What do Greek yogurt, kimchee, shrubs (drinking vinegars), kombucha and sour chewing gum have in common? All are benefiting from the increased American openness to sour tastes. Even sour beer is becoming more popular.
Why this peaked interest in sour foods? "Sour is trending as a flavor in food because sour stretches over many food sensations, like an after burn. And once you get hooked on it, it's tough to go back to bland," says Ann Butler, founder of the kid's cooking company Edible Education, in an email statement.
"Among the drivers of the trend toward tangy flavors is a greater emphasis on wellness, artisanal foods, ethnic cuisines and the craft cocktail movement," according to an article at Flavor & the Menu. The article also noted that sour taste adds complexity of flavor to foods. Butler agrees, saying "Sour flavors offer a layered richness in flavor profiling, and that is a big deal for foodies and chefs who like to stretch the culinary limits when developing intense flavors."
Oriental Medicine practitioner Liz Billings has a different view. "Sour foods tend to be calming and our lives tend to be stressful," she said in an email. Billings noted that Chinese medicine associates sour flavor with the liver and gall bladder, which are overtaxed by the typical American lifestyle of too much processed food and too little exercise.
Many Americans have been introduced to sour tastes by ethnic dishes, especially Asian cuisine that traditionally uses sour flavors. Kimchee, in particular, has contributed to the growing American taste for sour. "Sour is the flavor of 2015. Chefs everywhere are experimenting with pickling and fermenting, borrowing techniques and flavors from food cultures around the world," according to Laurel Mitz, Elevate My Brand CEO.
Consumers may also believe sourness indicates a product contains less sugar, and see sour products as a way to reduce sugar intake. However, Dr. Caroline Withers, senior sensory and consumer scientist at MMR Research Worldwide, said that the company had seen no direct link between consumer health concerns and the increased market for sour foods. In fact, she said, in some products, sour masks the sweet taste, and they don't actually contain less sugar.
On the other hand, fermented foods do have potential health benefits, such as improved digestion and immunity. And kombucha has significantly less sugar than soft drinks.
New sour-flavored product introductions from 2013 to December 2014 were up 57%, with 341 new products coming to the market from 2008 to December 2014, according to FONA International. "As interest grows in sour over sweet in food and drink, more fermented products will find their way onto menus and shelves," according to a J. Walter Thompson December 2014 report.
Wrigley, a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., saw a ten-fold increase in dollar sales for sour gum in 2014, driven by younger consumers. The company has pronounced 2016 "the year of the sours," and plans to introduce many new sour candies and gums.
Sour is a more challenging flavor to balance with other flavors in a food or beverage, according to Withers. She notes that although consumers are open to more challenging tastes, companies must execute the flavors just right to keep them approachable. Withers does believe the sour trend is here to stay and that consumers can expect to see sour often paired with other flavors