Dull colors and blah flavors are a thing of the past. Consumers are favoring good-for-you fare with unique flavors from around the world and colors that pop. Of course, taste and mouthfeel remain as important as ever as the wellness category evolves. What are consumers looking for now? WholeFoods Magazine consulted industry professionals, who spotlighted the following trends: 

1) Return to Nature 

“The main trend in sweeteners is ‘the return to nature,’” says Udi Alroy, CEO and Co-Founder, Carobway. “Artificial sweeteners are losing popularity, and they have recently received unfavorable media coverage. Both food manufacturers and consumers are looking back—and ahead—to new all-natural sources of sugar, as well as colors and flavors sourced by Mother Nature.”

Seconding that: “We see several compounding trends occurring in flavors and colors, including an overarching industry shift from artificial and synthetic ingredients to those derived from natural sources, as well as consumers’ increasing interest in expressing themselves through their food and beverage choices,” says Jennifer Zhou, Global Director Product Marketing, Flavors, ADM. “Both of these factors are driving innovation in flavors and colors.”       

The word “natural” is of top importance for consumers. As Itzel Rincon, NPI and Sales Manager, Americas, Chaucer Foods, explains: “Global consumers continue to demand delicious and exciting products while wanting to maintain their personal health and wellness goals. As a result, we’ve seen trends around natural, nutritious, and traceable. The food brands that can amplify their offerings with new flavors, colors, and sweeteners without using artificial sweeteners are going to see greater success across all fast-growing food and beverage markets. We’re already seeing formulators become more creative with their innovations by using natural and healthy ingredients consumers can trust. The overall interest in more natural, nutrient-rich, and traceable ingredients is the most impactful factor driving innovation within this space.”

2) Clean Label 

Another top trend: clean ingredients. “One of the biggest drivers of innovation we’re seeing play out in the industry is desire for a ‘clean label,’” shares Joan Harvey, Senior Vice President & Commercial General Manager, Bell Flavors & Fragrances. “Over the past few years, consumers have increasingly come to demand products made from natural and minimally processed ingredients without artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors.” Harvey reports that consumer interest is currently at an all-time high, with 64% of U.S. adults looking to choose foods made from clean ingredients, according to the International Food Information Council. What’s more, 20% of consumers regularly purchase foods and beverages advertised on the label as having clean ingredients, according to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

“When it comes to flavors, colors, and sweeteners, the biggest trend across all three is clean label,” says Leslie Gallo, President, Artemis International. “Within the sweetener space, I’m seeing an increased move toward organic and so-called ‘brown sweeteners,’ made from maple, molasses, and raw sugars. Again, the need for clean label is key.”

3) Sustainability

This is key in colors: “Sustainability is another important topic in the food coloring sector just as it is for all ingredient companies,” says Alice Lee, Technical Marketing Manager, GNT USA. “Consumers are becoming much more conscious about how their products are made and whether they’re good for people and planet. We’re committed to becoming the leaders on sustainability in the food coloring industry, so we can optimize our environmental and social impacts and ensure the company is fit for future generations.”

As well as in flavors: “Consumer desire to live a healthier lifestyle, coupled with environmental and sustainability concerns, plus allergens and dietary restrictions, is helping to drive the uptick in organic flavors utilization within the food and beverage industry. Organic flavors are those derived from ‘organic’ sources, meaning they are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and other synthetic additives,” says Joan Harvey, Senior Vice President & Commercial General Manager, Flavors.

And also in sweeteners: Alroy touts, “The CarobWay sweetening solution, backed by scientific in vitro studies, demonstrates a variety of benefits and meeting the high bar of requirements: a 100% natural, 90% sugar replacer (mainly glucose), made from a sustainable and highly resilient plant, among advantages.”

4) Reduced Sugar 

Markedly, our research shows that eight in 10 U.S. adults are actively engaged in sugar reduction (1),” reports Sarah Diedrich, Marketing Director, Global Sweetening & Texturizing, ADM. “Further, we find that as people prioritize their overall well-being, more consumers are monitoring their blood glucose levels. In a recent proprietary survey, 57% of U.S. consumers claimed they are taking specific actions to manage their blood sugar (2). Our research also finds that 70% of consumers are looking to add more low-sugar products to their diet (2).

“At the same time,” Diedrich continues, “wellness-minded shoppers are not willing to sacrifice an enjoyable eating experience. Notably, having less sugar and an appealing taste are ranked as equally important in the decision process when considering new food and beverage purchases (1).”

And, tying back to trend #1: “Consumers are also increasingly seeking low-sugar products that feature sweetening solutions they recognize and consider to be ‘closer-to-nature,’” Diedrich says. “For example, alternatives to sugar that have high consumer affinity include solutions like stevia (1). Our vast library of sweetening solutions checks each of these boxes, from reduced sugar targets to clean label goals and an exemplary sensory experience. Further, our comprehensive formulation approach coupled with our extensive portfolio not only helps limit sugars, but also replaces sweetness, rebalances flavor and rebuilds functionality.”

Offering more data, David Banks, Senior Director of Marketing, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, points to 2023 stats from Mintel. “Across the states, U.S. consumers are tracking their sugar consumption to avoid health issues associated with a sweet tooth, especially when it comes to added sugar, noting the top three reasons for monitoring their intake: general health/wellness (40%), weight loss (35%) and reducing the risk of future health concerns, such as diabetes (32%). With sugar top of mind, they’re searching for alternatives to common sugar sources, like coconut sugar, honey, maple and fruit juices.”

The ‘reduced sugar’ phenomenon is being widely adopted by food and beverage manufacturers to meet that consumer demand, Alroy says. “In fact, it was the main discussion topic at the recent IFT FIRST Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago. Food manufacturers are seeking to revert back to sugar as a sweetener; however, to use less in formulations. We know that it will take time for consumers to adjust to products that taste less sweet; fortunately, both consumers and manufacturers are looking for products that still taste great, but are more nutritious.”

Manufacturers, Alroy adds, are seeking sweeteners to replace their current sweeteners by about a one-to-one ratio—with a better nutritional profile. “A low-GI sugar source will win the hearts, minds and palates of their customers. We have found low glycemic index to be the key driver in the world of sweetener ingredients; new sources of low-GI sugars have become the launchpad of sweetener innovation. The CarobWay sweetening solution, backed by scientific in vitro studies, demonstrates a variety of benefits and meets the high bar of requirements: a 100% natural, 90% sugar replacer (mainly glucose), made from a sustainable and highly resilient plant, among other advantages.”

Offering more options, Mike Haracz, Corporate Chef and Culinary Development Lead, Foodology by Univar Solutions, describes, “Products like monk fruit, allulose, and stevia are being used to satiate the appetites of consumers who are actively trying to reduce or avoid sugar. The trends are all towards natural sources these days: natural sources of colors, natural flavors to replace artificial flavors, and the use of plant derived sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit along with erythritol (naturally derived polyol) to use in place of artificial high-intensity sweeteners.”

Regarding stevia, Sarah Diedrich, ADM sweetener expert says, “One of our most recent introductions and extensions to our stevia line is our new SweetRight Stevia Edge-M. Delivering improved sweetening, reduced bitterness and increased solubility compared to Rebaudioside (Reb) M, SweetRight Stevia Edge-M is an excellent solution to reach both high sugar reduction goals and meet consumers’ sensory expectations across food and beverage categories. It also supports clean label targets since it’s isolated directly from the stevia leaf and not produced by fermentation or bioconversion unlike other Reb M options on the market. As a result, SweetRight Stevia Edge-M can be listed as ‘stevia leaf extract’ on product labels. Plus, when compared to Reb M and Reb D, our SweetRight Stevia Edge-M has the added benefit of cost savings.”

Also new: “We recently launched our SweetRight agave, which has a sweetening potency 25-30% higher than sucrose,” Diedrich says. “This enables manufacturers to use less of it to achieve reduced sugar content and calories in their foods and beverages all while maintaining the preferred sensory experience consumers expect. Moreover, SweetRight agave has a neutral sensory profile, binding and browning properties, and has exceptional solubility, moisture retention and humectancy, enabling ease of use for a variety of applications, including baked goods, dairy products, prepared meals, sauces and more. Coming in both liquid and powder formats, as well as light and dark variations, our agave further provides key optionality to product developers. Plus, agave is a familiar sweetener source to consumers, and SweetRight agave is certified organic, kosher, halal, non-GMO and fair trade, supporting clean label demands.”

Allulose is another option gaining popularity, says Gallo. “An alternative sweetener, Allulose, a monosaccharide derived from raisins, figs, wheat, maple syrup, and a few other sources, is very interesting because it does not require labeling as sugar or added sugar, yet it’s 70% as sweet as sugar, making it a great option to swap for sugar when possible.”

In addition to the better-known plant-based sources, focus is on natural, high intensity sweeteners and sugar replacements. Benjamin Stanley, CRC, Senior Corporate Chef, Sweet Applications Manager, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, says: “We’re seeing more biotechnology-based solutions hitting the market in which compounds with sweet perception are being discovered through microbial fermentation and/or enzyme-based processes.”

There’s a lot of innovation in the space, adds Haracz. “Our portfolio of sweeteners at Foodology by Univar Solutions is more robust than ever before, as flavor profiles and natural processes give us options that mimic traditional sugar more closely than previous versions. This makes no added sugar and sugar-reduced formulations more acceptable to the average consumer. With consumers’ desire to reduce sugar and carbohydrate intake, we can help make everyday items like beverages, snacks, cereals, candy, milk, and milk alternatives taste like their full sugar counterparts. Our team can also provide ingredients that replace the texture loss and functionality that sugar provided. Some consumer considerations on ‘better for you’ items can be attributed to the texture, mouthfeel, and function, which can be solved by these additional ingredients. For food manufacturers looking to reformulate products to meet the ‘healthier for me’ trend, Foodology by Univar Solutions has ingredients that help reduce sugar, replace fat for calorie reduction, and increase micronutrient content. One of the most exciting offerings in our portfolio is our variety of enzymes that can extend shelf life, aid in manufacturing, increase yields, and help with cleaner ingredient statements.”

5) Taste and Sensory Appeal

“Consumers are increasingly prioritizing the functionality, freshness, and authenticity of their food choices,” says Haracz. “This shift in dietary preferences has also led to a flourishing market for plant-based alternatives, with a particular focus on addressing sensory characteristics to provide a positive consumer experience. Consequently, formulating products that meet consumers’ nutritional requirements and taste expectations can be a challenge. For example, consumers may look for a sweetener that’s low calorie, yet browns like sugar in baked goods, or easily suspends in liquids. We help our customers navigate these challenges.”

Driving innovation here: “World exploration is officially reloaded as the urge to resume travel and find sensorial experiences is more powerful than ever,” Banks explains. “Consumers have been looking for integrated dining concepts featuring high-intensity food pairings and welcome the novelty of exclusive fragrance notes and exotic botanicals.”

6) Pigmented Hues

Fun, unique colors are trending, with pigmented hues being perfect for social media posts on consumers’ feeds. Lee says, “The new generation of consumers is redefining perceptions of natural colors. The fact that artificial colors were for so long the default option for achieving bright hues in food and drink meant eye-catching shades traditionally had a negative reputation among health-conscious consumers. That’s all changing. It’s now possible to achieve a full rainbow of vibrant shades using plant-based colors and modern consumers are really embracing that. They want naturally formulated products with strong visual impact. As a result, we’re increasingly seeing products with a natural positioning that use eye-catching colors, from luminous pastel hues to psychedelic color schemes.”

Vibrant is key. Lee explains, “Vibrant natural colors are being leveraged more and more on menus in fast casual restaurants and operators like coffee shops as a way to attract customers, especially the younger demographic. Radiant shades from natural sources are a great way to call out botanical ingredients like hibiscus and turmeric. Purple in particular is becoming more commonplace in bakery, snacks, and frozen desserts thanks to on-trend ingredients like ube and purple corn. Our EXBERRY color concentrates are made from edible fruits, vegetables, and plants using only physical processing methods such as chopping, boiling, and filtering. They can deliver such vibrant colors that you might think they’re artificial, but they allow brands to tell a really positive story about how products are colored. They’re non-GMO, vegan-friendly, halal, kosher, and produced using sustainable methods. They also support clean label declarations such as ‘fruit and vegetable juice for color’ or ‘turmeric (color)’ and brands can use front-of-pack ‘colored with fruit & vegetables’ logos too.”

Opportunity in this space is endless. Lee describes, “The possibilities with plant-based colors are expanding all the time, but innovation is crucial to close the remaining gaps. For example, there are very few naturally occurring blue shades available in fruits and vegetables. A blueberry peel, for example, appears bluish but the juice is red. The superfood spirulina is one of the few natural sources for blue and we’ve been using it in food and drink since the 1990s, but it’s sensitive to both heat and acid. We’ve learned a lot about how to overcome those challenges in most applications, but it had never been possible to use spirulina in pasteurized, acidified beverages. We’ve now launched our patented EXBERRY Blue Beverage Solution technology, which allows manufacturers to achieve turquoise, navy blue, violet, and green hues while maintaining clean labels. It’s suitable for applications including sports, energy, and carbonated drinks, juice drinks, enhanced waters, and alcoholic beverages below 20% ABV. It’s an important development as blue is very much leaving its unhealthy image behind and becoming a fully fledged member of the wellbeing color collective.”

Another innovation: “This year, we’re very excited about launching EXBERRY Shade Vivid Orange – OS, our first 100% oil-soluble color made from non-GMO paprika,” Lee says. “It’s a high color intensity, clean-label alternative to paprika oleoresin and artificial colors that’s ideal for use in many fat-based applications such as topical oil-based seasonings for snacks, compound coating systems, and prepared foods like sauces and frozen foods. Shade Vivid Orange – OS uses only physical extraction methods, so it will pass the strictest ‘do-not-use’ ingredient lists of brands who choose the most natural, transparent ingredients for their products. It can be listed simply as “paprika (color)” on the ingredient list in the U.S. and provides instant reassurance for shoppers.”

Consumers don’t just want such innovation—increasingly, they demand it. Rincon explains, “Gone are the days where consumers look past artificial ingredients. Formulators are coming up with new innovative ways to meet these demands by using natural ingredients in fan-favorite products, such as freeze-dried strawberry powder to provide a bright red color and sweet taste or freeze-dried spinach for a vibrant green tint and boost of nutrients.”

Zhou agrees. “In the color space, fierce shades that deliver on consumer desires for excitement and exploration are captivating shoppers’ attention. Of the 48% of global consumers who are attracted to food and drink products with new and experimental colors, 69% describe these colors as fun and exciting, and 61% say they make products more appealing (3). This is appearing through loud pink shades, along with bright teal and vivid yellows. At the same time, consumers are turning to lighter moments with lavender and blue hues, adding optimism and tranquility to one’s sensory experience. However, creating bold shades with colors derived from natural sources can lead to formulation and application challenges, including issues with color interactions, solubility needs, processing conditions, shelf life, packaging, taste and cost. By tapping our proprietary technology and our Colors from Nature library, we help manufacturers create gorgeous foods and beverages with colors derived from nature that also have exceptional stability and withstand numerous processing conditions.”

To address some of the issues with natural colors, brands are seeking creative solutions. “Specifically,” Zhou says, “we recently expanded our blue color solutions, which are derived from the Amazonian huito fruit, to provide a new ‘true blue’ color that can support color stability throughout different pH systems, including neutral and low pH levels and any pH in between. This builds upon the huito fruit juice blue solutions already in our portfolio, which are acid-, light- and heat-stable, ensuring that products retain a bold blue hue through various processing conditions. Our fruit-based blue also provides the foundation to create a range of purples, greens and browns, satisfying both formulation requirements and consumers’ demands for eye-catching foods and beverages with clean product labels.”

Haracz notes on this subject, “For the colors space, we are seeing naturally derived colors for canned products, which may have stability issues in a clear bottle, but are better protected in a can or for a product designed for consumption from the can. Color palettes for these formats include caramels and botanicals, such as butterfly pea flowers, and spices (paprika, turmeric). Bold and vibrant colors (purple is the current trend) are required for bottled products or for those for which the visual currency of social media platforms is an important marketing strategy. 

There’s also a call for unusual bold colors, such as reds, greens, and blacks, derived from herbs and flowers, Gallo says. “At Artemis we’re laser focused on stabilizing our natural color ingredients derived from berry anthocyanins, creating distinctive colors in the red-purple hue that will stay true under normally challenging conditions such as heat, light, and ingredient interaction.”

7) International Influences

“Desires for self-expression and discovery are greatly impacting what flavors are trending today and what we’ll see next,” Zhou maintains. “Transportive flavor notes are particularly taking hold for consumers, as they look to challenge traditional boundaries and cross geographic borders in their food exploration. In fact, when asked why they like new and unusual/exotic flavors, 81% of consumers in North America expressed a desire to try new flavors from around the world (4). Think black sesame snack bites, kimchi chips or Greek-marinated chickpeas. In the next year, we anticipate there will be a push for more nuanced understanding of global flavors, with cuisines from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia coming to the fore.”

Adding to the inspiration: “We’ve seen Mexican street food taking center stage, especially Elote (Mexican Street Corn) flavors popping up in savory snacks ranging from chips to nuts and featuring a powerful combination of chili powder, lime, mayo, cotija cheese and cayenne pepper,” says Banks. “Mexican hot sauces and peppers that pack some serious heat are quite literally ‘hot’ right now, with popular varieties featuring habanero (the fastest-growing pepper variety on U.S. menus), Nashville Hot (4-year menu growth rate of 310%) and other smoky pepper profiles (Datassential, 2023). Nearly half (47%) of U.S. consumers agree with the statement ‘I like spicy foods’ (Mintel, 2023) and they’re seeking out spicy foods to get their heat fix.”

8) Flavor Mash-ups & More

In addition to global flare, Gallo says: “Think interesting, sweet, savory, mash-up flavors, or hints of fruits or florals.” 

Botanicals and citrus are top of mind for consumers, agrees Justin Kozlowski, Vice President of Beverage, Flavor Creation & Application, Bell Flavors & Fragrances. “With international travel back in full swing, exotic fruit flavors as well as botanicals have been in the spotlight and are driving innovation in new and exciting ways. Unique and unfamiliar fruit flavors, such as ube, yuzu and passionfruit, have skyrocketed in the marketplace and culinary sphere, experiencing a four-year growth on U.S. menus of 154%, 25% and 20%, respectively (Datassential, 2023).”

Another hit, according to Zhou: “Citrus is also continuing to evolve and deliver new and intriguing tonalities for consumers to try. Our recently conducted proprietary consumer research dove into the preferences and perceptions consumers have of citrus flavors. This ‘Unfolding Citrus Study’ unveiled that North American consumers prefer bold and vibrant citrus (5), and there is opportunity to reimagine the classics like orange, lemon and lime, as well as bolster the use of emerging varietals like finger lime, yuzu, tangelo and more.”

Zhou continues, “Delivering the right profile of citrus can be elusive to capture; however, we have recently introduced a new citrus technology called Corefold, which is helping bring forth the bold vibrancy consumers are seeking in citrus-flavored beverages. Through our novel and proprietary separation technologies and concentration methods, our Corefold technology focuses on the core part of citrus oil, thus emphasizing the molecules responsible for impact and mouthfeel while capturing top notes for freshness and aroma. With Corefold, an everyday flavor like orange bursts with juicy authenticity for extraordinary beverage opportunities.”

Also spotlighting citrus and botanicals, Haracz says, “Citrus fruits, such as orange, grapefruit, and lime, are among the most popular flavors right now, as well as berry blends and watermelon. More exotic citrus flavors such as yuzu (lemon and mandarin hybrid) and tangelo (tangerine/pomelo hybrid) are also an exciting trend. We are also seeing the rise of botanicals—black tea, florals (hop flowers, cherry blossom, butterfly pea flower, jasmine, etc.), and spice varieties. There’s a definite crossover or overlap of flavors across the soft drink space, the alcoholic beverage space, and the low/no alcohol space.” Haracz notes that many recent beverage launches of IPAs (both alcoholic and low/no alcohol) are boosted with citrus flavors, and hard teas and hard seltzers are emerging, exploring traditional soft drinks, nostalgic flavors, botanicals, and florals.”

“Across the globe, consumers continue to lean into the squeeze!” says Lindsay Parks, Marketing Communication & Social Media Specialist at Bell Flavors & Fragrances.“Citrus is a beloved and refreshing fruit family. In the United States alone, 59% of consumers indicate that they like or love citrus and one-quarter (25.7%) of menus feature it (Datassential, 2023). Citrus flavors resonate particularly well among those looking to support their immune systems, boost vitamin C intake and elevate their mood game. Bell offers iconic citrus flavors, such as Grapefruit, Mandarin Orange and Meyer Lemon in addition to specialty citrus flavors, like Buddha’s Hand and Peruvian Lime. These flavors are available in a wide variety of formats and formulations (e.g., natural, organic) to meet product development needs and regulatory standards for a multitude of applications, ranging from baked sweet goods to ready-to-drink cocktails.”

Banks explains, “While consumers have discovered a newfound comfort in the familiar, they still want to experiment a bit and branch out beyond the traditional, especially among younger generations. Bell’s ‘Newstalgia’ Micro Trend perfectly describes this phenomenon—it’s all about blending the familiar with the excitement of something new. And it’s the twist that everyone loves, as 46% of consumers say that eating a familiar dish with a twist encourages them to further explore that cuisine (Mintel, 2022). On the sweet side, we’ve seen indulgent, sweeter caramelized flavors trending, like dulce de leche, flan and brown butter. However, they’re revealing themselves with more adventurous twists and international spins, such as miso caramel, bourbon brown sugar, chocoflan, hot honey and spicy caramel, featuring ‘trendy’ peppers, like Carolina Reaper or Ghost Pepper, and propelled by popular shows, ‘Hot Ones,’ the ‘One Chip Challenge’ and more.”


The final word:

“Technological advances have created serious innovation opportunities for the entire food and beverage industry” maintains Haracz. “Consumers are challenging the industry on a very high level of innovation.” WF


Catering to the Sober Curious Crowd

“One of the most rapidly emerging food and beverage trends includes mocktails and alcohol-free beverages, which are steadily gaining the same wider, everyday acceptance as decaf coffee,” says Haracz. “There is a rise in interest in stevia extracts in beverages including non-alcoholic versions of popular classic cocktails. The range includes sweeteners, natural flavor modulators produced using simple extraction, and modern biotechnologies working in synergy to increase inherent flavor intensity. Plant-based nutrition provides an amazing canvas for innovation.”