As the melting pot of America continues to simmer, manufacturers are catering to the expanding consumer palate by adding more pizzazz to products, while retailers attempt to showcase the multitude of flavorful products that adorn their shelves.
Major players in the consumer packaged goods arena have begun to alter the tastes of popular goods. For example, Campbell's is trying to make its soup taste better, Hormel Foods just launched the new Spam Oven-Roasted Turkey, and Procter & Gamble has introduced Cajun-spiced Pringles. In addition, Pepsi recently added lemon to its colas, and Publix has introduced Key Lime Pie to its store-brand ice cream.
"Flavor is probably the most creative part of the whole product-development process. Some companies will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this. Taste is very important," said Sharon Herzog, director of research and development for Country Choice Naturals, Eden Prairie, Minn.
Some say the quest for bolder flavors may have a different meaning. It's not just the habernero and Tabasco-flavored ice cream that people seek, but adventure, an escape from boredom, according to Jack Allen, a professor of food marketing at Michigan State University, East Lansing.
His advice to food marketers: "Let's do a little solution selling. The solution to boredom is flavor, texture, a combination of foods and a more interesting menu."
Retailers can jump in by offering cooking classes, much like the recent free demonstration, "How to prepare your favorite flavors of the summer season," held at Wild By Nature, Long Island, N.Y.
Retailers can also create signage and displays that call attention to flavors.
Meijer in Michigan has an international aisle complete with flags and appropriate signage, much more dynamic than the typical grocery aisle, said Allen, who recommends doing this if possible.
He thinks retailers should give some thought to whether, as merchandisers and buyers, they are reflecting their own tastes. "We should ask ourselves if we are not a little bit behind the curve of the adventurous taste, especially in light of the most recent U.S. Census report, which shows that many communities, not just the border cities and ports, are experiencing an influx of Hispanics and people from many Asian countries."
The "typical American" is not so typical anymore, Allen said, due to travel and exposure to bolder and more interesting tastes. "It's not just a question of flavor getting stronger but people looking for more interesting ways to eat."
"We have chefs on staff here, working 52 weeks a year developing profiles, tweaking, trying to always make better-tasting product," said Larry Vorpahl, vice president of marketing for Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn. "We will spend beaucoup research with the consumer," since, as he puts it, "if someone doesn't like the flavor of our product, they will not come back."
These days, leading cuisines come from Southeast Asia (chiefly Vietnam and Thailand), Mexico, Sicily and Tunisia, Chef Robert Danhi, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., told SN. He will share his beliefs with a group of suppliers at next month's 47th Annual International Fancy Food & Confection Show in Manhattan, in a session that will touch upon flavor combinations.
Over the past five years, such food has become much more for everyone, not just the elite foodies, he said. "We have an Asian market now even in Poughkeepsie.
"One thing about these flavors is Americans are much more aware now. Chinese cuisine broke the ground, but now people are more open. Thai food on the West Coast is booming," he said.
What makes Thai cuisine sing is its use of vibrant aromatics, like lemongrass and fresh herbs. "It's fairly low in fat, pungent in flavor and quick to prepare. It uses a lot of sweet-sour combinations," Dahni said.
However, such ethnic products may not sell as quickly in mainstream grocery stores, so the supermarket doesn't buy the volume that would allow for a lower price. Some supermarkets sell fish sauce for $4 a bottle, "when it's not a $4 item," Danhi said. It should be priced nearer to $1.50.
Price is not the only issue at the supermarket level; placement of product also comes into play. "In condiments, the more exciting and bold foods are in the international section. Often, they are sprinkled around the store where they don't amount to much of an impact," said Allen.
An Austin, Texas-based Albertson's visited by SN recently had a 56-foot section of barbecue and other sauces, including some locally produced, like Stubb's and Austin's Own.
"A real trend out here is to deep-fry turkeys," said Butch Fisk, district manager for the San Antonio division of Albertson's. "And this is the stuff right here," Fisk said, grabbing a jar labeled Cajun Marinade, Chef Williams Cajun Injector Creole Butter Recipe. "I ship it all over the country."
Demographics also play a part in the search for flavorful products. Just back from the candy show in Chicago, Richard George, food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, noted that the fastest growing confectionary products are gums and mints. At younger ages, people are challenging their taste buds. George has heard of contests in which young people into "extreme" sports participated in contests to see who can keep the hot cinnamon mint in their mouths the longest.
In terms of designing organic foods, a new set of challenges must be met. For Country Choice's Herzog, that meant developing a creme sandwich cookie without using hydrogenated shortening, which cannot be certified organic. For the juice blenders at Santa Cruz Organic, Chico, Calif., it means that "when we start formulating flavors, we have to think of what's available in organic," said Jasen Cusick, trade promotion manager.
Country Choice Naturals uses a variety of testers, people internally to start out with, and people at the flavor companies that it works with, and its distributor. They take it into the stores and get consumers to try it, and even try new products on church groups and Scout troops, Herzog said.
"Eventually, you end up with something you really like. And, when the product is out there, you do a continuous product improvement process. We hear from our consumers and we will respond, and we are constantly measuring against our competitors' products."
Flavor companies know what people like, "and do a lot of the work for us," Herzog said, citing McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md., and Wild Flavors, Cincinnati. "They will know what type of vanilla the consumer is going to like, and that information is available to us." Buyers may also take a product to their store team, to sample opinions.
Manufacturers also must determine how long somebody is going to have it before it's all consumed, and balance that with the packaging materials. Organic makers cannot add antioxidants or preservatives.
"The 'omigod' standard -- it has to pass that test," said Gary Erickson, president of Clif Bar, Berkeley, Calif. "Then we will test it with outside groups."
At the Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago last month, Clif Bar introduced two new flavors in its Luna line of energy bars, Orange and Key Lime. "We wanted to do more with citrus, based on the success of the Lemon Zest Luna bar," Erickson said.
Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., is working with Sonymx, La Jolla, Calif., to discover and commercialize ingredients that improve the taste of wet soups. "We do a great deal of R&D in the area of flavors and ingredients," said John Faulkner, director, corporate and brand communications of Campbell Soup Co. "Sonmyx can bring additional knowledge of how flavors work in the mouth and in the mind, to unlock those things, and we're in at least a three-year collaboration."
The four basic flavors to humans are sweet, salt, bitter and another that Faulkner called uname, which is not quite sour, not quite sweet, but savory, or "yummy."
Soy is a category that picks up flavors, and it really has to, in order to appeal to mainstream consumers. How do you get soy to taste like a hamburger, for instance? "Flavors," said Russ Egbert, director of protein applications research for Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill. "We count on all the major flavor houses being able to provide us with flavors that are vegetable-based but taste like meat. It's good chemistry. Most of it is done with reaction chemistry," Egbert said. "If you get the meat background flavors built into it, then you can do anything that you'd typically do with meat."
Think of flavors like colors, suggests Gene Grabowski, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington. "You've probably heard about the green ketchup. It catches kids' eye. Kids like sweet and sour things that burst in their mouths. Adults like flavors they recognize and know. You won't see as much experimentation in adults' foods as kids' or teens' food.
"One of the big challenges for brand-name food manufacturers is to keep those foods alive in the memories of baby boomers. Based on years of listening to commercials, those brand names are established with the baby-boomer cohort of 76 million people," Grabowski said. The "echo boomers" are about 73 million strong, and they are less loyal to brands, because they had less exposure to advertising during its golden age, during the 1950s and '60s, he said.
Taste, according to GMA research, is the No. 1 factor in people's decisions to buy food, followed closely by price and convenience. "Taste is king, so it stands to reason that a substantial amount of R&D will be tied into it," Grabowski said.