The gamut of emotions we’ve experienced these past two pandemic years—anxiety, sadness, and more—continues as COVID-19 lingers. In the meantime, we’re seeking things that make us feel better—food included. If you’ve found yourself more often than not stressed and reaching for a salty snack, you are not alone.1 The same goes for sweets that comfort us during crisis.2 These feelings will continue driving our choices with force in 2022, strengthening macro-trends that have been developing for years.
These days, many consumers are overwhelmingly driven by a desire to feel healthy. “One of the leading themes shaping food and beverage trends for the coming year is consumers’ desire to nourish their whole selves,” declares Jennifer Zhou, senior director of product marketing, North America, ADM (Chicago). “People are increasingly connecting what they eat to how they feel, and many are taking a proactive approach to their holistic health and wellness.” Also, she adds, “Because self-care is innately individual, we see a variety of subtrends coming into focus as certain flavor profiles rise to the top.”
Let’s take a look.
Comfort comes in many forms. For some, it means surrounding oneself with the familiar; for others, it’s full-on indulgence. These days, the need for comfort is great. Says Zhou: “Extended periods of heightened stress and uncertainty have more people turning to comfort foods with familiar flavors as well as products that cue relaxation through signaling flavors.”
Derek Holthaus, director of innovation and solutions, FlavorSum LLC (Kalamazoo, MI), agrees. “As the world continues to feel the stress-related impacts of COVID-19, we predict consumers will look to their favorite, classic flavors for a feeling of nostalgia and comfort. Mintel reports that 71% of U.S. consumers enjoy things that remind them of their past, and we believe flavors can play a big role here.”
Familiar favorites for 2022 include Fresh Strawberry, Chocolate Fudge, Cotton Candy, Vanilla Ice Cream, Tart Raspberry, and Orange Creamsicle, says Brooke Rosenthal, product strategic manager, flavors, Glanbia Nutritionals (Chicago). Rosenthal adds: “The world has been in a constant state of change, so food and beverages that provide a sense of comfort and familiarity are top of mind. We expect to see this trend continue into 2022.”
Even a flavor as common as vanilla has legs, says Alexandre Massumoto, marketing specialist, Synergy Flavors Inc. (Wauconda, IL). “2022 will be the year of familiar, and value will be essential for many U.S. consumers as we transition to this next phase of the pandemic in 2022,” he says. “With the economic experts predicting inflation and price increases, brands already started to prioritize core product lines and flavors that can offer consumers that familiarity, and vanilla meets all the requirements: a flavor that consumers simply love, and with the dropping price will also fit in [the budget of consumers who] want the great taste and label opportunities that vanilla extract can offer.”
Sweets remain a frontrunner in the comfort category, as anyone who’s reached for a tub of ice cream in times of strife can attest. “Consumers have not let go of comfort foods and snackable treats,” reports Comax Flavors (Melville, NY) in its 2022 Flavor Trends report. The company cites a 2020 survey3 conducted by OnePoll for food brand Farm Rich that found that two out of three Americans that year said they had consumed more comfort food since the start of the pandemic. “We know sweet goods such as ice cream, donuts, and cupcakes offer nostalgia and comfort,” added Catherine Armstrong, Comax Flavors’ vice president of corporate communications, in the company’s press release. Comax created its new Sweet Decadence flavor line encompassing such offerings as Cannoli Donut, Salted Caramel Brownie Cupcake, and Vanilla Bean Mochi for use in baked goods, nutrition bars, confections, syrups, dairy and non-dairy plant-based items, as well as non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks.
ADM’s Zhou points to other popular flavors such as Peppermint Mocha, Caramel Apple, and Smoked Butterscotch. Familiar savory flavors, such as Cheddar Cheese and Dill Pickle, can also be comforting, she adds.
The trick in 2022 is that these flavors will “evoke memories of favorite dishes” but be “reimagined in new formats,” Zhou predicts.
Even a classic like Cookies ’n Cream can be reimagined. Megan Byrnes, marketing manager, Gold Coast Ingredients (Commerce, CA), says, “In 2021, one of consumers’ favorite flavors, Cookies ’n Cream, became even more popular. Cookies ’n Cream flooded the food and beverage industries with new flavor pairings, including Mint Cookies ’n Cream, Coffee Cookies ’n Cream, Red Velvet Cookies ’n Cream, and Caramel Cookies ’n Cream. While the trend continues upwards, we predict to see more Cookies, Cream, ’n Things in 2022.”
Seasonal flavors can also be revamped. One of the trends Flavorchem (Downers Grove, IL) highlights in its 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast is “Novel Seasonal Twists.” The company reports: “Seasonal flavors are often tied to comfort, indulgence, and reminiscent memories, with opportunity for brands to expand upon well-known flavors and categories.” It predicts that “the next big trend in seasonal food and drink will feature upscale twists on classic flavors like Maple, Peppermint, and Watermelon that offer consumers both familiarity and a novel eating experience.” Many will be offered as limited editions, upping the novelty factor.
These “new” flavors let consumers stay close to the recognizable while still branching out. “The need for familiarity is still underlying, but taking a step or two out of a flavor comfort zone seems to be the sweet spot,” says Glanbia’s Rosenthal. “The balance of nostalgia and newness has taken classic flavors that are known and loved and elevated them with a unique twist. These flavors peak consumer interest while still having some element of comfort that provides a sense of safe adventure when experiencing a food or beverage.” Inventive examples include Chili Chocolate, Brown Butter Caramel, Bourbon Vanilla, Blood Orange, Cotton Candy Grape, Brandied Banana, and Salted Crème Brulee, she says.
Rebecca Davis, flavor scientist at FlavorSum, advises, “When you have a hesitant consumer unwilling to try new flavors, one way to entice them can be to incorporate the new with the old and familiar. We’re expecting to see continued growth of new tastes like botanicals, but with a tinge of the familiar. According to Mintel’s report4 ‘Embrace Flavors for Thrifty Consumers,’ 41% of U.S. consumers are interested in trying new flavors that are similar to their favorites.”
“Tastes that offer novelty, indulgence, and health benefits are set to drive consumer preference in 2022,” agrees Soumya Nair, global consumer research and insights director, Kerry (Beloit, WI). “Trends that were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic have developed and will become more sophisticated in 2022, with consumers seeking new tastes paired with familiar formats and flavors—leading to surprising new combinations. We will likely see mainstream flavors combined with emerging tastes, like Milk Chocolate infused with Chili Crisp or Tahini.”
Some seek the familiar, while others crave new experiences. Faced with renewed lockdowns and limited travel prospects, consumers are aching to break out of their routines—even if vicariously through food and drink. Sampling flavors from far-off places—all from the safety of home—is a good place to start.
“The pandemic has given many consumers the time and resources to explore ways that they can recreate their favorite food and beverage experiences from their home,” says Synergy Flavors’ Massumoto. “As we look ahead to a post-pandemic future, there is a whole world out there for consumers to rediscover. Consumers’ newfound love of premium beverages, world cuisines, and exciting flavors will drive a new wave of more exciting adventures to come,” he predicts.
And enjoyment. Says Kerry’s Nair, “A desire for authentic flavors is driven by an interest in wellness and health following the COVID-19 pandemic, while cravings for more novel flavors such as Tahini and Chili Crisp is led by consumers seeking adventure, surprise, and fun from their food and beverages.” She adds, “Restrictions around movement have also led to consumers traveling the world through their tastebuds, with Asian and Latin American flavors set to make a bold comeback in emerging foods and drinks.”
Massumoto says international flavors expected to grow more popular include Yuzu, Hibiscus, Tiramisu, and Speculoos. In addition, “We can expect new and emerging exotic flavors to rise in popularity in the new year inspired by Japan, Korea, the Mediterranean, and Latin America, such as Bergamot, Ume Plum, Banoffee, Hojicha, Sansho, Habanero Chili, and Ancho.”
Likewise, says FlavorSum’s Davis, “With our world so virtually connected, we’re seeing an influx of flavors inspired by global trends, and we anticipate this trend will continue in 2022. Flavors such as Yuzu, Sriracha, and Ube are becoming more mainstream, and food and beverage manufacturers are following suit.”
Fusion flavors will see more demand, predicts ADM’s Zhou. “With ongoing travel restrictions, consumers are eager to discover new flavors and revisit past flavor journeys. This trend took off in 2021 with an emphasis on exploring global and ethnic taste profiles. In 2022, a resurgence of fusion-cuisines will open up opportunities to mix favorite and familiar ethnic food flavors, regardless of geographic boundaries. A reinvented throwback to the 1990s fusion-cuisine trend, today’s consumers will be excited to experience complementary flavors through a mashup of cultures like Mexican-Korean burritos, Chinese-Peruvian bao buns, Greek quesadillas, or Banh Mi pizza. Instead of having to choose their favorite fare, consumers can experience the best of both worlds and taste the harmony and diversity of merging cultural cuisine.”
“Travel Through Taste” is also a top trend predicted by Flavorchem. The company’s 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast notes, “Many of the fastest-growing international flavors on menus come from sauces, seasonings, appetizers, and beverages.” It predicts that in 2022, “indulgent global flavors” will continue making their way into other categories, like snacks and bakery—flavors such as Dragon Fruit, Elote, Gochujang, Horchata, Sriracha, and Wasabi, and trending regions including Asia, Central America, and the Middle East.
Flavors perceived as healthy have performed strongly during the pandemic. Kerry’s Nair says that “with an increasing focus on gut health, immune support, and emotional wellbeing, consumers are looking for better-for-you food and beverages that make them feel like they are taking an active role in their future health—but also taste great.” Emerging flavors like Saffron, Sage, and Cardamom are the result, according to Kerry’s Global Taste Charts for 2022, which identify “key, mainstream, up-and-coming, and emerging” flavors “that are set to inspire innovation across the food and beverage landscape in countries in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa over the coming year.”
Immune support is, no surprise, a key selling point these days. “With the current state of the world, there’s…been an increased focus on healthier choices and products that are associated with immunity,” Glanbia’s Rosenthal says. “This trend has spilled into flavors, and we will continue to see popularity around flavors that are close to nature and that pair well with immune-boosting ingredients.”
FlavorSum’s Holthaus agrees. “Consumers are prioritizing their health more than ever because of COVID-19. Mintel reported that 43% of consumers agree that healthfulness is having a stronger influence on food choices since the pandemic,” he says. “This is a consumer priority we don’t anticipate going away in 2022, and flavors can play a role here. We expect to see an increase in flavors associated with immunity, such as citrus flavors that naturally offer vitamin C and antioxidants.”
Indeed, “Health-signaling citrus fruit flavors and ingredients will evolve from consumers’ interest in immune-boosting food and beverage products during the pandemic,” states Flavorchem’s 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast.
Flavor supplier Döehler GmbH (Darmstadt, Germany) also sees the growing citrus trend, citing Euromonitor market data. “From sweet to sour, from bitter to ripe—today, citrus fruits are the most popular among consumers and the most widely cultivated worldwide,” Döehler tells Nutritional Outlook. “Fruits such as Orange, Lemon, and Lime are especially demanded for flavored bottled water (which has a 4.1% global CAGR forecasted through 2025) and energy drinks (which have a 5.1% global CAGR forecasted through 2025).”
Citrus varieties are becoming more sophisticated, too. Flavorchem notes that “Exotic citrus flavors like Yuzu, Blood Orange, Kumquat, and Tangerine will feature more unique flavor profiles in the year ahead.”
Gold Coast Ingredients’ Byrnes expects to see some modern lemon flavors take hold. “In 2022, look out for new variations of refreshing lemonade flavors,” she predicts. “Pink Lemonade, Strawberry Lemonade, and Raspberry Lemonade have become staple flavors in the nutraceutical industry, and in 2021 we saw Mango Lemonade rise in popularity. At Gold Coast, we foresee additional mixed lemonade flavors hitting the market, like Kiwi Lemonade, Blueberry Lemonade, and Guava Lemonade.”
Pineapple is another rising favorite, and there’s room to play here as well. “Pineapple flavor also took on a new popularity in 2021, especially in the nutraceutical industry,” Byrnes reports. “From its increasing demand, we predict companies will innovate their products with pineapple-fusion flavors in 2022 with trending flavors such as Pineapple Whip, Pineapple Guava, Pineapple Passion Fruit, Pineapple Mango, and Pineapple Orange.”
Lemon Cheesecake is another citrus flavor to watch, she adds. “Lemon Cheesecake flavor has been making its way into protein powders and nutrition bars, satisfying taste buds with its tart yet indulgent flavor profile.”
Look for fruity combos in 2022, says Synergy Flavors’ Massumoto, especially in drinks. “Flavor exploration was deeply affected during the pandemic, as it made it more challenging for consumers to go to restaurants and bars, which are key venues for trying new flavors and varieties. As consumers resume pre-pandemic habits, variety and a wide range of flavors will return to be an important factor for purchasing,” he says, “and the strongest consumer interest, especially in beverages, is in the fruit family, with citrus, berry, and tropical as the top three most widely sought flavors, according to Mintel. Brands have been exploring fruit flavor combinations to offer innovation around the flavor category, using a more well-known profile such as Strawberry paired with an upcoming one like Dragon Fruit, as an example. Strawberry Lemon, Blood Orange Grapefruit, Watermelon Lime, Raspberry Cranberry, and Peach Passionfruit are some of the most expected flavor combinations to see in 2022.”
Flavorchem expects citrus flavors like Blood Orange, Calamansi Lime, Kumquat, Key Lime, Tangerine, and Yuzu to do well. “The pandemic prompted increased citrus consumption as food and beverage launches featuring both a citrus flavor and an immune health claim grew 21% from 2018-2021,” the company’s 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast adds, citing stats from Mintel’s Global New Product Database.
Mental health is also a critical area of wellness that more people are prioritizing. These consumers might turn to relaxing botanicals and florals like Lavender, Chamomile, and Jasmine. “We’ll see these nostalgic and comforting flavor profiles pop up across many categories and applications, from hot beverages, salty snacks, protein shakes, and frozen treats to confections with functional ingredients like postbiotics, guarana, and vitamin C,” ADM’s Zhou predicts.
Glanbia’s Rosenthal also sees growth in Lavender as a flavor, alongside fruity and immunity-boosting ingredients like Elderberry, Honey, Lemon, Orange, Peach Mango, Mango Yuzu, Triple Berry, and Grapefruit.
Gut health is also trending. “Once on the fringe, gut and digestive health are now mainstream,” reports Comax Flavors in its 2022 Flavor Trends report. As consumer interest in digestive health ingredients like probiotics, prebiotics, and postbiotics grows, so will their interest in flavors that pair well with these ingredients. Comax created its Trust Your Gut flavor collection comprising Apple Cinnamon Oat, Lavender Cola, and Peach Ginger to appeal to the microbiome-friendly food and drink market. These flavors can be used in non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, beverage syrups, plant-based and dairy applications, baked goods, and confections, as well as in nutrition and performance products.
Ginger will be a leading flavor this year, say ADM’s Zhou and Glanbia’s Rosenthal. “We anticipate ginger will be a standout flavor in 2022, with the versatility to add its spicy and heat-inducing notes to a number of applications, such as classic cocktails, energy drinks, and baked goods,” Zhou says. “Moreover, ginger pairs well with offerings that consumers may associate with support of gut health or immune function.”
Meanwhile, Flavorchem’s forecast predicts gut-friendly fermented foods and flavors like kombucha and kefir to grow this year.
In addition to their own health, consumers are considering environmental health when choosing foods, beverages, and flavors.
“Today’s conscientious consumers are more attentive to the environmental impact of their consumption and the global food system overall, which has intensified the desire for products that they believe are good for themselves, their communities, and the planet,” says ADM’s Zhou. “More sustainable, plant-based ingredients are inspiring new applications for botanical, floral, and fresh fruit flavors.” As an added boon, she notes, “Many of these flavors can also signal to consumers that the food or beverage may contain desired functional ingredients, such as citrus linking with ingredients for immune support, chamomile and relaxation, and green tea flavor and mental acuity.”
Consumers associate earthy flavors with healthfulness, Glanbia’s Rosenthal agrees. “With consumers increasingly focused on healthier choices, there’s a greater interest in ingredients that are close to nature,” she says. “These are often viewed as having a healthy halo and continue to drive interest in the natural space.” Her suggestions include botanical, herb, fruit, and spice flavors such as Lemongrass, Rose, Basil, Mint, Blueberry, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Lime, Dragon Fruit, and Ginger.
“Almost one in four U.S. consumers say they’re eating more earthy flavors compared to last year,” adds FlavorSum’s Holthaus. “We envision flavors like mushrooms and more bitter botanicals like rosemary gaining momentum.”
Flavorchem’s 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast also acknowledges the “Shroom Boom” happening with mushrooms, especially with Cordyceps, Lion’s Mane, Maitake, Reishi, and Shiitake. “Mushrooms will emerge further in the adaptogenic space as consumers continue to seek out products that mitigate stress and anxiety,” it adds.
Sensient Flavors & Extracts (Hoffman Estates, IL) highlights one trending plant flavor in particular. “Douglas Fir has immediate olfactory connection with the outdoors and nature,” says Sydney Riethman, marketing specialist at the firm. “With screen use on the rise and consumers avoiding large gatherings and missing personal connection, many of us are turning to the adventures and experiences of the outdoors to fulfill a desire for connection. This flavor has a deep connection to the forests and outdoors, and resonates as a flavor that is fresh, earthy, and has a very natural connotation that health- and natural-focused consumers are looking for.”
Luckily for formulators, this fresh yet earthy flavor is versatile and can be used in everything from beverages and dips to seasonings, bakery, and confectionery. “Its botanical and earthy elements also pair well with fruity, citrusy, and nutty flavor elements, making it diverse and flexible to work with,” Riethman says.
Douglas Fir also provides that important emotional appeal “that consumers can connect with and appreciate right now as they continue to reconnect with themselves and one another through the experiences of the outdoors.”
On the plant front, flavor firm Döehler highlights Citrus Oak and Juniper. This is in line with consumers’ growing desire that their food and drinks be “as natural as possible, ideally positioned as clean label,” the firm says. In addition, tea and botanical flavors, extracts, and distillates are extremely popular in beverages such as flavored bottled water, ready-to-drink teas, and alcoholic drinks, Döehler says
Less Is More
Another aspect of health is cutting back on the unhealthy, including excess sugar and alcohol.
With non-alcoholic beverages and spirits trending, beer, hop, and malt flavor promise good growth in these products, Döehler says. For non-alcoholic spirits, the company says that flavors ranging from fresh, natural fruit notes to complex and intense aromas, herbs, and spices are in demand. “Flavors that provide the taste of Gin, Juniper, Bitter Orange, Whisky, Vermouth, and Rum are popular,” it reports.
Flavorchem’s 2022 Flavor & Trend Forecast also cites rising non-alcoholic drink flavors. Bolder flavors as well as botanical blends are ramping up, including Cucumber Mojito, Lemon Lime, Mango Lychee, Passionfruit Hibiscus, Pina Colada, Prickly Pear, and Red Grapefruit.
Consumers also want sugar reduction, but without sacrificing taste. “With sugar taxes having been implemented in more than 46 countries worldwide, and 87% of consumers trying to consume less sugar, the topic is top of mind, but without any compromise in taste,” Döehler says. “At the same time, the sugar content for beverages has been reduced in recent years anyway, which means that consumers expect products that are less sweet. Both factors—sugar reduction and the trend for products that are less sweet—make taste modulation a big trend for 2022.”
“These solutions combine full indulgence with a clean conscience—be it reduced-sugar stevia cola, a sports drink with the sweetness of fruits, or a sugar-free dessert,” the company adds. “They are suitable for ever more emerging claims such as ‘free from sugar,’ ‘sugar reduced,’ and ‘no added sugar.’”
Put Some Spice In It
Finally, remember that consumers aren’t shying away from spicy.
“Products with spicy flavors have been increasingly popular over the past few years, with a 16.5% increase in launches from 2017-2020 in the U.S., according to Mintel,” says FlavorSum’s Davis. “In 2022, we see formulators keeping up with this trend but adding a twist with sweetness to balance the eating experience.”
Sensient’s Riethman highlights one lesser-known but promising flavor: Yaji. Described as a nutty, spicy, smoky flavor with hints of onion and garlic, this flavor has room to grow, she says.
“This is a flavor that is new and unfamiliar, yet all the notes and tonalities within it feel and taste familiar,” Riethman says. “With hints of chili, paprika, cayenne, ginger, garlic, onion, and peanut, it is the perfect savory, umami flavor that can be implemented as a flavor or seasoning for snacks, meats, vegetables, and more. This flavor’s versatility and uniqueness will make it a trending flavor, as it is easy to implement in almost all savory foods, and it also provides an adventurous, unique, and exciting element to those who are looking to try something new.”
In general, she says, “Consumer interest in spice is on the rise as they search for flavors that can provide great heat and taste. Yaji has a subtle kick, with multiple savory notes, making it the perfect candidate for those looking for unfamiliar heat and flavor.”
Lots to Look Forward to
Food and beverage companies have an eager audience waiting to be delighted, comforted, and bolstered by healthier, natural products. Keeping flavors in line with the emotional needs of today’s consumers, in such difficult times, will be key to driving success for any brand.
The right flavor can also elevate a product or brand, says Riethman. “Botanical, floral, and herbal flavors and elements are on the rise and can premiumize food and beverages. These flavor elements are perceived as exotic, rare, healthy, and natural. Consumers are craving this after experiencing canceled travel plans, a lack of worldly experiences, and an increased interest in healthy, better-for-you flavors in the food and beverage space. We can expect to see this flavor trend through 2022. As the pandemic continues, consumers’ gatherings, experiences, and travel are limited, and they will continue to look for flavors that are new, exciting, premiumized, and tied to elements that they can enjoy at this moment in time.”
FlavorSum’s Holthaus has some final advice: Don’t be afraid to simplify. “The pandemic has forced consumers to think not just about their physical wellbeing, but their financial health, too. With 40% of consumers choosing ingredients that they can use in a variety of ways to save money (Mintel data), we anticipate versatile, simplified flavors will see growth.”
- Torres SJ et al. “Does stress induce salt intake?” The British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 103, no. 11 (June 2010): 1562-1568
- Noel C et al. “The effect of emotional state on taste perception.” Appetite, vol. 95, no. 1 (December 2015): 89-95
- Press release. “2020: The Year of the Comfort Food Comeback.” Farm Rich website. Posted September 17, 2020
- Mattucci S. “Embrace Simple Flavors for Thrifty Consumers.” Mintel blog. Posted November 17, 2021.