With the coronavirus pandemic, massive fires, a presidential election and societal upheaval, 2020 is a year of uncertainty.
But no matter how crazy things in the wider world are getting, consumers can always turn to comfort food. Marie Wright, president of creation, design and development and chief global flavorist for ADM, says that it's important to realize how important it is for consumers to be able to eat for comfort. After all, she said, taste is emotionally evocative.
"Essentially, we taste with our brains, and that part of the brain that we process flavor — that we decode, if you like — is the same part of the brain that we store memories, and also it's the same part of the brain that emotions can be evoked," Wright said. "So you can see, then, there's a complex relationship between taste and how you feel, perfume and how you feel, and also the fact that it can trigger memories."
ADM places a lot of emphasis on creating and refining flavors, and Wright said many manufacturers are tapping into the tastes that make consumers feel comforted. Research has found that nostalgic flavors are much more powerful — consumers tend to have a special preference for tastes that they associate with experiences before they were 10.
Right now, Wright said, ADM is doing a lot of work with flavors that are universally thought of as comforting: chocolate, vanilla, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, cheese. But also seasonal flavors, like pumpkin spice, peppermint and sugar cookie. And more botanical flavors that contribute to consumer desire for clean-label health and wellness, like orange and berries. Wright said she's personally worked with about 1,000 different versions of chocolate or vanilla flavors. For a more niche comfort flavor like s'mores, Wright said there are about 100 active formulations.
"What might seem as something quite simple can be quite complicated," she said. "You want it to be authentic as well, and you want people to really enjoy it."
When the team starts working on a flavor, Wright said the first thing they do is develop a gold standard version of it. This is what any product using that flavor should attempt to taste like. And there are some product types that need more work than others, like the complex nutritional shakes and bars of today.
"Some of the bases that we get, you taste them and you think, 'Good Lord, what are we going to do with this?'" Wright said. "And then we have to work our magic. ...At the end of the day, we want it to taste really delicious — permissible comfort, if you like. For this vile-tasting shake, we're going to turn it into this delicious salted caramel comfort healthy food."
Wright said that ADM's robust consumer insights team is always looking at what's going to be the next big thing in terms of flavors. Some are evergreen, she said — most people of most ages find the taste of chocolate comforting. Some flavors they work on are at the cusp of becoming popular. Wright said salted caramel was not on many radars when ADM started working on it, and now salted caramel flavors everything from coffee to Canadian whisky.
In 2020, Wright said more manufacturers are putting a greater focus on making their food taste comforting. And she said that some of the holiday-themed comfort flavors — pumpkin spice, sugar cookie, peppermint — have been worked on and ordered much earlier than usual. Wright said that perhaps since consumers have been stuck at home, perhaps starting holiday-themed eating earlier is comforting. There has also been more interest, she said, in flavors for ice cream, which has long been considered a balm for bad times.
But it's not all unhealthy foods and flavors that harken back to favorite sweets. Wright said there have been many manufacturers interested in botanical flavors during the pandemic.
"People are getting comforted by eating foods specifically if they are geared [to], or have been written about, for helping immunity," she said.
"There's a complex relationship between taste and how you feel, perfume and how you feel, and also the fact that it can trigger memories."
President of creation, design and development and chief global flavorist, ADM
Foods that help the microbiome are hot, especially since more consumers are seeing research that links microbiome health to the body's immune response, Wright said. ADM's superfood flavors — including acai and guarana — do include more of the actual fruit. These flavorings, often used in products that contain the real thing, help boost and reinforce the taste of the superfoods, she said.
The pandemic is driving manufacturers to put some of these comforting flavors in unexpected places. Pumpkin spice, which has become the taste associated with fall in the United States, is showing up in summery hard seltzer. More summertime flavors like watermelon and mojito could make an appearance in baked goods and hot beverages that herald winter, or in some of the snacks that start appearing in stores in September. And while holiday-themed food seasons seem to creep backwards in the calendar — with grocery aisles becoming packed with pumpkin and maple in August and December treats appearing in October — Wright said this year may be the one where the calendar doesn't matter.
"The lines are getting a little blurred now, and I think there's more opportunity, that people are not so boxed in, you know?" she said. "I suppose we have to become much more flexible with this pandemic, and maybe we're working in ways we never imagined we would, and we're kind of running our lives in a different way."
While Wright said she hoped the pandemic would be over in the near future, she guessed that once it is, some of the flavors seen as comforting might become traditional mainstream options. But there may not be so many products specifically targeted at comfort.
"We're eating and doing things in a different way, And I think it does change how we how we look at food," Wright said.