Expect unique and natural flavors and colors to hit market shelves this year

It's uncomfortable to admit, but humans are drawn to the superficial when it comes to foods. Great packaging may lure a customer to try something new. Once the box is torn open, bright colors and enticing flavors may influence a repeat purchase even more than the health benefits. Natural colors and flavors are key to the success of grocery items, so it's important for retailers to have a handle on the key issues surrounding this important facet of natural foods and beverages.

On the Tip of the Tongue
Mark Twain once wrote, "Tastes are made, not born." He had a point, as our favorite foods are often a matter of taste (excuse the pun) and to what we are accustomed. For example, certain Asian cuisines may be too spicy to be enjoyable for some people, while others feel the foods from other areas are too bland.

Though we enjoy what we know, it seems that new food trends are developing as Americans of late are addicted to trying new tastes. Many home cooks are trying (and loving) the spices of non-Western foods and the unique flavors of exotic fruits. "When creating new products for the health-conscious consumer, developers know that taste is the number one driver," says Sheri White, marketing manager at Cargill Flavor Systems. "Though a functional product may fit into one's eating habits, if it doesn't taste good, it is unlikely they will purchase it more than once."

Flavor Trends and Challenges. If you're wondering what tastes are currently tickling the tongues of natural products consumers, White notes that bold flavor blends (like acai berry), savory tastes (like pepper or spice) and indulgent flavors like (cream and chocolate) are favorites "as they help cover the off-notes often associated with the addition of functional ingredients or the void left when reducing fats or sugars."

And, it seems that Americans have developed a taste for all-natural and organic flavors. Says Simon Poppelsdorf, vice president of flavor technical services at Bell Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., Northbrook, IL, "The terms ‘natural' and ‘organic' have been two of most highly sought after restrictions food marketers have set for their product labels over the last few years." Therefore, he notes, "we have seen our natural and organic compliant flavors grow in demand immensely."

It isn't always easy to find natural and organic flavors at a competitive price, especially new, exotic flavors that aren't yet widely used. "This is very difficult even with natural flavors because we need to extract ingredients, and often times the solvents used for extractions cannot be used," says Poppelsdorf.

Meg Pineault, manager of the applications group in the Mooreganics division of A.M. Todd Ingredients and Flavors, Kalamazoo, MI, agrees that finding new and novel materials that are organic can be particulary tough. "Certain organic crops must be contracted months in advance, so knowing the timing and availability of these materials is essential," she says. "Being reactive is not good enough. In the organic flavor world, we have to be almost psychic." Nonetheless, companies are meeting demands for new and exciting organic offerings as the trend for organic products continues.

New in 2009

According to market research firm Mintel, industry can expect to see some new and interesting product flavors burst onto the scene in 2009. Such flavors will be used to stand out from the pack and “capture shoppers’ imaginations,” the group predicts. Here’s a list of what may be hot this year in the flavors category:

  • Persimmon, blended with common fruits,
  • Star fruit,
  • Lavender in soothing foods and beverages,
  • Cactus incorporated into ethnic foods,
  • Chimichurri in sauces,
  • Peri-Peri for extra heat, and
  • Masala, as an extension to the curry trend.

Our noses shouldn’t feel left out, and they may be treated to these new trends in scents: spicy and woody, savory scents, food scents.

Another area of growth stems from continued interest in superfruits. We already know açai, pomegranate, goji berry and others are hot, but what's next in the pipeline? Donald F. Wilkes, CEO of Blue Pacific Flavors, City of Industry, CA, predicts the industry "will see growth in natural superfruit flavors or hybrid superfruit flavor blends" like açai–blueberry, cherry–açai, grape–goji berry, raspberry–yumberry and more. Such growth won't only affect the beverage category. Wilkes notes that superfruit flavoring is expanding into nutritional bars and breakfast foods "as consumers continue to look for foods that provide not only a good source of vitamins and minerals, protein and energy, but also antioxidant properties that can address longevity and preventative health concerns impacting our aging boomer population."

According to information released by Frutarom USA, North Bergen, NJ, combining fruits with hot and spicy flavors may also be a trend for 2009. "Innovative matching of strawberry and cloves, lime and cracked pepper, and mango and ginger are yielding wonderfully unique taste sensations," Jim Moore, Frutarom's global category manager of beverages stated. Frutarom also noted that interest in new fruit flavors is especially prevalent in the flavored water category.

But, Wilkes points out that the success of new superfruit flavors is tied to science-based marketing and positioning.
"Consumers are being exposed to more ‘forensic' information on superfruits through a variety of marketing and educational materials," he says. "As they become more familiar with these fruits and their efficacy, they will also become skeptical of beverages that lack ‘authenticity' given the range of juice blended or straight ‘flavored' superfruit drinks that are being marketed." Therefore, new superfruit ingredients intended to add flavors and health benefits must be backed by research and clearly explained to consumers.

Flavor companies' specialized knowledge of trends and relevant new research is changing their role in food/beverage product development. "In years past, a flavor company could simply send a small sample of its peach flavor, for example, to a food company and wait to hear if they liked it or not. Now, a peach flavor request may mean creating a peach tea latte beverage, performing stability testing, helping the customer source a bottling line, find packaging and turning over the bottler's formula along with a sample of the peach flavor," says Pineault. As a result, the product development function is growing among flavoring specialists and may be cut back at the food manufacturer.

Labeling Questions. Consumers often aren't clear about what exactly is a "natural" flavor. To help customers better understand this term, Poppelsdorf suggests we consider the opposite: "the reason a flavor is labeled artificial can be as simple as the process one of the ingredients has gone through" such as one involving solvents.

Pineault points out that artificial flavors "use nearly anything as a starting material as long as the resulting compound is FEMA GRAS (generally recognized as safe). It can be treated with acids, esterified or brominated. Some of the artificial flavor materials even have petrochemical origins. Synthetic benzaldyhyde, a main constituent of artificial cherry flavor is sourced from petrochemicals."

On the other hand, Pineault notes that natural flavors are legislated by Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association using the Code of Federal Regulations. "In order for a flavor to be natural," she says, "it must be created using a natural starting material (plants, roots, fruits, meats, etc.) and concentrated using natural processes (roasting, heating, enzymolysis)."

It's also important to note that natural flavor labeling may vary by product. Says Wilkes, "Dairy may have different labeling requirements than soft drinks depending on each product's legal standards of identity. Some products require listing a flavor that is made ‘with other natural flavors' (or the synonym ‘WONF') fully on the label whereas other foods will have the flavor listed as ‘natural flavor.'"

A WONF is a combination of 1) natural flavoring from the source fruit extracts, essences or tinctures, and 2) other fruit extracts or ingredients that are not from the source fruit. For example, says Wilkes, "A strawberry WONF may use raspberry juice concentrate, or tea essence in addition to strawberry extractives or aroma chemicals to achieve a unique strawberry flavor profile. The raspberry and tea portion would be the WONF portion of the formulation."

The bottom line, he says, is that "any flavor listed as ‘natural' or ‘natural WONF' is considered a natural flavor in the United States." 

Getting to Know Your Colorists and Flavorists

The following is some additional information about companies interviewed for this article.

A.M. Todd Company provides all-natural isolates (botanicals and herbals) and flavors such as fruits, berries, vanillas and caramels. A.M. Todd’s organic flavor division, Mooreganics offers high-quality natural flavors and developed some of the first complex certified organic flavors. The division can provide blueberry, pomegranate, cranberry, non-dairy cream flavors and chocolate, vanillas, citrus and more. Its line of functional organic isolates includes hibiscus, turmeric extracts and teas.

Bell Flavors & Fragrances offers a variety of natural flavoring ingredients for applications such as bakery items, beverages, confections, dairy products, savory foods and more. The company also provides fragrances and its Belltanicals division provides botanical extracts for foods and personal care.

Blue Pacific Flavors is an innovator of natural and organic-compliant fruit flavors and sweet flavor delivery to a wide range of food applications including ready-to-drink teas, coffee tunnel pasteurized fruit preparations, dairy (yogurt and milk), soymilk, ice cream, frozen desserts, bakery and nutritional foods and confectionery products. Blue Pacific launched the hortRealfruit flavor technology to produce new authentic fruit flavors using fruit-derived science and research.

Cargill is a flavor integrator that connects core ingredients with specialty ingredients and flavors to create just the right taste experience. The company’s in-house experts keep a finger on the pulse of today’s market and consumer trends. In addition, the team aims to bridge the gap between scientific research and regulatory challenges. Cargill offers a variety of application-tested flavors, ranging from the most familiar flavors, to ethnic and culinary flavors, to sweet chocolate pairings, to new and unusual flavor combinations and more.

Frutarom develops, manufactures and markets a variety of high-quality flavors and natural fine ingredients for customers in the food, beverage, flavor, fragrance, nutraceutical, food additive and cosmetic industries.

The Rainbow of Natural Colors
A solid case can be made in favor of natural foods on the basis of coloring alone. Research suggests that certain food artificial dyes (Yellow 5 and 6, Red 3 and 40, Blue 1 and 2, Green 3 and Orange B) are linked to learning and behavioral problems in children. Such disorders include hyperactivity, impulse behavior, learning problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (1).

One study, published in The Lancet in late 2007, found that children who consumed a mixture of artificial red and yellow food colorings and preservatives were more hyperactive (based on parent and teacher evaluations) than those who did not (2).

Findings from this study were far reaching. Citing the article, the Foods Standards Agency in the U.K. (which funded the research) urged U.K. officials to ban these substances. In a November 2008 letter to stakeholders, Food Standards Agency Chief Executive, Tim Smith, stated that Government Ministers have agreed with the proposal for a voluntary ban on the following artificial colors: E102 Tartrazine, E104 Quinoline Yellow, E110 Sunset Yellow, E122 Carmoisine, E124 Ponceau 4R and E129 Allura Red. New legislation for food additives also has been proposed (3).

Here in the States, there's also been some movement to block certain artificial dyes. In June 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) formally petitioned the U.S. government to require labeling of artificial dyes and eventually ban them altogether. And this past autumn, the group urged parents to report cases of children negatively affected by dyes to the government.

Despite the health risks, there are reasons why food makers are hesitant to cut the cord with artificial colors. Says Tony Moore, chief flavorist, director of product development at A.M. Todd Ingredients/Flavors, "They are strong and stable, compared with their natural counterparts. Almost all natural colors will not be as effective in use as synthetic colors. That's just the reality that developers have to accept and understand, as do the folks manufacturing and selling the products and ultimately, the consumers, too. They're not going to be as vibrant and stable."

Both heat and ultraviolet (UV) light may cause natural colors to fade. Colors that pose problems include reds (mostly anthocyan based) that are pH dependent and often heat sensitive, and yellows (mostly from turmeric), which are unstable in UV light. Therefore, natural yellow colorings may work well in opaque packaging for dairy and yogurt products, but lemonades in packaging without full wraps may fade over time. "Wherever we have to incorporate a natural or organic color system, we encourage some kind of packaging that will inhibit UV exposure," says Moore.

Nonetheless, industry has worked hard to overcome these limitations and numerous good natural colors are available. Many offer a health benefit in addition to color, such as oranges and carrots having carotenoids and reds from berries having antioxidants. "In natural colors, much of what provides that color are actually nutrients," Moore points out.

Recent innovations in the natural colorings industry include making natural blue coloring, which has not been readily available previously. According to Moore, blue is now available through a proprietary source that meets that standards for "natural," though it is not available in organic form. "It's not nearly as strong as synthetic blue dyes," he explains, "but it is very effective at all pHs." Green though, is still a big challenge. "You can get greenish hues by blending blues and yellows, but there's no true green. Most greens are chlorophyll-based, which are very unstable," Moore notes.

The next steps in natural colorings, Moore predicts, may be in the areas of improved concentration and stability. Based on the innovations this industry segment has developed thus far, it's clear that the future is bright for new advances in colors and flavors. WF


  1. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, www.cspinet.org, accessed November 25, 2008.
  2. D. McCann et al., "Food Additives and Hyperactive Behaviour in 3-Year-Old and 8/9-Year-Old Children in the Community: A Randomised, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Trial," The Lancet, 370 (9598) 1560–1567 (2007).
  3. "Update on Food Colors," Food Standards Agency, accessed on November 25, 2008.

By Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2009