Blurring flavor boundaries

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY — If wasabi ginger Oreos or grilled cheese Pop-Tarts sound delicious, stay tuned. Such products may not be far from retail reality.

Recent snack innovation is blurring the boundaries of sweet and savory, as dessert-inspired potato chips and spicy nutrition bars debut from the market’s top players. Frito-Lay in February, for example, introduced Cheetos Sweetos, a cinnamon-sugar dusted puff snack, as the brand’s first sweet variety in its 67-year history. The limited-edition offering follows last year’s launches of Lay’s cappuccino potato chips, also from Frito-Lay, and milk chocolate flavored Pringles from the Kellogg Co. (The variety was part of a seasonal lineup that also included cinnamon sugar tortilla chips, as well as potato chips in cinnamon sugar, pecan pie and white chocolate flavors.) And a limited-edition lineup of Thanksgiving-themed kettle cooked potato chips from Boulder Canyon last year included a pumpkin pie variety.

New snack chips are sweetening the category, for better or worse.

On the flip side, manufacturers of traditionally sugared snacks, such as yogurt and nutrition bars, are developing savory additions.  Clif Bar & Co. in February announced the launch of Clif Organic Energy Food sports performance gels, featuring pizza margherita and sweet potato and sea salt flavors — a strategic departure from the category’s typical fruit or chocolate mainstays. The company said its sponsored athletes have reported that savory flavors help satisfy cravings for salty comfort foods and real food textures in a portable format.

These category-crossover products have been a long time coming, said Eric Huang, the food blogger behind JunkFoodGuy.com and a co-host of “The Nosh Show” podcast.

“With more and more entrepreneurism occurring in the food industry, larger companies are starting to take notice of the bold, experimental choices smaller companies are willing to explore, and they want a piece of that pie, too,” Mr. Huang told Food Business News.

For example, Blue Hill Yogurt, a New York startup, debuted a range of savory yogurts, featuring carrot, sweet potato, beet, butternut squash, tomato and parsnip varieties at the end of 2013. Distribution for the products has steadily grown as the unconventional concept catches on.

In the energy bar category, Kind Healthy Snacks last year rolled out Strong and Kind, a line of protein bars in such flavors as hickory smoked, roasted jalapeño, honey smoked barbecue, Thai sweet chili and honey mustard. Mediterra, maker of such savory energy bars as sundried tomato and basil and black olives and walnuts recently gained distribution in select Target stores.

“As consumers across the board become more educated about the mixtures of sweet and salty, sweet and savory, they’re going to be more willing to try crossover products like these,” Mr. Huang said. “It makes sense that a food company would want to get out ahead of the curve.”

Savory nutrition bars, yogurts and performance gels have recently debuted.

These nontraditional newcomers may expand a brand’s day parts, too. Take the new cinnamon sugar pretzel sticks from Snyder’s of Hanover, for example. The variety, along with new raspberry crème-filled pretzel sandwiches from Snyder’s-Lance, extend the product line’s reach into morning and dessert occasions. Similarly, Mars in January added two sweet varieties to its conventionally salty Combos product line with the introduction of vanilla frosting- and caramel crème-filled pretzels. The company said the products were developed to lure new consumers to the brand.

“The millennials, whom I think of as the target audience for these new pairings, are an adventurous group,” said Julie Clarkson, senior research chef from the savory flavors division at Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “So taking it to the next step is right on track with their lifestyles.

“From an acceptability/flavor point of view it makes sense; the concept of sweet and savory complement each other very well, so with the right pairings come great tastes.”

The fusion of sweet in a savory item or savory in a sweet item is a natural progression, she added. Chicken and waffles and salted caramel are flavor pairings that have recently gone mainstream, setting the stage for more sweet, salty and spicy combinations from large and small players alike.

“As more and more large companies like Frito-Lay and Nabisco start introducing more crossover products to consumers, they’ll have a heightened awareness and will be willing to try even more experimental flavors in the future, whether it is from the large companies or not,” Mr. Huang said.

But not all food categories lend themselves to a crossover.

“Texture and temperature is a big thing for savory items, whereas sweet items can be found in all textures,” Mr. Huang said. “It’s harder to find ice-cold savory items that you’d enjoy. Drinkable cold gravy? No.”

So, what’s next?

“My prediction of the logical next crossover, in my mind, is a savory Pop-Tart,” Mr. Huang said. “The form is already bready, the temperature won't be a problem, and you just fill the center with nacho cheese instead of frosting. Boom! Grilled cheese Pop-Tarts.”
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