The top three ice cream flavors are not going away, but today’s consumers have become more adventurous in all of their food choices.

Consumers love tickling their taste buds with Italian, Mexican and Asian cuisine, so much that all three have become so mainstream, they’re hardly considered ethnic anymore, according to Chicago-based Mintel. Interestingly, when many of us think of flavors for dairy foods, we think chocolate, strawberry and vanilla…and for those of us willing to think beyond sweet applications, French onion and ranch likely come to mind. But the fact is, dairy can carry so many flavors, as the inherent mellow, creamy taste of milk and milk products complements everything from cucumber to curry. 

Mintel reports that even lesser-known ethnic fare has enjoyed robust product growth in recent years, as ethnic-food lovers and their palates are hungry for more exotic ingredients and flavors. In 2010 alone, Mintel’s Global New Products Database tracked a 150% increase from 2009 in new food items that contained “Caribbean” in the product description. “Japanese” product launches soared more than 230% from 2009 to 2010.  Meanwhile, “Thai” product launches saw a 68% increase from 2009 to 2010.

“Italian, Mexican and Asian cuisine are the more mainstream, popular ethnic cuisines,” says David Lockwood, senior analyst at Mintel. “But Thai, Caribbean and Japanese foods are seeing healthy growth, and consumers seem to be getting more comfortable with a wider variety of ethnic flavors.”

Twenty-three percent of ethnic food users say they were spurred to try them after reading cookbooks that include recipes for dishes that are popular in other countries. Additionally, 18% developed a taste for ethnic chow after travelling abroad and 25% say they were introduced to their favorite ethnic fare because they live in a diverse neighborhood where the food and ingredients are readily available.

This data are supported by a presentation made by Kim Holman, a marketing director with a flavor supplier, at the Research Chefs Association conference in Atlanta. She explained that flavors marketed as extreme, adventurous and “take me away” are driving new product development in the United States. “Consumers are increasingly interested in trying new flavors,” Holman said. “This is due to a combination of factors, including a more ethnically diverse population and more frequent overseas travel.”

She explains that the urbanization of America has improved consumer awareness and willingness to try ethnic cuisine. “Sometimes ethnic flavors need to be modified with a familiar taste for consumers to be willing to try it,” she says. “Sort of like when kiwi got teamed up with strawberry, or goji with blueberry.”

In addition to increased use of ethnic flavors, there is a trend with two-directional crossover of savory ingredients into sweet foods and sweet ingredients into savory foods, according to Food Flavors and Ingredients Outlook 2011, the eighth edition of the annual series by market research publisher Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. The report provides an example of the use of olive oil to extend into a wide range of desserts and sweet goods, including ice cream and gelato, cake and muffins.

The report also says that when it comes to fruits and fruit flavors, expect to see more figs, pears, cherries and blackberries, along with the superfruit combination of blueberry and pomegranate.

Ethnic, exotic and superfruit (and vegetable) flavors are great, but some of these flavors, as well as certain functional ingredients that are now being added to dairy foods, can possess undesirable off tastes, in particular bitter.

“A lot of people are very sensitive to the bitter taste of medicines, calorie-free sweeteners and certain foods,” said Ioana Ungureanu, a research scientist with a flavor company who described the concept of “bitter blockers” at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif., in March. “We’d like to be able to make their diets more enjoyable by masking the off-putting flavors of bitterness. Blocking these flavors we call off-notes could help consumers eat healthier and more varied diets.”

This concept of bitter blockers is supported by a study published in the March issue of Chemical Senses. According to the paper, there is an unusually high level of variation in bitter-taste perception across people.

“Just like some people are color blind, some people are taste blind and simply can’t taste bitter things that others can,” according to John Hayes, assistant professor of food science at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, State College, Pa., and lead author. “It turns out that different bitter foods act through different receptors, and people can be high or low responders for one but not another.

“Those bitter tastes are sensed through different pathways,” he explained. “And this doesn’t affect just bitterness. Since bitter and sweet are in opposition in the brain, if you experience more bitterness from a food, you also perceive less sweetness. This means not all foods taste the same to all people.”

Previous studies have shown that variations in sensing bitter taste influence people’s diet choices, and subsequently their health. For example, people who are more sensitive to bitterness eat 25% fewer vegetables, according to Hayes.

While his study did not measure finicky eating, Hayes contended it still may provide new insight into pickiness. “Some people may not be acting whiny when they say they don’t like certain foods - they actually experience those foods differently,” he said.

As flavorists progress with advancements in the development of bitter blockers, consumers might be able to enjoy a more diverse diet that includes better-for-you foods and flavors such as dark chocolate and green tea.

Top 10 Flavors for 2011

1. Chocolate Soufflé
2. Honey Vanilla
3. Red Velvet
4. Caramel Macchiato
5. Yumberry
6. Coconut Crème
7. Sweet Potato
8. Ginger Peach
9. Mint Citrus
10. French Toast

1. Blood Orange
2. Yumberry (*2)
3. Coconut Water (*1)
4. Maqui Berry
5. Cupuacu (*8)
6. Elderflower
7. Caramel
8. White Grape
9. Rambutan
10. Snake Fruit

1. Black Garlic (*5)
2. Rich Umami (*3)
3. Truffle Oil
4. Aged Cayenne Pepper
5. Nuc Maum
6. Calamansi Lime
7. Demi Glace
8. Harissa
9. Aji Panca
10. Paneer Cheese

Source: Bell Flavors & Fragrances