From old standbys such as vanilla and chocolate to trendy newcomers such as hibiscus and orange blossom, processors may now choose from a wide variety of flavors that promise to add a bit of fun and excitement to dairy product favorites. And as their palates grow increasingly adventurous, today’s consumers are more open to flavor experimentation — but also want options that fit in with their overall health and wellness needs.


Savory gaining in appeal

With many consumers avoiding sugary formulations, savory flavors are gaining traction.

“Sugar is out; plants are in — and vegetables are the new hero in consumers’ hearts,” says Jessica Tallman, sensory and consumer insights manager for City of Industry, Calif.-headquartered Blue Pacific Flavors.

Savory dairy flavors that incorporate vegetables or savory fruits, including sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, tomatoes, avocados and more, can add both balance and color to dairy products. Some dairy categories are better-suited to savory flavors than others, of course. Tallman says Blue Pacific Flavors sees a lot of opportunity for savory flavors in what the company calls the “multi-tool” product arena: think yogurts that can also be dips or sauces, as well as dairy powders consumers can reconstitute or use as seasonings.

Joe Moffett, marketing manager, North American Taste for International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), New York, also points to cottage cheese as fitting in with the savory trend and agrees yogurt could be promoted as having more than one use.

“Yogurt, although traditionally sweet, has an opportunity to create savory options for consumers that do not like sweet flavors or are looking to expand their options for a more ‘culinary’ experience,” he adds. “These options provide a market for dual-use yogurt — for example, dips.”

While cottage cheese paired with black pepper makes for “a classic savory snack,” other savory profiles also lend themselves well to the cultured staple, says Deborah Niessen, product development leader, flavors for New Berlin, Wis.-based Gamay Food Ingredients. For example, familiar savory cheese profiles such as Parmesan, cheddar and blue could impart depth of flavor to cottage cheese, as well as yogurt.

Polly Barrett, Ph.D., director of sales and marketing for National Flavors Company LLC of Kalamazoo, Mich., says tzatziki or cucumber, tahini and basil would work well with a yogurt base.

“Cottage cheese could also be flavored with cucumber or take a spicier route with thyme, oregano, onion or chile extract,” she adds.

Non-sweet flavors that skew spicy (as well as sour) continue to gain in popularity, especially among “foodies,” Moffett notes. Peppercorn, chili, jalapeño and ghost pepper, for example, are popular.

“Many mainstreamed cuisines such as Indian, Thai and Ethiopian are often spicy,” he points out. “Hot sauce reviews and TV shows like Netflix’s ‘Hot Ones’ add to the spicy appeal.”

Other international flavors are trending, too, in dairy applications. For example, Tracy Snider, marketing director, human nutrition and health for New Hampton, N.Y.-based Balchem Corp., says Mediterranean and African flavors “are ready to take off” in the dairy segment.

The increasing popularity of international flavors can be attributed to what Sarah Diedrich, customer marketing manager for Synergy Flavors, Wauconda, Ill., calls consumers’ “strong desire for exploration.” She points to 6% growth in the number of U.S.-based international travelers in 2019 compared to 2018.

“As travelers visit international destinations, many opt to live like a local to uncover the region’s cuisine, citing culinary exploration as an inspiration for global travel,” Diedrich says.


Savory-sweet combos add interest

Dairy product development also could benefit from unique combinations of savory and non-savory flavors, suggests Laura Saylor, marketing specialist for Philadelphia-based Tastepoint by IFF.

“One way to stand out is [by] using more savory-forward flavor profiles,” she says. “An easy way to introduce savory flavors to this space is by pairing familiar fruit flavors with savory flavors like herbs, spices and hot peppers.”

For its part, Star Kay White, Congers, N.Y., believes salt also can provide an “extra savory note” in such savory-and-sweet dairy applications, says Caroline Vogel, director of new business development for the company. Star Kay White’s salty pretzel variegate, for example, can work well in yogurt and ice cream applications.

“Chipotle can add the extra spice and smoke needed for a Latin flair in cottage cheese or in chocolate coatings or chocolate cookies for ice cream sandwiches,” she adds. “Honey variegates with a sweet, spicy and/or smoky flavor, when paired with the correct fruit or flavor, will work well in yogurt [and] cottage cheese, as well as frozen desserts.”

Floral flavors, too, are becoming more popular as consumers seek out products with less added sugar, Saylor says.

“Consumers are becoming more open to trying floral flavors like lavender and rose and botanical flavors such as ginger and turmeric in dairy,” she says. “We’ve seen this trend in everything from yogurt and cheese to dairy beverages and ice cream.”

But Moffett cautions that savory flavors are still fringe offerings — consumers’ purchase behavior does not yet jibe with their stated interest in such flavors.

“This may begin to change as brands come up with innovative combinations, less sugar [and] different sensations, and the consumer palate changes,” he says.


But sweet still sways

Despite consumers’ desire to reduce sugar, sweet flavors still rule in some dairy categories. Here, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry still dominate, but the rise in plant-based diets and the flavors that go with them has opened up some interesting sweet-flavor opportunities for dairy,
Tallman maintains.

“In the fluid milk and yogurt space, matcha green tea, coconut, salted caramel and interesting fruit combos — think pineapple-peach-banana — give the occasional plant-based consumer a point of familiarity and a motivation to share more space on their plate with dairy,” she says.

As for ice cream and frozen desserts, they have a halo of “permissible indulgence” — something consumers are embracing during the coronavirus pandemic in the absence of travel and dining out options, Tallman explains.

“In response to this laser focus on comfort and community, we expect ‘home-style provenance’ flavors such as Washington apple pie, California carrot cake, Georgia peach cobbler, Texas tres leches and New Orleans praline to resonate,” she says.

Zeynep Taskin, director of marketing for Carlstadt, N.J.-headquartered Citromax Flavors, says the majority of flavor requests her company receives are still for sweet flavors.

“We have been working to add more flavors to our Global Tastes portfolio, she adds. “Under this initiative, we have seen flavors like churro, chai and cardamom work well and received very well in dairy applications.”

Cold-brew coffee flavors also are becoming popular in some sweet-leaning dairy products.

“We’re seeing everything from cold-brew ice cream and yogurt to cold-brew protein drinks,” notes Erin Slater, global insights and innovation manager for S&D Coffee, who notes that her company is always innovating with coffee and tea extracts that add excitement to dairy applications.

Moffett agrees that beverage flavors are in vogue. Coffee flavors have been popular in ice cream for some time, but he expects matcha, green tea, whiskey and rosé wine to grow in popularity this year.

As for dairy beverages themselves, Snider notes that brightly flavored colors can add visual excitement to sweet-flavored products (and not-so-sweet products as well).

“Think color-changing cold-brew coffee — the more photo-friendly, the better,” she says.

Within the yogurt space, sweet fruit flavors remain popular, Moffett says. But those fruit flavors are trending toward “more exotic, tropical and globally inspired” fruits.

“Fruit varietals including citrus, tropical and berries grab the attention of consumers seeking something new and exciting,” he adds. “We’re seeing a wave of uncommon berry specialties in 2020, including gooseberry, elderberry, kyoho and acai.”

Fruit flavors such as citrus varietals and passion fruit also can provide unique flavor experiences to the consumer, says Taskin.

Outside the fruity-flavor arena, Moffett notes IFF also is seeing more bakery and dessert-inspired flavors within the yogurt arena. He expects flavors such as red velvet, stroopwafel, apple cinnamon coffee cake and cinnamon bun to gain in popularity in 2020.

But yogurt consumers also want these delicious offerings to be more healthful.

“Consumers want it all: delicious, yet low-calorie, low-carb and cost-conscious,” Moffett stresses.

On the ice cream side, he says IFF is seeing flavor trends that mesh with “consumers’ desire for hyper-indulgent, experiential and textured dessert experiences.”

As for dairy creamers, limited-edition seasonal launches, featuring nostalgic flavors that are inspired by traditional holiday desserts and breakfast foods, spell opportunity, Saylor notes.

“Consumers associate seasonal concepts with craveability and treating themselves,” she says, “which allows for permissible indulgence amongst the prevalence of healthy lifestyles.”

Speaking of nostalgic flavors, Vogel says twists on such flavors stand to resonate in ice cream and frozen desserts. Instead of vanilla, think vanilla with a brown butter vanilla cookie variegate. Or instead of just salted caramel, think whiskey caramel, bourbon caramel or smoky caramel.

“Trending vintage-inspired profiles that pair well with dairy food and drinks are great for the nostalgia factor,” Diedrich adds. “Profiles trending in foodservice are smoked butterscotch and oak maple.”


Think natural, clean label

Whether savory or sweet, today’s flavor options increasingly are moving away from artificial ingredients.

“Consumers now, more than ever, are aware and interested about what goes into the foods and beverages they buy,” says Heather Young, account manager for Mother Murphy’s Laboratories Inc., Greensboro, N.C. “They want transparency, and they care about buying foods and beverages that are natural.”

But consumers are not willing to compromise on taste, she adds.

“They want the products they buy to taste great but also happen to be supportive of their overall health and lifestyle goals,” Young explains.

When it comes to dairy applications, natural flavors also mesh with consumers’ desire for authenticity and confirmation in relation to ingredients, Barrett says.

“Simple, familiar, natural tastes carry a health halo that aligns with dairy,” she notes.

In reality, natural status isn’t just a desire today on many consumers’ part; it’s more of an expectation, Niessen maintains. And many dairy and other food brands now actually have restricted-ingredient lists that disallow specific synthetically derived/artificial ingredients.

The shift to natural flavors meshes with the trend toward clean labeling. And as Diedrich explains, clean label, or “clean eating” — essentially encompassing everything from natural claims to ethical sourcing — is not going away.

“Now, more than ever, consumers are passionate that a product’s ingredient story aligns with their personal wellness goals, as well as holistic values,” she says. “Additionally, Synergy primary research shows that natural flavors and colors are often the leading claim that consumers seek before other product claims of organic, sugar content, etc.”

Rebecca Shurhay, marketing analyst for Downers Grove, Ill.-based Flavorchem, agrees that the natural and clean-label trends are here to stay.

“Consumers are treating their bodies like an ecosystem and seeking solutions that complement their personal health and wellness,” she says. “More than just following a fad diet, consumers are viewing health and wellness as a holistic, a proactive and an ongoing pursuit; that that end, they are continuing to opt for natural and clean-label foods.”

Tallman notes that the demand for certified organic flavors is rising, too, as organic products become more mainstream. She says Blue Pacific identified this trend years ago. As a result, the company developed and continues to build on a strong USDA organic flavor portfolio. 


Innovation, inspiration

The flavor landscape is always changing. Thankfully, dairy processors can stay relevant with help from today’s flavor companies, which continue to ramp up innovation and service offerings.

For its part, Balchem has been boosting its in-house expertise and completing more trials and training for cultured products, Snider says, helping customers escalate speed to market.

“Balchem Ingredient Solutions can help you incorporate more options to traditional and new cultured applications like yogurt, cream cheese and cottage cheese,” she notes. “We offer a wide range of systems that apply to spoonable and drinkable cultured product, as well as dairy- or plant-based options.”

As for S&D Coffee, Slater says the company is continually innovating with coffee and tea extracts in the quest to come up with “exciting on-trend flavors” for dairy applications. It also has the ability to develop custom flavors for products ranging from ice cream and yogurt to coffee creamers and ready-to-drink dairy beverages.

A new line from Blue Pacific, meanwhile, was made possible through a partnership with McCormick & Co.’s Flavor Solutions unit, Tallman notes. Featuring McCormick’s FlavorCell technology, the line of non-GMO encapsulated flavors offers a more intense flavor profile and a longer shelf life — up to two years, or a 300% increase — than traditional plated flavors, she says. The flavors also offer timed release, a feature that could be integrated into products in innovative ways.

“Instant beverages are growing through the roof, and FlavorCell is a natural choice for these applications,” Tallman says. “We anticipate a lot of opportunity in this space as consumers demand more shelf-stable dairy options. This is a response to current hoarding habits that will establish into long-term behaviors once the initial threat of COVID-19 subsides.”

New from IFF, meanwhile, are the IFF Tru2Rich technology, the Powderpure food powder line and the Re-Imagine Protein program, Moffett notes. A dry delivery technology, IFF Tru2Rich offers “high-impact, low-volatile flavor systems to mimic rich, authentic culinary tastes and cooking techniques,” he says. Powderpure, meanwhile, covers a premium line of food powders that are dried with the gentle Infidri technology, which removes water molecules while retaining the original product’s nutritional value.

As for Re-Imagine Protein, the program includes “pioneering taste technologies” that support dairy alternatives and other sustainable food sources without negatively impacting taste, he explains.

Saylor notes that Tastepoint by IFF compiles an annual list of flavor predictions for retail and foodservice. Its Creative and Applications team then works with that list to create prototypes showcasing new flavor profiles.

“Our 2020 list includes a wide variety of on-trend flavors that would be welcome additions to the dairy category,” she offers. “Notable examples include ruby chocolate and cloudberry. Ruby chocolate tastes like an intriguing combination of white chocolate, milk chocolate and hints of fresh raspberry or slight tart and floral nuances, which would be a natural fit for the ice cream and frozen dessert category. Cloudberry is a Nordic berry with a health halo and a sweet and sour flavor profile that would work well in yogurt and smoothie applications.”

For its part, National Flavors recently introduced beverage crossovers for frozen desserts, Barrett says. For example, the company’s orange vanilla cola flavor provides a new take on the classic root beer float.

And Flavorchem’s R&D team recently developed a technology that concentrates extracts without heat, retaining color, flavor, aroma and bioactives, Shurhay says.

To meet clean-label needs, Gamay Food Ingredients now offers a wide variety of butter, cheese and cream flavors made with only consumer-recognizable ingredients that fit into finished product labels, Niessen says. These offerings allow brands to remove the word “flavor” from the ingredient statement altogether.

And last fall, Synergy Flavors launched the Dairy by Nature portfolio, which brings to dairy and dairy-alternative products “more authentic, more complete and more consistent taste experiences,” Diedrich maintains.

“Whether brands are seeking to extend flavor retention, premiumize taste, enhance mouthfeel, mask off-notes or reduce variances in other ingredients of a formulation, the Dairy by Nature portfolio can achieve those needs,” she says.

For ice cream and frozen desserts, Star Kay White now offers unique flavor “cooking reaction” bases — for example, a brown butter base that creates a rich baked-cookie flavor experience in a cookie dough flavor, Vogel says.

“We also like to use our textured variegates that transform the soft-eating cookie experience in the cookies and cream to a cookies and cream where the cookies always have a snap when eating,” she notes. “These variegates combine a unique blend of oils and cookies or crackers so as to protect the crunch in frozen desserts over [their] shelf life.”

And Mother Murphy’s now boasts a “vast library” of vanilla extracts, vanilla flavors, fruit flavors and sweet/dessert-type profiles for dairy, Young says. The company also is able to create custom flavors and flavor matching.