What millennials want

Lawrence Aylward
Editor In Chief
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Here’s a shocker: Millennials like to take photographs of their food before they eat it and post them on social media. So what did you expect from the generation that grew up clutching iPhones, not stuffed animals?

Jean Shieh, marketing manager for Turlock, Calif.-based Sensient Natural Ingredients (SNI), sees a connection between millennials’ penchant for social media and what they eat. Millennials are all about experimenting with new ingredients and flavors and then letting their social media followers know what they are trying. And then their followers try what they tried, and the cycle continues.

It’s a big reason why millennials have gained a reputation for trying ingredients and flavors that previous generations might not have touched with a 10-foot fork. 

“This is a generation that is not afraid of trying anything,” says Shieh, whose company produces natural ingredients to bring flavor, texture, color and nutrition to clean-label food products. “Millennials are all about having choices.”

According to market research company Mintel, millennials are now aged 24 to 41, meaning the youngest millennials are now entering the work force and the generation’s overall spending power is increasing. Millennials are also the largest generation, and their impact on product development is growing.

Inspired by flavor
Millennials want ingredients and flavors that will take food and beverage products to another level — a premium product level in many cases. If you give a millennial a lemon, that millennial will make raspberry peach lemonade out of it.

“Millennials are more exposed to the global cultures and are interested in exploring different cultures through food,” says Kristie Hung, an SNI marketing specialist. “Millennials look for flavor inspiration from authentic traditional cuisines — Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Indian, etc. [They prefer] complex combinations that offer multiple layers of flavors beyond two-dimensional flavors.”

But millennials are not seeking completely new flavors, Shieh says. Often, it’s about adding a new twist to a familiar flavor. Take caramel, for instance.

“Caramel is a sweet flavor that most people like,” Shieh says. “What we can do is add some heat to the sweet with something like habanero.”

The key is adding a hot flavor, whether from a chili pepper or a ghost pepper to a common flavor which could be sweet, bitter or sour, in small doses, so a product can be consumed multiple times and at a larger volume, Shieh says.

Mexican chocolate is another example of a product that fits well with millennials and could present an opportunity for private brands. It’s chocolate with a dose of zing — in this case chili pepper.

“It’s a familiar chocolate flavor but with a new twist,” Shieh says. “So it’s not completely out there.”

Hung adds that millennials prefer flavorful ingredients that also bring bright bold colors to products such as activated charcoal ice cream, purple corn chips, beetroot chips, green Hatch chile ice cream and spirulina beverages.

They study labels
According to market researcher Nielsen, millennials are more likely to buy natural and organic products and products free from certain ingredients deemed as not healthy.

Rebecca Albini, an SNI innovation scientist, says millennials have a list of non-desirable ingredients, including extra sugar, GMOs and food additives that they don’t want to consume.

“Millennials are really taking a look at what exactly is going into their bodies,” she adds. “They want to see labels that are understandable with the least amount of ingredients as possible.”

Millennials simply want more information on the ingredients they’re consuming and where they come from, adds Paul Laudiero, director of marketing for Manassas, Va.-based GHIGI Food Industries, which manufactures authentic pasta, sauce, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for private brands.

“There’s an increase in buying knowledge with consumers, especially millennials,” Laudiero says.

In its marketing, GHIGI makes clear its identity to appease millennials and their buying knowledge. GHIGI says it’s a “farmer-owned company” with products “all sourced directly from our fields.” It markets its products as made with “100 percent Italian ingredients, 100 percent GMO-free, with certified organic capabilities, and 100 percent traceable from our own fields.”

Laudiero also notes the importance of educating retailers about its products to pass onto to millennials and other discerning consumers.

“We make sure [retailers] are aware of all of GHIGI’s capabilities, such as our full organic and whole wheat offerings, and the fact that we only use 100 percent Italian non-GMO durum wheat,” he says. “We are one of only a handful of factories that is owned by an agricultural consortium and only uses 100 percent Italian wheat. These qualities help retailers fully develop pasta lines as well as add the proper call-outs on packaging.”

Such call-outs are part of the story that a product can tell about its history, the origin of its ingredients and other factors. Millennials want to learn these stories through packaging and merchandising, Shieh notes.

“The company that can tell a good story behind a product’s sustainability, traceability and social responsibility will capture millennials’ attention,” she adds.

But the “story” has to be legitimate, Shieh notes, which is why millennials prefer certifications on products such as “USDA Certified Organic” to trust they are consuming foods that are “real” to them.

Opportunities abound
Albini says that millennials are stimulated by new products and that retailers and food and beverage manufacturers of private brands should explore more divergent offerings. She says categories that private brands can capitalize on with millennials include plant-based protein bars, beverages and vegetarian products; dairy products such as yogurts, ice cream and creamy dips; snacks such as popcorn, chickpeas and legume extrusions; salad dressings; baked goods; and other protein-fortified products.

Many millennials favor flexitarian diets or semi-vegetarian diets, Shieh says. While those eating a flexitarian diet also eat meat, they want something with a “savory meaty flavor” to eat when they don’t eat meat.

Millennials want differentiation, but often on their terms. For companies like SNI, it’s an exciting and opportunistic time to be in product development for private brands.