Culinary flavor forecast
Market researchers track trends such as smoke, heat, citrus and umami as they expand their flavorful reach into the New Year.

KANSAS CITY — Some of the trendiest, most flavorful buzzwords showing promise for 2017 and beyond aren’t new. In fact, they have been talked about for some time, but they keep growing in menu mentions and retail applications. That is not surprising since trends tend to gather momentum before becoming ubiquitous then leveling and proving their staying power, according to Suzy Badaracco, trends forecaster and president of Culinary Tides, Tualatin, Ore.

Trends don’t fade away as fads most surely do, she said. “There are long-term trends and short-term trends,” Ms. Badaracco said. Regardless of the trend shelf life, the strongest have crossties to other flavor trends as well as to trends outside of the food industry, such as in culture, technology, consumer interests, health and other fields.

What is most interesting about the flavors in the most current crop of trending tastes are that they are crossing the food and beverage divide, she explained, with flavors showing up outside of their expected category, across sweet, savory and beverage applications. For example, Ms. Badaracco cites smoke, char, tea, vinegar, alcohol flavors like bourbon, beets, pumpkin, natural sugars, chiles and florals as all showing crossover potential and adding to the excitement for flavors like honey or sriracha.

Here, Ms. Badaracco and other culinary trendspotters sound off on the trends expected to make a flavor-filled impact through the New Year.

Lavender cookies
Floral flavors like lavender are trending across categories.


Botanical spins

Noting that florals “have been hanging out awhile,” Ms. Badaracco sees hibiscus, lavender and rosewater growing in usage. Florals have a bit more “refinement” to offer a product, she said, while citrus — such as lemon, lime and grapefruit — are strong, “as long as you go for a varietal and name the specific type (such as kefir lime or yuzu) for it to be cool,” she said.

Flower-specific honeys like kefir lime honey or orange blossom honey are poised to take off according to Ms. Badaracco and may well generate national demand, more so than the “zip code honeys” produced by hyper-local hives.

While attending the Produce Marketing Association trade show this year, chef John Csukor of Ashland, Va.-based KOR Food Innovation was impressed by the extent of hybridizing and crossbreeding of classic fruits and vegetables “to create another flavor/texture/variety” that plays off of familiar citrus notes.

 For example, Ruby Red grapefruit meets lime to create “the floral headiness of a lime — a mash-up with the sweet/bitter contrast of the grapefruit.”

The open flame

As Mr. Csukor develops current menu concepts, he has noticed how those seeking “modernist” menus work with the concept of the open flame, which imparts even more of the smoke, char and burnt flavors that have been trending over the past decade. “It’s going to continue to have steam,” he said. “It will even carry into fine dining and uber fine dining — for example, serving fish with a smoky flavor under a dome. I see it going from very casual to fine dining. Those whose flavors [of their cuisine] match this style of cooking will have a good ride in front of them.”

Mr. Csukor is also seeing the growing importance of cast iron in “latitudinal cuisine.” That is the term he applies to the mainstay dishes prepared in those countries from Northern Mexico to Southern Italy, located in the geographic band of “Baja weather.” In the US, for example, you may see meatballs prepared in a cast iron skillet in a wood-burning oven. “It’s low and slow personalized flavors coming from the skillet out of wood-fired or stone deck ovens.”

When the Chicago-based international market research firm Mintel looked at flavor trends for the period between the third quarter of 2015 and 2016 for menu insights it placed smoked at the pinnacle of its list, food service analyst Diana Kelter said. “The opportunity with the (smoked) flavor is no longer limited to traditional concepts, such as bacon and meat, and is being layered into vegetable dishes and cocktails.”

Additionally, the smoky flavor is being incorporated into condiments and sauces such as smoked chipotle sauce. “The use of a smoky flavor in drinks is popular in cocktails, especially those crafted with dark spirits, but also in coffee, as seen with Smoked Butterscotch Latte at Starbucks,” said Amanda Topper, Mintel’s associate director of food research.

As senior account manager at Datassential, the Chicago-based market research firm, Claire Conaghan will tell you without hesitation that charred and burnt is the No.1 flavor trend heading into 2017 despite the fact that barbecue is yesterday's news. She said you can find it in or applied to corn, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, meats and even cocktails. “Not only do chefs have the equipment to char foods — with the availability of wood-burning ovens and hearths — but consumers are also more open to bitter flavors that charring and burning imparts,” Ms. Conaghan said. She cites burnt marshmallow desserts, charred corn and even charred tomato soup as popular examples.

Seaweed makes waves

Chefs are intrigued by the possibilities presented by seaweed beyond snacks and sushi. “Sometimes it’s the rock star (as in sushi) and sometimes it’s just more of a background note (like powdered dulse); each seaweed has a different flavor profile,” Ms. Badaracco said. Dulse, a red algae, may be powdered and sprinkled over soup or pasta; pieces of kombu, a brown seaweed, may be used as a thickening agent.

“Seaweed is coming in in Hawaiian-Asian cooking,” she explained, where sheets of nori seaweed make an appearance in a Hawaiian wrap with lots of vegetables.

Chris Koetke, executive director of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago and vice-president of Culinary Arts for Laureate International Universities, Baltimore, agrees there’s a phenomenon around seaweed and algae as uniquely flavored ingredients that are steadily trending upward. “Seaweed brings together sustainability and nutrition; seaweed as seasoning, powdered seaweed — mix into whatever, perhaps seaweed bread — it is going to go somewhere.”

Middle Eastern flavors
Flavors based on such Middle Eastern ingredients as za'atar, a thyme-sesame spice mix, and sumac, a tangy spice, are trending.


Middle East expansion

Mr. Koetke believes Middle Eastern flavors are “really big” for 2017. He noted that people outside the Middle East are already familiar with foods like tabouleh, baba ganoush and pita, but that more authentic dishes are being offered and appreciated now.

“I’m seeing Middle Eastern and Israeli food popping up on the menus of James Beard Award nominees. Za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix, is becoming a flavor as well as sumac, with its tart, lemony notes. There are incredible chiles and spice mixes from Turkey — it’s piggybacking on the hummus [craze],” he said.

Meanwhile, he sees harissa, an aromatic Tunisian chile paste, as a related trend since the hot sauce-like condiment is popular in North Africa and throughout the Middle East.

“I expect it will go beyond North African food since you can take it out of context — for example, harissa sushi.”

Going to extremes

Liz Moskow, creative culinary director for Boulder-based Sterling-Rice Group, sees the “sensational” flavor trend continuing to pack a wallop among consumers seeking an “extreme sensation” or “extreme reaction” to food. She sees chefs adding hot flavors like sriracha to vanilla ice cream for those Instagram-obsessed guests who “just want to have stuff to talk about, even briefly.”

Overall, spicy has become a core flavor profile according to Mintel, but it’s “a more layered experience with new flavor profiles creating the heat,” according to Ms. Kelter.

“In the QSR sector, spicy is the leading flavor. The flavor trend is also coordinating with regional trends. For example, KFC added a Nashville Hot Chicken Littles sandwich to their menu. The dish is described as featuring a perfect blend of spicy cayenne and smoked paprika,” she adds.

Adding heat without being too spicy is an attribute of Korean gochujang, Mintel’s Ms. Topper said. She sees the flavor in sectors from fine dining to fast casual. “Fine dining restaurants are using it in dishes like bibimbop, but even Noodles & Company offers Korean BBQ Meatballs with Gochujang Sauce,” she said. At retail, it’s found in ketchup, seaweed chips and veggie burgers.

Seeking umami

Combining the fermentation and seaweed trends, Ms. Moskow said the ongoing search for umami is evident because of the growing interest in seaweed, soy sauce and pungent cheese. “Chefs are experimenting with ways to add that umami flavor; the hunt is on to replace that flavor from meat by using mushrooms or various molds,” she explained. “Koji [mold] from Japan typically gives miso and soy sauce its fermented flavor, (with) mold being the catalyst.”

Ms. Moskow said she knows one chef who has added it to pork chops and another to vegan cheeses to create a sharp flavor. “I believe more fermented umami flavors will be replacing spicy flavors such as sriracha and other trendy peppers; umami is more of a deep, unctuous sort of salty-meets-rich-earthy-flavor.”

Similarly, she said mushrooms (powdered or dried) are “really hot” in teas and soups — along with seaweed — as a flavoring agent because it adds umami flavor.

The vinegar trend is growing in beverages, like this switchel drink, as well as in food.


Tart, tangy and fermented

Since health is one of the strong drivers of flavor trends today, Ms. Moskow said that the fermented foods like vinegar and kombucha are good for you since they “feed the positive flora in your gut.”

Mintel reports that tangy as a flavor is showing growth and that the vinegar trend is growing in beverages as well as in food.

The age-old process of fermentation is being heartily embraced, with flavors encompassing tartness, saltiness and acidity. “Kombucha is an obvious example of fermented beverages,” Topper said, “but there are also cocktails made with fermented syrups or fruits.”

Along the lines of “everything old is new again,” switchels and shrubs — vinegar-based drinks popular in the 1800s — are enjoying resurgence according to Culinary Tides’ Ms. Badaracco. Switchels (a non-alcoholic mix of vinegar, water and molasses) and shrubs (a vinegar-based drink made of mashed and fermented fruits and/or vegetables) are viewed as healthier-for-you beverages.

Regarding the “fermented” phenomenon, Mr. Koetke is on the same page as Ms. Badaracco and Ms. Moskow. “I’m seeing people fermenting and pickling everything,” he said. As part of the trend, kombucha “is huge and is moving into retail in the way that you now see kefir and cabbage-based kimchi — they’re all over Chicago groceries.”