The primary function of taste has changed somewhat over the course of human existence, with our taste buds originally serving the function of protecting us from poisonous or rotten food.
The flavour detected would give us clues about whether certain foods were safe to eat or not, in turn aiding our survival. Over time though, taste has become less of a safeguard against potential hazards and more of a way to enjoy foods – and as such, a driver of global food trends.
With the support of industry figures, Food Manufacture takes a closer look at the role that our modern day understanding of taste plays in the development of new flavours within food and drink.
The flavour market
Flavours are used in a wide variety of food and drink products in the UK and around the world and they aren’t just influenced by our taste buds, but also smell and texture. Essentially, flavour is a combination of senses.
The UK Flavour Association, a membership organisation that represents the industry, defines flavourings as “ingredients that are added to foods in very small amounts” to either give a product a certain flavour, or replace a flavour lost during the manufacturing process.
They can be either natural or synthetic and are widely used in products across numerous categories, including bakery, confectionery, savoury sauces, dairy, soups, pasta and beverages.
Globally, Allied Market Research estimated the flavour market to be worth $12.7bn (£10bn) in 2020 and projects it to reach 20bn (£15.7bn) by the end of the decade. In the UK specifically, Mordor Intelligence predicts the flavour market to register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5% between 2023 and 2028.
What makes up a flavour?
The creation of new flavours is a regular occurrence on both a commercial and domestic basis, according to Carl Smith, head of innovations at I.T.S.
I.T.S., which stands for International Taste Solutions, is a firm that specialises in flavour, based in Newbury, Berkshire. The company produces flavours for the bakery, beverage and dairy markets, among others, and boasts customers including Nākd, Trek and Bakels.
When asked what defines a flavour, Smith, who has worked with I.T.S. for the past 11 years, told Food Manufacture that they can be found everywhere and are “created every day in kitchens” across the UK.
“The taste of food is only one part of its enjoyment though,” he added. “How food and drink look, smells, feels and even sounds is also all part of our sensory relationship with what we eat.”
As a result, a vast range of factors must be considered during the process of creating flavours for commercial food and drink manufacturing.
It’s often said that 80% of our taste is influenced by our sense of smell. However, the degree to which it impacts our taste is actually unknown, with a 2015 University of Oxford research paper concluding that while it does play a “dominant” role, its impact cannot be determined precisely.
Visual cues and texture are also important attributes, with Smith explaining that aesthetics and mouthfeel play a role in setting flavour expectations and even the experience of that flavour.
“As well as how food feels in the mouth, how food feels in the hand also adds to our sensory response to it,” he added. “The feel of packaging can also exert a similar influence over the consumer’s in-mouth experience.”
Lending her definition, Anne Baudron, flavourist at taste and nutrition firm Kerry Group, said that flavour is a “complicated” concept to describe due to the numerous attributes highlighted by Smith above.
Baudron explained that in order to understand a flavour, the aroma, mouthfeel and texture of a foodstuff can be chemically analysed so that the desired flavour can be replicated on a consistent basis.
“[Each attribute] needs to be analysed temporally in terms of how the flavour is perceived throughout the entire bite from start, middle to finish,” she said.
Baudron used plant-based burgers to exemplify the complexity of flavours, as replicating the “oil-based juiciness” of a traditional meat burger has been a challenge for producers. She noted the need to balance taste “through the first and subsequent bites”.
To achieve this, Kerry Group has developed a taste solution dubbed SucculencePB, which is also designed to help improve the nutritional profile of meat-free burgers.
The process of developing new flavours for the food and drink manufacturing industry is a very “market driven” process, Smith told Food Manufacture.
This means that staying on top of trends is critical for flavour producers, who need to be fast to adapt to behavioural changes.
“[At I.T.S.] we are lucky to have a very streamlined supply chain which means we can react quickly to changes in the market and ensure our customers are not impacted,” he continued. “Rather than waiting for an ingredient to become available or come down in price, a natural flavour can be introduced quickly to keep production on track.”
Due the broad range of uses for flavours, firms also need to understand the different challenges facing the food and drink manufacturing industry. The price of raw materials has seen significant increases in recent years and I.T.S. has adjusted accordingly by investing in natural flavours that can insulate its customers from poor crop yields and rising costs.
Flavours can be sweet, savoury, natural, artificial, liquid or powder and applied further down the supply chain in different ways, meaning that flavour creators need a level of guidance from the industry. Smith listed cost, compatibility, flavour strength and profile, and future usage as factors that always need consideration.
“Pure flavour creation without restriction is what flavourists love to do, as they can start with a blank sheet - there are literally thousands of aroma chemicals available to the flavourist to select from,” he explained.
“When asked to create a flavour, all good flavourists already have a starting point formulation in their minds.”
Meanwhile for the flavourists at Kerry, Baudron explained that the team has access to a comprehensive database of ingredients which helps support NPD. She also echoed Smith’s focus on natural ingredients, describing them as “the best place to start” as they allow flavourists to “analyse the chemical composition of the flavour and learn all you can about it”.
“[Access to information] is vital to developing flavours that consistently offer the same flavour intensity and depth,” she added.
One natural source of flavour that Kerry Group has focused in on is botanicals. According to a study by industry research firm Market.us, the global market for botanicals was valued at $107bn (£85bn) in 2022, with the beverages category showing particular growth.
Baudron said that many plant ingredients have been used for generations by people around the world, with her focus now on understanding how single flavours can be isolated and then reproduced at scale.
“It’s vital to develop [botanicals] sustainably so that we don’t exhaust the natural source,” Baudron continued. “Sustainability also means ensuring that source farmers are well compensated and that their farming community is supported for the long term.”
For Premier Foods, marketing director for flavours and seasonings, Mark Alldred, said that what the flavour will be paired with is another crucial part of the puzzle.
Looking at the creation of new gravy varieties for Bisto, Alldred explained that it’s very reliant on identifying the most appealing elements of the foods the sauce is looking to complement.
Using the Christmas edition ‘Pigs in Blankets Gravy’ as an example, he said that the team looked to incorporate the smoky bacon and herby sausage flavours during development in order to differentiate the gravy from more traditional formulations.
“Developing new innovations involves a lot of tasting along the way - both as a product on its own and as part of a meal,” he told Food Manufacture.
“This gives us a real understanding of how our gravy tastes and ensures that the final version works to bring a meal together, adding a flavour enhancement to the whole dish.”
Trends in the flavour industry
As Smith said, the flavour sector is a market driven segment, so keeping up with trends is essential for any flavour producer keen to appeal to manufacturers.
Mike Bagshaw, who founded I.T.S. out of his kitchen in 2009 and remains the owner to this day, is a keen observer of shifting preferences within the category. Asked for his assessment of the current flavour landscape, Bagshaw pointed to the premiumisation of a number of products, attributing this to the growing demand for high-quality, natural origin ingredients and a desire for indulgence.
“Consumers are interested in provenance, and this can bring added value to the marketing of finished yogurt, ice cream or desserts,” Bagshaw said.
“Increasingly, we are seeing premium named flavours such as Madagascan vanilla and wild strawberry too. An ingredient with a named variety is part of the premiumisation of all kinds of foods.”
Kerry Group has also noted the growing interest in the origins of ingredients among consumers, with this development a driving force behind the firm’s emphasis on ingredients from natural sources. Baudron described the “overwhelming demand for natural flavours” as perhaps the “the most important trend” within the market right now.
“The trend towards consumers demanding natural flavours is a long-term movement that is only going to accelerate,” she added. “Our Kerry consumer research constantly confirms this. It’s vital that food and beverage product developers work to make their flavour ingredients and products as natural as possible.”
Another important trend Baudron referenced was an increased focus on health. This has been perpetuated by Government policies, such as the sugar tax, leading to more research in reducing sugar and salt content.
However, Baudron warned that manufacturers and flavourists must continue to prioritise taste during the development of sugar and salt alternatives, or else they risk consumers looking elsewhere.
“Our recent Kerry global consumer research found that while consumers know that sugar presents long-term health challenges, they also love the sweet taste.
“If you reformulate to reduce sugar but then can’t replace sugar’s full flavour, you’re going to have a problem with your loyal consumers.
“Reducing sugar while building back sugar’s full taste of texture, mouthfeel and sweetness is a complex challenge that requires significant applications expertise from your ingredient supplier.”
Bagshaw echoed this assessment, highlighting the trend of incorporating popular sweet flavours into products that are marketed in a health conscious manner.
“A good example of ‘twisting the traditional’ is in the sports nutrition snacks space where we are seeing products that are low in sugar but high in protein or energy,” he said.
“They often feature the favours of classic English cakes or desserts such as sticky toffee, lemon drizzle, chocolate fudge brownie or blueberry muffin.”
The desire to reduce salt content is similarly dependent on being able to find that flavour from a new source. Baudron explained that as it impact the “whole formulation” of a product, there is no turnkey solution that works in all circumstances.
“It’s not about removing, adding an alternative and disguising any off notes – it requires a deep understanding of three core dimensions, taste, texture, and preservation,” she added.
“Sodium reduction presents a taste challenge due to the flavour benefits that salt provides. Reducing salt content means that flavour needs to be built back into the product.”
From the perspective of Premier Foods, there has been an increasing demand among consumers to try more bold and diverse flavours, with Alldred highlighting OXO’s new East Asian range as a response to this trend.
“East Asian meals have seen increased consumer appeal within at-home cooking, with Thai cuisine growing by 10% in the past six years,” he said.
“However, consumers often find it difficult to prepare these dishes - primarily due to lack of time and confidence in flavour pairings, and difficulty sourcing ingredients.”
Providing a twist on the traditional has also been central to Bisto’s approach as consumers look to update their Sunday lunch.
“Flavour is a key frustration for one fifth of those preparing roast meals and one third believe their dinner could be improved,” Alldred said.
Bisto has launched flavours such as ‘Lemon & Black Pepper’, ‘Roast Garlic and Herb’ and ‘Paprika & Sundried Tomato’ for chicken and ‘Rosemary & Garlic’ and ‘Sea Salt, Black Pepper & Onion’ for potatoes, in response.
None of these trends are guaranteed to stick around, while different areas of the food and drink manufacturing sector change at different rates. Nonetheless, an awareness of the evolving landscape is essential for anyone involved in the flavour business in a bid to keep products fresh and appealing.