COVID and inflation are still very much with us. But that doesn’t mean consumers are craving more comfort foods and sticking with tried and true flavors that recall a better time.

Even if the outside world isn’t cooperating, people are ready to move on.   

Maeve Webster, president of consultancy Menu Matters, believes consumers are ready for more "extreme" flavors and textures — flavors and textures that provide them with much-needed significant experiences, with COVID, inflation, a war in Europe and other factors continuing to roil our everyday experience.

“Comfort food with its typically neutral or mild flavors are fully out as consumers desperately cling to the hope that we're going to emerge from the last two years of chaos and uncertainty,” Webster said. “They want food experiences that are fully engaging from a sensory experience.”

Think frico applications, for instance, which create extreme crunch and umami flavors. Nashville hot also continues to be popular, Webster said, as do other flavors that were trending before the pandemic and are now picking back up where they left off, such as tajin, hot honey, gochujang, chili crisp, furikake and togarashi.

“All of these lend bold flavors and, often, either visual or textural interest,” she said. “You've also got flavors that add extreme visual experiences, such as ube, turmeric, pitaya/ dragon fruit and matcha. Though holidays tend to bring forward nostalgic flavors and formats, which are tightly tied to holiday traditions, I think there will be more experimentation and playing with what that nostalgia can mean and how trending flavors can renew or revive traditional holiday fare to make it more modern and relevant to younger consumers.”

Plant-based innovations

Plant-based cheeses and “alt” fish and seafood are among the trends Amy Marks-McGee, founder of Trendincite LLC, is keeping a close eye on.

“Innovation is happening across markets in the plant-based arena,” Marks-McGee said. “There has been a lot of activity in plant-based cheese as technology improves. However, the flavors tend to mimic their animal-based counterparts such as cheddar and mozzarella.”

When it comes to plant-based alt fish and alt seafood products, Marks-McGee said, fermentation is a hot topic for innovation in the alt protein space.

Marks-McGee is also tracking an uptick in condiments with more sophisticated flavors, unexpected applications such as ice cream, and activity in snack dips.

For example, French's has released three Creamy Mustard Spreads, Kraft Heinz introduced The Heinz 57 Collection, and Van Leeuwen and Grey Poupon collaborated on a Grey Poupon Dijon mustard ice cream flavor with salted pretzels.

In Canada, French’s launched a limited edition ketchup-flavored ice pop, dubbed ‘Frenchsicles, and Kraft Heinz created the Dip & Crunch, which is “designed to elevate the burger-eating experience” and is available in Regular and Spicy varieties. 

Constructed as a two-in-one package, the burger sauce is accompanied by crisp crunchers. Doritos has taken its classic, most popular chip flavors and developed two dips: Doritos Dip Cool Ranch Jalapeño and Spicy Nacho. 

Overseas opportunities

Heading into the holidays and looking ahead to 2023, international flavors are tracking in from the first places that consumers are allowed to travel to, said Suzy Badaracco, president of consultancy Culinary Tides, Inc.

Caribbean, Nordic, Greek, Ukrainian, Japanese and Korean are among the international cuisine trends to keep an eye on going forward, Badaracco said.

Within the United States, meanwhile, regional cuisines are still very much in play. In stressful times, Badaracco said, regional foods and dishes give consumers a sense of control.

“They’re grounding and they increase the feeling of safety and calm.”

Low country, Cajun, creole and Gullah are among the regional trends that should continue to stay hot in 2023, she said.

More than two-and-a-half years in, COVID continues to impact flavor trends.

“COVID is affecting travel destination, which in turn affects which cities, regions that consumers travel to, which then shuttles in cuisines from those regions,” Badaracco said. “For the next year, travel will be more focused on the US due to cost and COVID.”

And COVID isn’t the only outside force impacting what foods and flavors people are buying and craving. Inflation is having just as big, if not a bigger, impact.

“It causes consumer’s desire to experiment to stall temporarily at hybrids and stuffed food, safe experimentation – nothing too extreme,” Badaracco said.

That said, it hasn’t translated into increased demand for comfort food, which consumers are still stepping away from after the initial COVID-related surge in demand for it.

Consumers are also dialing back on the cost of ingredients and on eating out – “doing more with less,” as Badaracco said. Stockpiling has also made a comeback, she said.

Perennial drivers like health also continue to influence flavor and food trends. But unlike in the past, “health” now also includes mental health increasingly, Badaracco said.

“Cognitive function is a main focus for consumers due to stress and inflation. They’re seeking foods that help with focus, sleep, stress, depression.”

Obesity concerns have also returned to the forefront, she added. As consumers adjust to a new higher level of fear in their lives, their focus widens beyond just immune function and cognitive function.

Morning momentum

One of Webster’s favorite trends is the expansion of breakfast inspiration beyond traditional American or Mexican flavors. The US is seeing a real growth in Asian flavors, she said - specifically Japanese and Vietnamese, and Asian has been so incredibly influential in non-breakfast dayparts that it makes sense it's finally impacting the morning.

“But the flavors are so different from how US consumers have approached breakfast that I think it's going to really open up innovation possibilities in this daypart.”

Regionalism continues to play a big role in flavor and food trends, Webster said. People continue to travel more domestically than internationally, and when they visit other parts of the US, they increasingly want to try truly local cuisines.

“That includes increased interest in Native American cuisine and what that can mean to how we consider American food, and how that cuisine has helped shape regional offerings,” Webster said. “The same is true for Black Foodways, which really exploded during the unrest in 2020 but have maintained interest as the influence here is significant, particularly in specific regions.”

Another factor influencing which flavors and cuisines will be hot going forward is the phenomenon of “revenge spending,” which has been particularly influential in travel trends, Webster said.

Revenge spenders are those who are consciously spending more than they traditionally would in order to make up for lost time and lost vacations over the past two years.

“The same is true for food,” Webster said. “And it’s largely why this idea of extreme sensory experiences is part of what we're seeing with food trends. After two years of largely eating the same thing over and over, consumers are demanding foods that make them feel alive, that make up for lost food experiences, and remind them of what they love about food.”

Now Trending

  • Korean bbq
  • International bread – arepas
  • Regional sausage – chorizo, andouille
  • Seaweed
  • Grilled anything – cheese, fruit, meats, root vegetables
  • Regional desserts – Japanese cheesecake, Caribbean hummingbird cake, French joconde cake
  • Spicy combinations – with sweet and citrus
  • Salty combinations – also with sweet and citrus

Source: Culinary Tides