Obsession with millennials so pervades contemporary culture that even millennials — notorious for their self-regard — have grown weary of hearing about themselves. But while there was a time when non-millennials could at least dismiss their juniors’ fancies for Frisbees, breakfast cereal and nonstop Nickelodeon as kid stuff, that’s getting harder to do now that members of the generation born between 1981 and 1996 (as defined by the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.) are having kids of their own.

As millennials grow older, their palates are growing up with them — the upshot being that they “pose the most opportunity for adventurous flavor innovation,” said Shannon Cushen, director of marketing for Hampstead, Md.-based Fuchs North America. “They’re seeking new and innovative flavors, and they’re the main drivers behind a lot of the trends we’re seeing. They influence other generations, both younger and older, when it comes to food, so everyone’s focusing on what millennials want to eat.”

That’s as true in the dairy case as it is elsewhere.


Force to be reckoned with

Millennials certainly control enough discretionary dollars to warrant continued attention. According to “Talking to Strangers: Millennials Trust People over Brands,” a 2012 white paper from Austin, Texas-based Bazaarvoice Inc., they racked up more spending power than any other generation by 2017. More relevant to the dairy industry, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics peg millennials’ average household spending on food both at home and away at more than $6,100 annually.


Stretching their palates

They’re not spending it on pedestrian flavor profiles, either. After all, millennials are now adults.

“Adults tend to have more adventurous palates than children,” said Michael Springsteen, vice president, business and product development, Virginia Dare, New York. “As such, they’re seeking more adventurous flavors and new taste experiences with unique flavor pairings.”

This millennial impulse has contributed to a growing trend in the dairy space that celebrates what Kristie Hung, marketing specialist for Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif., called “exciting, gourmet and bold flavor combinations.” With millennial consumers more willing to stray from their comfort zones than their parents and grandparents did, there’s an opportunity for brands to innovate beyond simple sweet flavors, she said.

That’s already happening in the yogurt category, said Jennifer Haberman, who works in dairy business development at Sensient Natural Ingredients.

“Within yogurts, market leaders have seen tremendous growth in flavor combinations like mango and habanero, raspberry and chipotle or chocolate chile,” she said. “These innovations are spurring growth in similar yogurt products and are spilling over into other categories such as ice cream inclusions and variegates.”

In fact, a fondness for savory in applications traditionally associated with sweet is something of a millennial hallmark. Part of the tendency has to do with a general wariness toward sugar across age groups; the more sugar finds itself demonized, the more the sweetener and its sweet taste fall out of favor.

“This results in a gradual shift in preference for more savory profiles and products that not only contain less added sugar,” Haberman noted, “but also provide a new platform for a variety of flavor combinations.”


Taste of adventure

These flavor combinations find inspiration in, among other sources, the multiethnic fabric of the millennial generation itself. “Diversity Defines the Millennial Generation,” a 2016 article from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, notes that millennials make up 27% of the total minority population, 38% of voting-age minorities and 43% of primary working-age minorities. Not surprisingly, that diversity plays out in flavor preferences.

“Millennials really are driving the push for more ethnic-inspired foods and flavors,” Cushen said. “This generation loves adventure, exploration and travel. They have a curiosity about other cultures and a desire to understand what it’s like to live in other parts of the world, whether they’ve traveled there previously or not.”

This opens the borders to spice — even in dairy.

“We have a coconut curry seasoning from our new Island Inspirations Collection that’s spicy and ethnic,” Cushen continued. “We’ve also been working on dip seasonings that are spicier and more ethnic, including a Puerto Rican-inspired sofrito dip, which, again, appeals to adventurous millennial consumers.”

Soumya Nair, director of marketing insights for Kerry, Beloit, Wis., noted that internal Kerry research quantified the evolution in flavors toward more global profiles, with the proportion of internationally inspired flavors tracked in 2017 clocking in at 42%, up from just 22% in 2012.

“With an ethnically diverse population and increased demand for global travel and food exploration, consumers are no longer settling for ‘watered-down’ Western interpretations of international cuisines,” Nair said. “Instead, they’re demanding ethnically authentic flavors and increased specificity to the exact origin of the flavor.”


What’s in a name?

That flavor authenticity, as well as transparency and clear regional roots, are qualities that Hung sees as ringing true with maturing millennial consumers.

“We can expect food developers to use more traceable ingredients calling out specific varieties and growing regions on labels,” she said. “Regional specificity holds a higher importance for consumers in these maturing age brackets, as it communicates additional information regarding quality and authenticity.”

Take the case of Hatch chile peppers, which Hung said have been gaining in popularity among food enthusiasts and chefs across the globe.

“Just like fine wine that’s identified by its unique taste and flavors because of its geography, geology and climate, these gems from New Mexico’s Hatch Valley have been distinguished for their mouthwatering aroma and bold savory flavor,” she said.

Hatch chiles have a mild back-end heat that Hung said pairs well with cremas and yogurt-based salad dressings — condiments that complement artisan tacos just as well as they do classic coleslaw. And being able to call out their regional specificity by name helps formulations that include them “stand out better in a sea of spicy products,” she added.


On the menu

Artisan tacos and hipster coleslaws are just two items that millennials gravitate toward when they dine at independent restaurants — which, as a generation, they’re wont to do. As such, these and other restaurant favorites supply yet more grist for the flavor-innovation mill.

“We take a lot of our cues from what’s emerging on independent restaurant menus, and it starts with what consumers are initially exposed to when dining out,” noted Amy Loomis, business development manager for Synergy Flavors, Wauconda, Ill. “As those flavors gain more momentum, they become something that people start to watch for — even in dairy.”

Consider the phenomenon of avocado toast — an overpriced indulgence that has earned brunching millennials no small heap of scorn from personal-finance prudes, despite the fact that it’s undeniably delicious.

And ever since the brunch staple went viral, Cushen has seen avocado profiles popping up in categories across the board — dairy included. It might not just be attributed to the brunch connection, but “to perceptions of health and wellness,” as well, she suggested.

And why not? Even millennials are mindful of diet — especially as they get older — and “any flavor that features fruit or vegetables gives consumers the perception that a product has some health value,” Cushen said, “even if it is itself unhealthy.”


Bottoms up

Close kin to restaurant menus for flavor inspiration are trendy cocktail bars, and Nair noted that Kerry’s flavor analysis revealed growth in “adult-friendly artisanal” flavors that reflect the sophisticated experimentation coming from expert mixologists.

“Our flavor charts this year reveal that alcoholic infusions are an up-and-coming flavor trend with influences from Champagne, stout beer, bourbon and wine, even in dairy beverages,” she said.

Bitter notes of juniper; florals such as lavender, rose and hibiscus; and spiciness from habanero, cayenne, turmeric and cardamom all have been making a splash as beverage-driven flavor trends, Nair noted.

“And we see these bold artisanal flavors making their way into yogurts and dairy desserts,” she said.

Other bar-inspired concepts that reliably work well in dairy include the rum-flavored eggnog profiles that are showing up in shakes, concretes and malts, according to Springsteen.

And Cushen’s team has been working on adult-minded ice cream and milkshake flavors.

“We have a banana rum seasoning for milkshakes that plays really well off the alcoholic-beverage-inspired flavor trend,” she said.

A key component of boozy flavors’ popularity resides in the profiles’ ability to offer millennials “a luxurious treat that feels like it’s just for them — not something they’d share with their children,” said Sarah Diedrich, marketing, sweet and beverage flavors for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

But that same transgressive appeal should give dairy developers pause when deploying alcohol-inspired flavors.

“I think this trend is emerging — I think there’s interest,” Loomis said. “But I think with dairy products so often purchased for kids, there has to be prudent, responsible marketing to make sure that products aren’t promoting alcohol, obviously.”

Fortunately, not all beverage-inspired profiles require a valid ID.

“I’ve seen the introduction of beverage-based profiles like latte in yogurt, which gives you that coffee component,” Loomis said. “Teas also continue to grow, and you’re seeing tea flavors cross over into some yogurts, too. That could be another way to do flavor innovation in a yogurt platform, but drawing from familiar beverage profiles.”


Coming full circle

And drawing from the familiar is hardly a faulty strategy — for as much as millennials crave innovation, they can’t resist flavors they know and love, either.

“This is where we see the comfort food trend come into play,” Loomis said. “Perhaps due to stress, consumers are yearning for foods they grew up with — foods that make them feel nostalgic about childhood. These feel inherently good because they remind consumers of home. Flavors inspired by their favorite dishes growing up are on the rise because of this.”

So which foods and flavors have millennials reeling in the years? Nair pointed to breakfast cereals, which “have seen a comeback in the last year with many milks, ice creams, shakes and other foods and beverages finding inspiration in breakfast cereals.”

Springsteen offered up the inimitable trio of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Not only does their nostalgia quotient span generations, but they all taste great, he said.

“There’s a reason they’ve been some of the most popular flavors for so long. That said, we’re seeing interest in new spins on these classics, especially among mature millennials — like vanilla nougat and Mexican coffee. Fun flavors like these provide hints of the familiar vanilla and chocolate, but with a unique complementary flavor,” he noted.

And who wouldn’t warm up to that? As Michelle Polach, applications manager (flavors) for Flavorchem Corp. in Downers Grove, Ill., put it, “A person’s palate and acceptance of new flavors develops over time, but the memory evoked when re-experiencing some of your first favorites can remain strong. There’ll always be a place for that.”


Separating the kids from the grownups

Lauren Fockelmann, application technologist, sweet flavors for Sensient Flavors in Hoffman Estates, Ill., knows how much nuance goes into designing flavor profiles that appeal to palates at different life stages. So when she designs a flavor for a kid-friendly frozen dairy dessert, she focuses more on the “fun factor” — whether it’s vibrant colors or familiar flavors such as candy profiles transformed into an inclusion.

“Extreme” flavors — think sour variegate — also make ice cream more exciting for youthful palates that thrive on sensory stimulation,
Fockelmann said.

But when creating flavors for grownups, she takes a different approach.

“There’s more consideration for the experience,” she said. “I try to think about unique combinations while keeping a more artisanal appearance by incorporating things like natural colors, ground spice flecks or an interesting texture.”

And while playing with familiar sweet profiles is an oft-used tactic for catering to kids, it’s often not the best tactic for grownups.

“With adults,” Fockelmann said, “I usually pull from outside the sweet realm entirely — for example, habanero peppers transformed into an ingredient, like a white chocolate habanero ice cream.”

Then again, there’s a lot to be said for finding common ground between generations.

“Many flavors popular with both kids and adults are in the same arena,” she noted. “If we keep the overall profile kid-friendly while giving it an adult twist, everyone can enjoy. For example, ‘fresh’ strawberry ice cream or Himalayan salted caramel incorporates adult undertones while maintaining a flavor appealing to both age groups — strawberry and caramel.”