Flavor Wars: How Companies Keep Up With America's Changing Tastes

June 11, 2015
by Steve Holt for Thrive Market
Flavor Wars: How Companies Keep Up With America's Changing Tastes

Here’s a homework assignment: Next time you’re at the liquor store, stand in front of the craft beer cooler and inventory the various flavor profiles. You’ll see the standard IPAs and Belgians, yes, but see if you notice the presence of something else: added flavors.

Going back a few years, we saw beers with spices like grains of paradise (Samuel Adams’ Summer Ale popularized this, and the spice began popping up in other craft beers). This summer, grapefruit is the ubiquitous flavor.

From Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin IPA to Harpoon’s Grapefruit Shandy to Shiner Bock’s grapefruit-laced Ruby Red Bird, it appears craft beer makers have chosen the tangy winter citrus as their flavor du jour for the time being.

That can change quickly, however, with the changing tastes of the American eater/drinker. Flavor trends drift in and out of popularity every year, and entire industries exist simply to develop and market the flavors American consumers are craving. See: the current sweet and spicy Sriracha boom, the growing fascination with fermented and other sour foods and beverages, and the ubiquity of smoky and oaky flavors on menus and store shelves.

According to London-based market research firm Euromonitor International, Americans consume more than 600 million pounds of synthetic flavorings a year. BBC research on global flavor and fragrance commerce estimates that by 2019, the industry will be worth $35.5 billion. In North America alone, the market was $7.1 billion in 2013, but will be $9.9 billion by 2019.

There’s a simple, human-nature reason for this: taste is the reason why we choose to eat. Put another way, we eat because food tastes delicious. As Mark Schatzker wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year, “the human body takes flavor very seriously. Our flavor-sensing equipment occupies more DNA than any other bodily system. If deliciousness is our enemy, why are we programmed to seek it out?”

The answer, which Schatzker outlined in more detail in his new book, The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, is that we’re wired to do so. In study after study, he writes, humans–from tiny toddlers to adults–crave and make nutrition decisions based on food flavors.

Marketers know this. It’s why an increasingly ethnically diverse population has resulted in a glut of Latin and Asian flavor combinations popping up everywhere from white tablecloth restaurants to fast-casual joints to the chip aisle. Flavor trends in the beverage industry tend to precede food flavoring. Perhaps we should expect to see Grapefruit Doritos in the next year or so?

Noting that actual food–industrial tomatoes, for instance–has actually gotten more bland over the last half-century (driving us into the arms of artificial flavoring), Schatzker concludes with a startling suggestion: instead of running away from our attraction to flavor, “spend money on the good stuff.”

“Start eating food that tastes better,” he concludes. “We’ll all be skinnier, healthier, and a whole lot happier.”

Photo credit: debs via Flickr

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This article is related to: Grapefruit, Trends, Flavors, Food trends, Beer

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