International cuisine, less sweet desserts and colorful, functional ingredients are flourishing on menus, according to Mintel’s 2018 US Flavor Trends report. The company explores the foodservice flavor trends that are already hitting the mainstream, those that are just emerging and those poised for future growth in 2018 and beyond.
“Flavor is an ever-evolving art, ripe with opportunities for interpretation, innovation and creativity,” said Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at Mintel. “Today, that opportunity lies in the expansion of international flavors and ingredients, and in the years ahead, we predict the ingenuity of new dishes will come down to enhancing the chemistry of ingredients to create hearty masterpieces. The future of flavor also lies in creating healthy dishes without giving up satisfying taste.”
Read on for six flavor trends shaping the food service industry and one set to surge in the future:
Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients are becoming more familiar – and more desirable – to consumers, Mintel said. Sixty-six percent of US consumers are interested in Middle Eastern foods at restaurants, and growth of Middle Eastern cuisine on US restaurant menus grew 32 percent between 2015 and 2017.
Dates, a staple in Mediterranean fare, increased 19 percent as an ingredient in menu items from 2015-17, according to Mintel Menu Insights Dates also have been growing as a component of non-alcoholic beverages, Mintel said.
Another Middle Eastern cuisine ingredient, pistachios, grew 15 percent as a food ingredient and 2 percent as a food flavor between 2015-17.
Mint increased 48 percent as a non-alcoholic beverage ingredient from 2015-17, Mintel said, and 23 percent as an alcoholic beverage ingredient.
Tempering the sweetness
Savory and tart flavors increasingly are popping up on menus as a way to offset the sweetness in desserts and baked foods, Mintel said.
“As diners often aim to strike a balance between health and indulgence, desserts are paired with flavors that temper their overall level of sweetness,” Mintel said. “While they may sound odd on paper, flavors like olive oil and vinegar are growing specifically as dessert flavors.”
Olive oil as a flavor in desserts grew 16 percent between 2015 and 2017. Vinegar also has started to climb as a dessert flavor, Mintel said. Fifteen per cent of consumers said they are interested in bakery items featuring savory flavors, such as rosemary olive oil cakes from Los Angeles-based Osteria Mozza or Cheerwine vinegar pie from Comfort restaurant in Richmond, Virginia.
The desire to diminish food waste also has led to more tart flavors appearing in desserts to balance sweetness.
“Chefs are increasingly creating housemade vinegars from fruit and vegetable scraps, turning food waste into tart, flavorful elixirs that they add to salads, mains, and even desserts,” Mintel said.
Flavors such as lemon and passion fruit increased on menus 9 percent and 15 percent, respectively, Mintel said, and the two are some of the top growing flavors according to Mintel Menu Insights.
Colorful meets functional
Flavor ingredients that add both color and healthful appeal to dishes are growing in popularity on menus. Fifty-one percent of consumers are willing to try an unfamiliar ingredient if it provides a functional benefit, Mintel said, and color ups the appeal even more.
Ube, for example, is a purple yam that is popular in Filipino cuisine and lends antioxidants and vitamins to dishes. The ingredient adds a touch of purple to menu items, including desserts and beverages. For example, Warm Belly Bakery in Chicago offers an ube cookie with frosting and coconut flakes.
Black garlic, which often appears in ramen broth, adds antioxidants and a darker color to foods. The ingredient is making its way onto more menus, Mintel said, increasing 13 percent from 2015-17.
Sumac, a dried and powdered fruit of the Rhus coriaria plant, is used as a spice in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine that adds antioxidants, protein and a pop of reddish purple to dishes. Instances of sumac on menus grew 34 percent between 2015 and 2017, Mintel said.
Algae, which Mintel said is considered a superfood, adds antioxidants, protein and a green hue to foods and beverages. Nineteen percent of consumers said superfood claims encourage them to order a dish or drink from a restaurant. The smoothie chain Juice It Up! incorporates spirulina, a blue-green algae, into its Blue Vitality Smoothie Bowl.
“Expect to see more health-forward menu items that feature visually exciting flavors and ingredients to boost their appeal among diners,” Mintel said.
A medley of spices
Spice blends allow consumers to experience global flavors in a more familiar format, Mintel said. These blends may emerge from a variety of cuisines, including African, Middle Eastern, and Asian.
“Spice blends create an easy way for operators to introduce diners to new international cuisines in an approachable way, while letting chefs experiment with personalizing classic blends to reflect their vision and interpretation,” Mintel said. “While the components that make up each blend can differ, what remains constant is the sheer versatility of each spice blend with various foods.”
Berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend, combines spices such as ginger, basil, chili peppers and garlic. While traditionally used to season various ingredients in stews, such as beef, chicken, lentils and eggplant, berbere may be used in a range of applications. Cicchetti, a Mediterranean restaurant in Seattle, serves berbere fried chicken wings with turmeric aioli.
Ras el hanout, a spice mix from North Africa, typically includes spices such as cardamom, cumin and ginger. It appears on the menu at The Painted Lady in Newberg, Oregon, in the restaurant’s slow-roasted salmon. The blend has potential for growth, Mintel said, as 32 percent of consumers are interested in seeing more African seasonings in foods.
Togarashi is a common Japanese spice blend that is often included in soups and proteins. The ingredient has grown 9 percent on menus from 2015-2017, Mintel said.
“Spice blends in particular are an area of opportunity for brands as they can take some of the guesswork out of cooking,” said Caleb Bryant, senior food service analyst for Mintel.
Sauces and condiments also provide an approachable avenue for consumers to try new flavors. Twenty-two percent of US diners said they would be motivated to try an unfamiliar flavor if it is paired with a familiar format, Mintel said, and 28 percent of condiment shoppers said international varieties help them experiment with new cuisines.
Consumers are interested in seeing more international sauces and condiments in foods, Mintel said. Forty-nine percent said they would like to see more Indian flavors, 33 percent Middle Eastern flavors and 25 percent African flavors.
To appease those seeking Indian cuisine, restaurants may use Achaar. This Indian condiment is made by blending various pickled vegetables, spices and oils. Brooklyn Delhi embraces the flavor in its Tomato Achaar, a tomato relish made from local vegetables, fruits, spices and oil.
For consumers craving Middle Eastern cuisine, Muhammara or Toum may add international flair to a dish. Muhammara is a hot pepper dip common in Syrian and Turkish fare that combines peppers, walnuts, oil, breadcrumbs, lemon and various spices. Toum is a creamy dipping sauce popular in Lebanese cuisine that features salt, lemon juice, oil and garlic.
“As an appetizer, a dip or spread is shared among friends, meaning each diner signs up for just a taste of the dish – a low-risk proposition,” Mintel said. “A sauce or condiment served on a sandwich or with a protein, meanwhile, takes a familiar dish and adds a bit of interest, giving diners confidence in trying something new. It may not be surprising, then, that a range of international flavors, including those of the Middle East and Africa, have found their way into consumers’ consciousnesses through their inclusion in dips, spreads, and sauces.”