Earlier this year, Pizza Hut introduced mainstream America to a whole new world of pizza combinations. The beloved pizza pie, which not too long ago pushed borders with pineapple topping, now comes with flavorful twists such as curry crust, honey sriracha sauce and Mediterranean black olive topping.
Such bold, often ethnic flavors are exactly what today’s consumers crave, even from the convenience channel. No longer is the grab-and-go diner satisfied with a ham and cheese hoagie and a bag of chips, especially when the nearby Arby’s drive thru offers options such the Loaded Italian, which is a toasted Italian roll loaded with layers of thinly sliced ham, salami and pepperoni. This gets topped with banana peppers, lettuce, tomato, red onion and melted Swiss cheese, followed by a drizzle of red wine vinaigrette and a smear of garlic aioli. Now that’s a sandwich!
Research from Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., suggests that 53% of consumers are seeking out bolder flavors in everyday foods. This number is even higher for millennials who crave adventure and expect their foods to satisfy more than just their appetite.
Millennials view food as a form of entertainment and self-expression. While they might be more spontaneous and adventurous than previous generations in food selection, they will not make compromises. They are very willing to pay a premium for quality food, even grab-and-go convenience foods.
Trends Fueled by Foodies
In the culinary world, millennials are known as “Generation Yum,” as they grew up with the Food Network and Top Chef. Chicago-based research firm Mintel states that nearly half of all U.S. consumers consider themselves foodies, with these foodies changing the foodservice landscape with their cravings for flavorful adventure, while at the same time they are demanding healthy, natural and local ingredients.
The biggest flavor trend with millennials is spicy, but not just ordinary spicy heat. Today’s adventurous consumers want complex flavor profiles suggestive of ethnic cuisines, where chilies are blended with fresh herbs and spices indigenous to a region. These seasoning blends can give new life to side dishes such as pasta and potato salad. They can be used to infuse flavor into sandwich and wrap components, elevating the popular hand-held meal into a gourmet experience.
According to a January 2015 online survey of 1,300 U.S. adults conducted by Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich., more than half (56%) of consumers eat spicy foods at least once a week, with one out of four eating spicy foods more often than a year ago. The study showed that two out of five consumers think foods taste better with some level of heat, with two-thirds of survey respondents preferring a medium or higher heat level in foods.
Chili peppers are typically the source of heat and they can be delivered through all types of foods. Think ghost pepper cheddar cheese, chipotle-infused chicken breast and even jalapeno encrusted bread. Condiments are also an ideal delivery vehicle for chili peppers, from mustard to mayonnaise. Actually make that aioli, the Mediterranean term for flavored mayo, and a foodie’s favorite.
Grown around the world, chilies vary in flavor profile, from earthy to fruity to smoky. For example, aji amarillo comes from Peru and has fruity notes, while the guajillo, which is harvested from Mexico, has more sweet and smoky notes. Research indicates that jalapeno remains the preferred chili, but it is closely followed by cayenne and chipotle, with habanero, poblano, serrano and ancho all growing in popularity.
Beyond chilies, formulators can use seasoning blends to provide cues such as barbecued, fried or grilled to proteins prepared using commercial cooking methods. Hardwood smoke seasonings add a layer of complexity. Calling out the wood provides an additional culinary spin. For example, applewood is lightly fruity while maplewood is slightly sweet. Mesquite is popular as a stand-alone smoke flavor, supplying a hearty, savory taste.
Increasingly popular ethnic spice blends include za’atar. This Middle Eastern specialty contains sesame seeds, thyme, sumac, marjoram and oregano, and can be used to add zest to beef burgers, meatballs and meatloaf. For more authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, ground lamb is either all or part of the protein mix. An emerging ethnic seasoning is ras el hanout. This Moroccan spice blend has no definitive recipe and often includes as many as 25 different spices. Recipes generally include cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, ginger, paprika, peppercorn and turmeric. Pork and poultry are common applications.
An emerging approach to livening up foods is to add spirited spin through the use of flavors and seasonings designed to simulate libations, from beer to wine to top-shelf spirits. Bourbon barbecue sauce, ale-infused brats and hard-cider marinated chicken breast, these products are designed to appeal to today’s upscale consumer.
Flavor fusions add an element of fun to everyday foods. It’s the culinary adventure consumers crave, at home, at a restaurant and on the go.