scores higher with Gen Z and millennials,” Kostyo says of the cookie butter flavor.

Honey: Per Kostyo, honey is now America’s most preferred sweetener, having gained 10 full percentage points in menu penetration from 2010 (51%) to 2020 (61%). “We’re seeing honey show up everywhere, in every permutation, whether it’s hot honey, honey lime, raw honey, honey butter or the even more trend-forward fermented honey,” he explains.

It’s also appearing throughout the menu—from baked goods to sweet and savory marinades and sauces to desserts. “For any chef or product developer, consider ways that you can add honey to existing favorites or swap in honey,” Kostyo suggests. “If you have a spicy flavor in an item, combine it with honey for a sweet-heat option. If you have a sweet seasonal favorite option, consider swapping in honey as the sweetener of choice.”

Tahini: Tahini has soared on U.S. menus, growing 40% in the past four years to reach an overall menu penetration of 6%. Datassential predicts that penetration will grow another 18% in the next four years.

Tahini as an ingredient “has been boosted by the growth of Mediterranean cuisine on menus in recent years, and now we find it used well beyond hummus,” Kostyo says. “We’ve seen it [used as a peanut butter substitute] in peanut butter and jelly treats, used in baked goods, and added to spreads and even snack bars.”

Snacking Offers Comfort and Balance

In the year ahead and with a return to normal, the State of Snacking™ report from Mondelēz International suggests, snacking will continue to provide consumers with the comfort and balance they need.

“Even in the face of worldwide uncertainty with COVID-19 reshaping our rituals and routines, snacking is a growing behavior with the potential to provide comfort, connection and community, while also providing the moments of respite, reward and relief as consumers look to balance nutrition and emotional well-being,” the report states.

Consumers appreciate familiar brands, but they’re ready to experiment with new flavors and ingredients that “wow” as well. The report reveals that 68% of consumers have relied more on trusted brands (rather than trying new ones) throughout the uncertainty of the past year. Yet 59% acknowledged that they have tried new snacks during the pandemic.

Overall, many of the food trends that had been gaining momentum before the pandemic, including an interest in global flavors, the growth of plant-based foods and the quest for dietary balance, will prevail in the year ahead as life slowly returns to normal.

To learn about more foodservice trends that are expected to carry into 2021, download this white paper from Mondelēz International Foodservice.

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