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Where do food trends come from, anyway?

The latest, hottest ingredients for grocery products come from all over.

Last month’s issue of Popular Mechanics uncovered details of a secret: how a group of Canadian engineers invented the flying saucer for the U.S. Air Force. A few pages over, another mystery presented itself in the form of an ad, this one for a new Campbell’s Chunky Soup: Chipotle Chicken & Corn Chowder.

Chunky Soups are supposed to be hardy. And most of the ingredients in this new soup had the appropriate vigour: Chicken. Check. Corn. Check. Chipotle. Wait! How did that get there?

As it turns out, chipotle soup–and scores of other chipotle-infused products–is no mystery at all. It was predicted 10 years ago by chefs, marketing experts, sensory scientists, dietitians and others working for McCormick & Company.

Kevan Vetter, corporate chef at the spice maker’s Baltimore headquarters, was among the group. Around 2002, he recalls, a team was assembling McCormick’s Flavour Forecast, an annual report of up-and-coming ingredients.

One thing they noticed: many restaurant chefs were incorporating “various levels of heat” into their foods. Meanwhile, interest in authentic regional Mexican cuisine was spiking. Vetter and the others were intrigued and honed in on one particular ingredient: smoke-dried jalapenos, or chipotle. “It had a nice flavour profile and seemed to work well in a lot of different foods,” Vetter says. Chipotle made it into the following year’s Flavour Forecast as a food to watch.

Ten years later, chipotle is the Justin Bieber of ingredients, a star on restaurant menus and grocers’ shelves. Listings of chipotle on menus have tripled in the last decade. In CPG-land, meanwhile, salad dressing, popcorn, spices, chips, sauces, meats, even canned tuna, all have chipotle varieties.

Welcome to the world of flavour trends. Though rarely publicized, the way in which ingredients migrate from far-flung villages to chi-chi restaurants to supermarket shelves matters a great deal to the grocery industry.

Companies depend on a steady supply of new flavours to keep consumers buying. And the stakes can be huge. Chobani raked in $150 million in U.S. sales in 2010 after it became the first company to capitalize on Greek yogurt, according to Symphony IRI Group research.

Grocers, meanwhile, need to keep up on food trends for their private-label products, which are often first to market with new flavours, as well as for home meal replacement programs, an increasingly important part of supermarket businesses that requires trendier food options to be on the menu.

Finding the next big flavour is more detective work than science. An understanding of consumer habits is essential, as are visits to edgy restaurants, food trucks, ethnic shops, urban markets and other foodie-type places where trends emerge.

McCormick’s Flavour Forecast takes a year to put together and involves experts from around the world, says Michael Cloutier, executive corporate chef at McCormick in Canada.

Recently, at the company’s Toronto office, where a large stainless steel kitchen and 3,000 white plastic kegs of ingredients are on hand to bring food trends to life, Cloutier and Lysang Lay, McCormick’s food insights marketing advisor, explained how trends are spotted, and how unheralded flavours catch on.

The trick to identifying flavour trends, they note, is to first uncover societal trends that might affect how we eat; then find flavours that support those trends, and finally turn them into foods that could end up in stores and restaurants.

Among the overarching trends in this year’s Flavour Forecast was one they dubbed “personally handcrafted.” Essentially, people are making things from scratch at home, getting their hands dirty, for instance, planting gardens. Meanwhile, chefs are putting together signature products to distinguish their restaurants.

How could these trends ever turn into a packaged food? Cloutier explains: “You might have a chef at a restaurant saying, ‘I’m going to grow my own tomatoes and I’m going to make those tomatoes into a ketchup.’ But it won’t just be any ketchup. The chef will smoke the tomatoes and maybe add some chillies and onions and he’ll have a signature smoked tomato ketchup for his restaurant. And potentially someone from a grocery chain walks into that restaurant and tries it and says, ‘Wow, can we convert that signature ketchup into something unique for our stores?’ ” Hence, smoked tomato could become a trending flavour over time.

Another trend from this year’s report: “Global My Way,” uses ethnic foods in non-traditional ways. So, Japanese Katsu sauce could morph into a barbecue sauce or snack seasoning. If that seems like a stretch, keep in mind the Flavour Forecast’s track record.

In 13 years, it has had notable success spotting trends. Besides, chipotle, sea salt was identified in 2007 and liquor-flavoured foods in 2008. About 3,000 grocery products have launched in the past five years with whiskey, bourbon, brandy and other booze flavours. Products containing sea salt tripled between 2008 and 2012. “If you look at the snack shelves, it’s no longer salt and malt, it’s sea salt and malt or lightly sea salted. Sea salt is everywhere,” Lay says.

Today’s consumers are more likely to try new flavours. A typical Canadian pantry now contains as many as 40 different seasonings, up from less than 10 in the 1950s.

Thanks to globalization, says Lay, “we are seeing ingredients popping up in local grocery banners and specialized banners that we do not normally see, like fish sauce or tamarind. This allows consumers and chefs to mix and play with a wider range of ingredients, thus creating virtually unlimited flavour combinations.”

Still, new flavours can take up to 12 years to truly catch on, says Kara Nielsen, trendologist with CCD Innovation, a food and beverage product development company in San Francisco. Some, like chipotle, go all the way from white-tablecloth restaurants (the early adopters of any new food) to mainstream status as a CPG-brand product.

Others bounce around foodie-land for years, never quite hitting the big time, so to speak. Nielsen cites seaweed snacks, gastrique sauce, pu-erh tea and gougères, a savory cheese puff, among the latter. Sometimes, though, one company can turn the tide. McDonald’s, for instance, gave edamame a serious boost in 2006 when it added the bean to its line of Asian-themed salads, says Vetter.

Flavours that go mainstream usually do so because they meet the needs of many different types of consumers. An example, says Nielsen, is chia seeds. “Runners eat them for endurance; Wall Street traders eat chia bars to stay awake; moms put it on their cereal,” Nielsen says. “And they are all buying chia for various reasons: omegas, energy, fibre. Combined, that’s pushing chia up the trend map to broader acceptance.”

One might think that globalization would make watching emerging food trends more confusing. But, in fact, as people become more interconnected, trend spotting can be easier. Up until two years ago, McCormick’s Flavour Forecast was country-specific.

But in 2011, the company decided to generate an overall global forecast. So it brought teams of forecasters together to determine the worldwide trends. Cloutier, who was there, says he figured the trends he was seeing would differ greatly from other countries. But that wasn’t the case.

“Trends driving our food choices are strikingly similar from region to region, even though the specific foods and ingredients we enjoy are rooted in our local cultures. That was a real eye-opener,” he says.

Pinpointing where trends actually begin can be difficult. But in some cases, a ground zero is obvious. Açai berries were unknown in North America before a group of American surfers in the late 1990s headed to Brazil to catch some waves and discovered the locals eating açai up. One of those surfers, Ryan Black, took the berries back to California and launched Sambazon, a superfruit juice.

Today, açai is found in everything from liquor to cereal bars. Chia, meanwhile, took off as a food (rather than a pet) in 2009 when Born to Run, a book describing a tribe of chia-eating Mexican Indians who complete gruelling marathons with ease, was published.

But flavour trends don’t only originate in remote Mexican villages. They can incubate in a store.

McCormick’s Vetter recalls buying the Korean pepper paste gochujang a few years ago at H-Mart, a Korean grocer in the U.S. and Canada. Later, at home, Vetter was making lobster bisque and found that it “just needed some extra flavour.” He dropped in the paste and, to his delight, “it took the dish to the next level.”

Korean pepper paste made it into McCormick’s trends report last year. The next chipotle? The flavour forecasters are watching.

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