Elaine Watson reports on changing tastes, consumer trends and profit margins in the world of food flavourings
Talk about taste trends, and the question: 'What's the next big thing?' will inevitably rear its ugly head, says Andrew Sainsbury at flavours, seasonings and marinades supplier Taste Connection. "But there is no 'big thing' about to hit the market. Big trends in types of cuisine or cooking, for example, have got to be based on something solid over time, such as immigration, which has obviously driven a lot of development in ethnic food in the UK. But even then, each cuisine has developed in a very different way."
While Indian food has become more regionalised and upmarket with a drive for 'authenticity', for example, this hasn't happened with Chinese or Thai, he observes. "A couple of years ago everyone thought Thai was the next 'big thing'. It wasn't. We have red curry, green curry and sweet chilli sauce, and that's it. Caribbean cuisine is generating more interest now, but it hasn't branched out much beyond sauces yet."
While consumers may eventually tire of it, provenance "cheese from a small dairy, cider vinegar from a named mill" is still the key driver in flavour development, he says. However, if big brands want to tap into this trend and maintain credibility, they may have to create new tertiary brands that are seen as more niche, because going down the regional route on a big brand that has national or even international distribution can jar with consumers, he says. "Look at RedSky crisps. There is no reference to [brand owner] Walkers on the pack; which is deliberate."
Crisps are particularly fertile ground for the flavourist with an active imagination, he observes. "We've been working on quite unusual flavours such as vermouth and black olive." Limited editions can also provide a vehicle for firms to throw more unusual flavours at the market to see if they stick, he says, citing Tyrells' strawberry, sweet chilli and white wine crisps. "For some reason, consumers will try something new on a crisp. But they won't in ice cream, where manufacturers have been far less successful with unusual flavours. Things like garlic or florals actually work very well in ice cream, but they don't seem to sell."
Tomato and geranium
While 'superfruits' such as goji berries have not taken off in the flavours market with the speed many predicted, more traditional fruits such as rhubarb, rosehip and wild strawberry are returning to the fore, he adds. Meanwhile, florals such as geranium, lavender, rose and orange blossom, are also experiencing a renaissance: "We've been looking at tomato and geranium, which work very well together. Green lemon [a sweet-flavoured lemon with a pale lime green colour] and green sichuan pepper [a fragrant, woody, pepper with notes of citrus peel] have also attracted interest, which may be because anything with the word 'green' in it is sexy right now."
At Leatherhead Food Research, market research manager Chris Brockman predicts growth in chilli, green tea, cranberry, eucalyptus and ginseng, plus more activity in herbals and botanicals. Spices especially cinnamon will also appear in more snacks and confectionery, while fruits will continue to give dark chocolate a more premium, 'healthy' image, he says.
Bold combinations such as chilli and lime work well in confectionery, says Adrian Simpkin, md of Sheffield-based sweets manufacturer Simpkins. Caramint, passion fruit and cranberry are also doing well, he says. "We're also seeing strong interest in botanicals. We've had a lot of requests from the US for lavender, rose and camomile."
Consultant Danny Hodrien says tea is "very in", while Harry Renes, vice president, global flavour technology at Givaudan, predicts growth in subtle, delicate flavours from Asia Pacific and Japan, and more 'East meets West' fusions.
Chilli, ginger and pepper will feature more strongly, predicts Ori Yehudai, chief executive at Israeli flavours giant Frutarom. "But we also have a strong pipeline of activity in pomegranate, blueberry, and other fruits."
Ian Tinson is business development manager at Thew Arnott, which has just struck a deal to become the UK and Ireland distributor for Italian flavours firm L'Italiana Aromi. The firm has particular expertise in botanicals, but is also doing exciting work with other natural ingredients such as a new soluble extract of the African baobab fruit, says Tinson. Regarding trends, mint, dandelion, ginger, juniper, marigold and rosemary are becoming more popular, he says, while there could also be growth in camomile or other 'relaxing' ingredients as punters seek to calm down and de-stress.
As for ready meals, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern, Caribbean and North African cuisine are potential growth areas, along with 'fusion cuisine' (Chinese/Indian, Creole/African and American/Mexican), according to market researcher RTS Resource. Spice blends such as Berbere and Ras-el-hanout, and ingredients such as sumac, juniper, smoked paprika and tobacco-infusions will also become more widely used, it predicts.
While the recession has impacted the flavours market, says Steve Morgan, md, Synergy Europe and Asia, things started to pick up again in late 2009/early 2010. "We saw a noticeable drop-off in the number of briefs, but they're coming back." Frutarom also saw de-stocking and an emphasis on "cost reduction instead of ground-breaking NPD" in 2009, but says confidence is returning to the market.
That said, relentless value-engineering has taken its toll on the flavour profile of some products, claims Hodrien. "The flavour quality of even mainstream branded products is not what it used to be; you can taste the difference."
While margins have been under extreme pressure, however, the momentum towards all things natural has proved "unstoppable", although the sustainability of this trend is a moot point, he adds: "When land is scarce, is it right to use it to grow several tonnes of plants to get a few grams of a flavouring substance?"
In the case of natural vanillin, which is extracted from the seed pods of an orchid, shortages have already prompted the industry to explore alternative 'natural' sources such as rice bran or even cow dung. There is also pressure to process more natural flavours at source instead of transporting heavy fruits thousands of miles away for processing, says Dr Gerhard Krammer, senior vice president, global flavour innovations at Symrise, which opened a new citrus facility in Brazil in 2008.
At Firmenich, meanwhile, corporate vice president, flavours, Aldo Uva, says flavour suppliers will have to "drastically" rethink their supply chains for commercial and environmental reasons. "We must regionalise our supply chains. Globalisation is an old concept. We have to get closer to market in terms of sourcing raw materials, research and development and applications without losing the synergies of being a large group. We also have to restructure to meet demand for natural ingredients, find ways to extract them more efficiently and increase yields." And preparation is everything, he says. "Look at coffee, 20 years ago, Vietnam was not even on the radar. Now it's a leading grower of Robusta."
In future, the flavours industry would have to adapt to a climate where retail prices would not go up and the rate of new product development slowed, he predicted. "If we are going to maintain margins and invest in R&D, we've got to reinvent ourselves, rethink our flavour production processes and our supply chains."
Flavour houses will also have to change their relationships with customers, he says: "We have to be more proactive, to anticipate consumer needs, pitch to our customers and maximise resources on both sides. If yesterday, we were accepting 100 briefs, tomorrow, we will have to tell our customers, '20 of these won't work, let's focus on the ones that will'. "
So where are the biggest growth opportunities in the next 12-18 months and how can smaller firms punch above their weight in a market dominated by the multinationals? At Synergy, which has generated double-digit growth throughout the recession, sports nutrition is one opportunity, says Morgan, who works closely with parent company and whey protein-maker Carbery. "There is much more emphasis now on creating better flavour profiles in sports nutrition, which is where we come in."
Frutarom, meanwhile, has helped customers deal with soaring raw material prices by launching cocoa enhancers and natural honey replacers.
The pressure to reduce salt, fat, sugar and monosodium glutamate and include more functional ingredients has also created opportunities for flavourists, who have responded with an array of innovative solutions from salt and sugar flavour enhancers, to bitter blockers to mask off notes from intense sweeteners and botanicals.
Frutarom again has also done a lot of work on flavours that can give extra complexity and creaminess to low-fat products and 'fat enhancers' to enhance their mouthfeel. "Fat is a good flavour binder, sugar is an excellent flavour carrier and salt can enhance aroma as its presence can shift the equilibrium of flavour molecules more to the headspace," explains Hodrien. Reduce any of them and the perception of other flavours in your recipe will also change, says Renes at Givaudan, which has developed software to calculate how reducing fat impacts flavour. "Cut it more than 10-20% and you get an enormous drop in quality. Reduce sugar and your juicy orange flavour will taste flat and watery."
Tools of the trade
The world's biggest flavour companies are "on an equal footing" when it comes to flavour analysis and sensory science, claims Krammer. Where they will distinguish themselves, he says, "is at the interface between the two". For example, tools such as gas chromatography mass spectrometry can identify the components that make up a 'flavour fingerprint'. But they don't tell you which ones are key to delivering that flavour.
However, programmes such as Symrise's LC-Taste, which combines instrumental analysis and sensory tasting, are helping flavourists pinpoint which molecules matter, claims Symrise, which has also developed SymStixx: a glass probe covered in a polymer that absorbs different molecules when placed into food. These are then analysed and compared with compounds in Symrise's database. "We can stick it into a new dish, take it back to the lab and replicate the complex flavour profile of a finished dish in record time," says Krammer.
As for flavour design, Givaudan has created tools such as the Virtual Aroma Synthesizer, which enables it to test and refine a vast array of aromas in minutes, tweaking formulations and 'smelling the difference in real time'. Its Taste Trek initiative in which globetrotting teams take aroma samples from fruits and plants and then analyse them in the lab in order to recreate them for commercial use is also generating exciting results.
Owing to developments in molecular biology and genomics helping scientists identify receptors in the nose and tongue and how they communicate with the brain, our understanding of flavour perception has grown significantly in the last decade. Senomyx (p35), meanwhile, has pioneered high-throughput screening to evaluate millions of molecules to identify which ones bind to which receptors. "This efficiency is impossible using conventional discovery methods," it claims. "We've identified 100s of unique potential flavour ingredients that could not be discovered using taste tests alone."
But more work must be done to correlate receptor-based work with sensory testing, argues Harry Renes at Givaudan. "Knowing a signal is being sent from a receptor to the brain is one thing, but what is the quality of that signal? The way taste and aroma work together is the big unknown, along with those molecules in between taste and aroma that are generated by food processing. They can be the difference between listening to a CD in your room and being live in the concert hall."
The flavours market
The big guns (Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise) account for a whopping 70% of the global flavours market which is growing at a steady 2-3% a year. But there is still scope for more consolidation, predicts Frutarom: "Some will be driven by firms looking to buy market share and drive efficiency and some by big firms looking to buy technology from smaller companies." Symrise predicts that "supply chain and sourcing capabilities for natural ingredients" will also drive consolidation.
But smaller players have still managed to grab a slice of the action. Create Flavours, a minnow in a shark pond that md Jonathan Jones says "probably shouldn't exist", grew by 30% in 2009 thanks to "rapid lead times and no minimum order quantities. We're filling a gap in a market that is not very well served by the multinational flavour companies".