Ingredient formulators work with bakers and snack manufacturers to develop products on the cutting edge of flavor innovation without straying too far from consumers' comfort zones.

Yes, it’s true that people eat with their eyes, and smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. But let’s face it: If a product doesn’t taste good, it’s lost forever in the mind — and mouth — of the consumer. And while Americans’ sense of culinary adventure seems to be at an all-time high, the desire for the familiar remains.

In the world of baking and snack, this creates a platform for opportunity, whether it’s to extend a product line, broaden the reach for an existing product or improve the taste of an item that’s been reformulated for a healthier profile at the expense of the original flavor.

What the people want

As consumers become more educated, curious and adventurous about food, flavor innovation opens doors to not only get in front of trends but also create them. “Consumers are looking for a more experiential eating occasion,” said Gary Augustine, executive director, market development, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. “They use snacking as a form of enjoyment, and their exposure and access to a variety of cultures create an opportunity for those new experiences.”

Just look at initiatives such as the Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest, in which the company solicits flavor ideas from its consumer base. “It’s all about bringing back the love of food, the love of flavors,” said Ann Mukherjee, president, Global Snacks Group and PepsiCo Global Insights, Plano, TX, speaking at the Snack Food Association’s SNAXPO conference in 2014. “We created a call to action that celebrated how consumers love food.” Four weeks into a 12-week-long campaign last year, the company garnered 9 million submissions. “If you can unlock real insight, it can create unbelievable demand,” she explained.

Although the marketing aspect may come with huge benefits, consumer-generated flavor ideas don’t come without drawbacks. Because when it comes to authenticity, people want products to stay true to their expectations. “One challenge would be in getting the correct ratio of flavors that represent what the consumer had in mind,” said Suzanne Johnson, vice-president, R&D, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Greensboro, NC. “Also, there might be flavors that just will not work with every product based on the necessary processing. Any new combination has to taste good — just being new and different isn’t good enough.”

Combinations heat up

Who hasn’t heard of salted caramel, right? The marriage of salty and sweet broke new ground in terms of flavor combinations years ago. Since the height of that trend, however, consumers have wanted more from flavor combinations, and formulators are heating things up. At SNAXPO 2015 in Orlando in March, Euromonitor Senior Analyst Jared Koerten pointed out in his “state of the snacking industry” address that, “We are seeing barriers break down from the traditional area of differentiation between a product that’s sweet and one that’s savory. The lines are blurring.”

Bakers and snack manufacturers are tapping into this movement and experimenting with new flavors that will spark the next trend, noted Mariano Gascon, senior technical director of new products and innovation, Gold Coast Ingredients, Commerce, CA. “Consumers are responding well to ongoing flavor innovation while staying in their comfort zones at the same time. They’re experimenting with flavor combinations, but the more successful ones contain something new and bold with a product flavor that’s still familiar,” he said.

Some of today's biggest flavor innovations turn up the heat.

Hovering on the outskirts of the comfort zone is a natural progression from sweet-and-salty to sweet-and-savory or sweet-and-heat. “The pairing of a spicy ingredient like sriracha, habanero or wasabi with something sweet and well-known like chocolate, honey or maple offers a way to experiment with new ingredients while maintaining that familiarity,” said Devon Edmonson, marketing coordinator for Mother Murphy’s.

And lately, everything is smoking: The smoke flavor creates a point of differentiation while perhaps evoking a bit of nostalgia. Smoke is a layer that lends itself to a seemingly endless maze of flavor combinations. “Think of smoked vanilla cookies, smoked lemon cake or smoked cream snacks,” she suggested.

Smoked spices and herbs can also deepen the flavor and aroma and add another layer of complexity, Ms. Edmonson explained, adding that products with charred, flamed, wood-grilled or fire-roasted in the flavor profile are going to generate interest with consumers.

Regardless of the combination, though, “contrasting flavors is a great way to satisfy a demand for multiple experiences from a single food,” Ms. Johnson said.

Geography and ethnicity

Sometimes it’s less about the combination and more about the components, especially in terms of specific spices and their areas of origin. Ever since Christopher Columbus set sail in search of the fabled “Spice Islands,” people have been scouting out the latest and greatest spices.

Spice blends are taking on a global flair as Asian flavors extend their influence with flavors from Korea like gochujang, a condiment made with red chili, garlic, honey, salt, soybeans and rice; and nyonya from Malaysia, a mixture of chili paste, curry, fish sauce, lemongrass and other spices. Latin American influences include adobo, which marries chilies, paprika, garlic, cumin, oregano, pepper, sugar, vinegar and tomatoes.

Ms. Johnson pointed out that bold spices like za’atar, cardamom, coriander, sumac and harissa are also gaining attention from American palates.

While sriracha came onto the scene hard and fast, it leaves many questioning its staying power. At SNAXPO, Phil Lempert, author and food industry expert, urged attendees, “Don’t come out with anything else with ­sriracha.” And other experts are wondering what the “next sriracha” will be. “Regardless of the answer, that flavor represents a continued turn toward red chili-based flavors with heat and other notes combined,” said Michael Swenson, director of business development, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, CA.

According to Nick Lombardo, applications technologist, Flavorchem, Downers Grove, IL, Middle Eastern profiles are gaining ground in the foodservice sector, which garners attention from demographic groups such as millennials, who are known to spend their hard-earned dollars on eating occasions. “I also see potential for flavors such as harissa, sumac and tahini to become mainstream with time,” he added.

Spices and their combinations lend international flair as consumers gain more global and cultural awareness.

Whether formulators want to develop a specific ethnic product or apply an ethnic-inspired spin to the flavor profile of a traditional baked food or snack, the key is staying true to the origin. “Traditional products can be redefined by adding new flavor profiles, but whatever is chosen — an ethnic or traditional product — consumers are looking for authenticity,” Mr. Augustine said.

Flavoring a healthy profile

It’s no secret that Americans are trying to get healthier. At SNAXPO 2015, Mr. Lempert said that almost 55% of consumers have indicated they are eating healthier than they did a year ago. And Mr. Koerten described millennials — the generation with the strongest purchasing power — as a group who grew up in the midst of the American obesity crisis and often have a health-and-wellness frame of reference when choosing foods.

Formulating for a healthier profile is one of the first and most obvious challenges that flavor innovation can meet. A 2011 Functional Foods for Health Consumer Trending survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation listed flavor as one of the top perceived barriers for consuming better-for-you products. “If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not likely to sell, regardless of the health benefits,” noted Ed McIntosh, marketing manager, Flavorchem. “An innovative flavor, and, if needed, the proper masking agent, is the solution, and with that, there’s no limit to creating products that are both delicious and healthy.”

As consumers become less willing to sacrifice taste for calories, fat or sodium, “flavors can provide an indulgent or ‘retreat’ experience on a variety of substrates, including low-fat and low-sodium products,” Mr. Augustine said.

Ms. Edmonson agreed that flavors can mask the bitter or off tastes that might be associated with whole grain or reduced-sodium products or the off notes that come with fish oil or stevia applications. “The inclusion of flavor modifiers enables food manufacturers to create healthier products that still taste great,” she said.

The use of flavor and masking agents allows formulators the freedom to use more functional ingredients such as vitamins or proteins, but innovation doesn’t have to be strictly reactionary in terms of health and wellness. Certain ingredients already wear a healthy halo, and this often includes natural flavor, despite the fact that, by Food and Drug Administration standards, its primary function is flavor and not nutrition.

Using natural ingredients, however, gives formulators a chance to take more non-desirable items off the ingredient legend, according to Mr. Swenson. For example, beet root can replace red food coloring, and sweet potato powder can take the place of sugar, he suggested.

“You could go anywhere from a true-to-the-name flavor like natural lemon flavor in a lemon pound cake to a more complex flavor profile for savory snacks,” added Julie Clarkson, senior research chef, savory flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estate, IL.

“One of the greatest benefits to using natural flavor ingredients is that they offer not only a clean label but also a complexity of flavor and added health benefits,” Mr. Swenson explained. “Replacing salts, sugars and starches with spices and vegetables adds many promotable benefits to the finished product and ultimately the consumer.” Not to mention that a cleaner label and a healthier profile give consumers the sense that a product is remaining true to form.

Keeping it real

As consumers become ever more educated about the food they eat, it’s not just about what’s on the label. Technology allows the global community to become more tight-knit, and that means people have a deeper understanding of what it means to be authentic. Food is no exception.

Formulating with flavors is about developing a product profile that falls in line with consumers' expectations of its authenticity.

“Authenticity is something that consumers like millennials are looking for in food, so formulation and application, especially of ethnic flavors, should stay as close as possible to the gold standard,” Mr. Lombardo explained.

Whether it’s providing a better-tasting healthy alternative, evoking nostalgia, touring the world or feeding a taste for adventure, one fact is constant: Bakers need to keep their products real. And flavor innovation can be the key to creating innovative, yet authentic, products that meet those demands.

“We predict there will be more products that awaken the senses through cooling, heating or even tingling, without extra sodium or sugar,” Mr. Gascon noted. And when awakened, taste can be the most important sense of all.