Report: Functional flavors lead the way in 2021

Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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Hot and healthy, that’s what consumers are looking for in their food and beverages in 2021.

Spices like cinnamon and cayenne are expected to heat up food innovation, while beverages that include ginger-flavored kombuchas or waters with peppermint aim to brighten beverages and consumer moods at the same time. 

One trend emerging from the sheer amount of time consumers have spent at home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is a heightened focus on their health and what they put into their bodies. Internal research from ingredient and food manufacturer ADM found that nearly 6 in 10 consumers globally are more concerned about their immune function because of COVID-19.


Marie Wright, chief global flavorist at the Chicago-based company, said consumers are increasingly taking a holistic approach to their well-being, factoring in physical, emotional and mental health. Their research found that 35% of consumers are concerned about mental health and 84% see it as being equally important to physical health.

Wright, who also is president of creation, design and development at ADM, said this means that in times of uncertainty, consumers want permissible indulgences and better-for-you foods and beverages with health-signaling ingredients. “Fruits like maqui berry, elderberry and Valencia orange are associated with immune-strengthening antioxidants,” she said. “Refreshing, awakening flavors like peppermint and pink grapefruit evoke a sense of happiness and natural energy. Additionally, flavors such as pumpkin spice, vanilla, ginger and cinnamon provide warm, comforting feelings.”

Kyra Appleby, innovation technologist at iTi Tropicals, said flavor trends in 2021 are expected to be “sensory flavors that trigger a trigeminal sensation.” Mint, guava, mango, cayenne, passion fruit and ginger are examples that can trigger the sensation, she said.

Consumers also are looking for restaurant-quality results in the kitchen, experts said. “The opportunity in sauces and spice blends is super high because home chefs want tasty meals, but want the flavor simply and without having a fully stocked spice cabinet,” said Mel Bandler, retail partnerships manager at Fair Trade USA.

You have a large portion of the consumer base that is much less experienced in the kitchen, but they are still seeking high-quality, chef-driven flavor profiles.
Mitchell Roth , co-founder, president and COO, Roth Industries and Bourbon Brothers

Restaurant replacement is a key trend driving more convenience-focused offerings, according to Mitchell Roth, co-founder, president and COO of Roth Industries and Bourbon Brothers, the latter of which provides prepared proteins for meal kits. “You have a large portion of the consumer base that is much less experienced in the kitchen, but they are still seeking high-quality, chef-driven flavor profiles,” he said, and that’s having an impact on retailers looking to roll out store brands in the fully cooked category and driving manufacturers to ideate around flavor profiles that speak to them.

For Roth Industries, which produces white label and co-pack for private brands alongside its meal kit items, flavor trends making their way into 2021 include Sriracha-flavored items, and more importantly, a trend toward healthy foods. 

“Flavors are like fashion trends in the sense that what is popular one day may become a faux pas the next,” Roth said. “What I do think is here to stay are specific diets and nutritional trends like paleo, keto, Whole30, essentially less processed foods with less or no sugar, preservatives, etc.”

Spice Kick
According to Instacart research, piri piri sauce saw a 725% increase in sales growth in 2020, and that’s just one concrete example that spicy flavors are going to kick up a notch in the year ahead, said Bandler.


Wright agreed, saying convenience foods and prepared meals from retailers offer a quick way to satisfy a consumer’s desire for global experiences. “Spice blends have boomed and continue to be popular in 2021 for a way of experiencing travel with global flavors such as garam masala, chile de arbol, dukkah, harissa, berbere and baharat, to name a few.”

Organic food retailer Natural Grocers said it expects to see continued demand in spicy flavors as consumers explore home cooked, restaurant-quality recipes from around the world, including Asian, Indian, Mexican and African recipes. Two members of the retailer’s purchasing team — Rachel Puthuff, senior business manager at Daymon Worldwide, and Jennifer McCutchen, purchasing private label manager at Natural Grocers — identified trends for Store Brands, saying these exotic flavors will be explored by shoppers in two ways, buying low-cost sauces, condiments and marinades, and also in frozen entrees.

The retailer launched its Natural Grocers brand frozen pizzas in late 2020 and is expanding its assortment of frozen healthy meals, grains and vegetable sides in early 2021 to meet these trends. In spices specifically, the two listed functional spices as being at the forefront: cinnamon, turmeric and ginger are anti-inflammatory seasonings, for example, and cumin is an antioxidant and digestion aid.

Shelbi Thurau, registered dietitian and dietitian strategy supervisor at ShopRite/Wakefern Food, said the retailer is seeing increased curiosity in such multicultural flavors as za’atar or gojuchang “to make the familiar meal into a trip for the taste buds.” She noted that these flavors pair well with plant-based foods — which often require spices and sauces to liven up the flavor. 

ADM’s Wright suggested that exotic flavors be paired with something familiar when introducing them to consumers. “For example, frozen desserts that pair chocolate with heat-inducing spices like cayenne or ginger,” she said. 

Functional Flavors
Thurau said one of the biggest trends she’s seeing is an interest in functional foods. “Some of these foods focus on gut health, others are fermented, such as probiotic beverages and yogurt,” she said. “Kombucha is an example of a popular fermented drink to get your daily dose of probiotics. Shoppers new to kombucha should try one with other flavors added to help soften the taste, like Wholesome Pantry’s coconut and watermelon kombucha."


Natural Grocers is launching a kombucha in a ginger flavor and ginger-lemonade flavor early this year as well as sparkling water in sustainable aluminum bottles in early 2021. The retailer said more than half of consumers are aspiring to drink water more often, aiming to replace sodas and certain sugar-heavy beverages in their diets.

Wright at ADM said botanical flavors will weave their way into hard seltzers, herbal teas and coffee drinks. The more well-known will be mint, lavender and rose, but “we’re excited about combinations that infuse novel botanicals such as hibiscus, elderflower, basil and thyme,” she said.

Appleby, at Lawrenceville, N.J.-based iTi Tropicals, a leading supplier of fruit juice concentrates and purees in North America, as well as coconut waters, said she’s seen a definite increase in immunity and health halo shots and juices, as there’s an increase in demand for clean labels, functional ingredients and nutrient-dense products.