Flavors going further afield

by David Phillips
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Seattle-based Dry Soda Co., which specializes in naturally-flavored, lightly-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, recently added a 50-calorie blood orange item to its flavor lineup. It “awakens the palate with a burst of citrus and finishes with a delicate sweetness,” according to the company.

With products featuring other unique flavors such as lavender, cucumber and rhubarb, Dry Soda is on the leading edge of beverage flavor trends, but the blood orange item has enough familiarity with popular citrus-flavored beverages like the Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s Orange Crush that even more cautious consumers may give it a try. It’s a familiar flavor turned trendy.

This “everything old is new again” approach to innovation is currently one of the leading beverage trends. Evolving from general flavors to more specific varietals is one way to reinvent a product line, said Jim Shepherd, director of beverage solutions for Sensient Flavors L.L.C., Indianapolis. Strategically combined flavors that deliver are another approach.

“Reinvention is the real trend of innovation,” Mr. Shepherd said. “There is a fairly standard set of flavors that have been around for some time, and it doesn’t change that much. But we can reinvent and help a beverage company redefine a flavor by using specific varieties. Right now that might be more important than finding the newest or the weirdest fruit from the Amazon jungle.”

To catch the interest of consumers, beverage makers are introducing Meyer lemonade instead of lemonade, and a ready-to-drink iced tea may feature the added flavor of white peach, Mr. Shepherd said.
Superfruits continue to attract consumers who are more likely to view beverages made with blueberries and acai as both flavorful and nutritious, but some wonder whether interest will persist. Catherine Armstrong, vice-president of corporate communications for Comax Flavors, Melville, N.Y., said superfruits may soon be on the way out, to be replaced by herbal ingredients with similar functions. Mr. Shepherd thinks superfruits will continue to have legs if they are blended with more approachable trad-itional fruit flavors.

On the other hand, interest in Latin flavors is now both broader in appeal and more specific in its development. And it seems all types of beverages now rely heavily on flavor innovation as a point of differentiation — even water.

Just add water
Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., offers 30 fruit and tea flavors in its Crystal Light brand of low-calorie drink mixes. The products come in a powdered form in either bulk package or single-serve packets, and they are designed to offer a beverage similar to a juice, punch, or tea with just a fraction of the calories. The flavors range from simple and traditional, such as lemonade and lemon iced tea, to exotic flavors like cherry pomegranate and even a functional combination of peach mango green tea metabolism.

While the Crystal Light line traditionally has derived its sweetness from non-nutritive sweeteners, the Pure line includes five fruit flavors sweetened with Truvia, a stevia-based sweetener marketed by Cargill, Minneapolis.

Josh Kroo, brand manager for Crystal Light, said bringing new flavors to consumers is a key component of the brand.

“Our aim is to give people the sweet flavor they want without the burden of drinking calories and worrying about weight,” Mr. Kroo said. “We are constantly looking to innovate and discover the next amazing beverage flavors that will delight our consumers — giving them the tastes they crave in a guilt-free beverage.”

Kraft Foods accomplishes its goal in several ways. The company works with in-house food and beverage trend experts who “scour the globe to help us get an idea for what’s coming,” and by studying supermarket offerings for flavor innovation in other food segments, Mr. Kroo said.

“We also partner with flavor houses, some of whom have expertise in niche areas,” he added. “One example of this is in the case of Crystal Light Mocktails, where we partnered with one such vendor that focuses on bar trends.”

Consumers also have a direct hand, suggesting new flavors. The Crystal Light web site even is a direct vehicle for this in its flavors section.

“Once an idea is identified there are several steps we take,” Mr. Kroo said. “These range from validating flavor concepts with consumers to partnering with R.&D. to develop the actual product. In many cases we will look at 20 to 30 different variations of a flavor to get it right — looking at combinations of sweetness, tartness, flavor levels and other beverage characteristics.”

While Crystal Light is the veteran leader of mix-it-yourself beverages, Kraft also owns the MiO brand, which was introduced this past year. MiO is marketed as a liquid water enhancer that comes in a personal-size, multiple-serving dispenser that the consumer carries the same way he or she might carry a small tin of mints.

International fusion flavors
Mr. Shepherd said the Latin flavor trend is becoming more specific with flavors coming from countries like Peru, or from particular cuisines in Mexico.

“It has gone away from Tex-Mex to the cuisines from specific parts of Mexico,” he said. “Mexico is a large country with different climates and cuisines. America is suddenly becoming interested in specific cuisines of Mexico. The cuisine of the Yucatan Peninsula is becoming popular, for instance, and these flavors are also finding their way into beverages.”

Blending fruit for beverages is not a new idea, but executing it well may bring a new level of flavor, Mr. Shepherd said. He talked about how fusion cuisine may offer either a splendid combination of flavors, or a messy clash depending on the execution.

“Part of the challenge is keeping those distinctive flavor notes so that you taste one thing followed by another,” Mr. Shepherd said. A recent success he sampled from one of the developers at Sensient was a green tea beverage flavor with pineapple and cilantro.

“I tasted it and it was unbelievable — fresh, sweet pineapple and then a super clean cilantro at the end,” he said. Mr. Shepherd was so impressed that he asked the developer where her idea had come from.
“Her inspiration came from when she was in Mexico,” he said. “She found that the area she was visiting did not have a lot of tomatoes, but they do have pineapple and they will make a salsa with pineapples, a little bit of lime and cilantro.”

The continued emergence of Latin American flavors is due in part to new inspiration from central and South America.

“We are seeing a growing interest in South American, Brazilian and Peruvian influences,” Ms. Armstrong said. “Flavors like sumac, sour red spice and Syrian allspice are just a few examples of flavors that are influenced by these parts of the world.”

Comax is offering an array of flavors for beverage makers, including jasmine coconut, ginger rosemary, Japanese plum wine, Italian Muscato wine and cloudberry.

“We continue to see a growing demand for rare and unusual flavors that take consumers on an exciting flavor journey,” Ms. Armstrong said.

Even the latest beverage trends such as coconut water lend themselves to flavor innovation. Expect to see coconut water flavored with chocolate and latte flavors, as a way to help the trendy beverage fit into both the comfort food and health food realms, Mr. Shepherd said.

That said, the consumer-driven trend toward simple foods with a small number of ingredients is also finding its way into beverages, and driving consumption of authentic fruit smoothies with all-natural ingredients, he added.
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