Every year for the last decade, McCormick & Co. the $3.5 billion spices and seasonings company, produces a forecast of culinary trends and accompanying flavor pairings that aim to determine the taste profile of what we eat when dining out, and the foods we pick up at the supermarket. This report, called the Flavor Forecast, takes a whole year to compile and has significant influence within the food industry.
You can see the trend summary here: http://www.mccormickforchefs.com/Resources/Flavor-Forecast-2012.aspx
The insights are drawn from focus groups and research from the throngs of people the company relies on globally to supply their taste buds for taste tests, and their thoughts, observations and opinions on flavor combinations and new products. According to Marianne Gillette, Vice President of Applied Research at McCormick, “In the Baltimore area alone (where the company is headquartered), we have 300 to 400 people coming into our building every week – they are eager to come in. Then we have another 30,000 consumers nationwide that we can access via the internet. We also go into homes, into restaurants, into schools, so we can observe consumers eating in their natural environment.”
Access to these “natural environments” are facilitated by McCormick’s ability to make generous donations to schools and organizations such The company’s close relationship with many of the nation’s food service giants and quick service chains mean that they can easily extract information on the culinary inclinations of the masses. Then of course, McCormick has it’s own retail brand and a manufacturing arm that ensures the company is well and truly embedded in almost every aisle of the supermarket.
This is the first year that the company has produced a global edition of its Flavour Forecast, pooling the insights, resources and research of its teams from around the world. In total, a group of about 150 McCormick employees from Mexico, South Africa, US, UK, France, Canada, France, Spain, Portugal, China and Australia impacted the forecast. They spanned the trend trackers, chefs and sensory scientists to marketing experts and food technologists.
Once all the due diligence and research had been collated in regional offices, a team of 40 international flavor specialists converged at McCormick’s Hunt Valley center in April 2011 to craft and refine the forecast. “At one point there were probably about 1,000 to 1,500 ideas on post-it notes up on the board,” explains Vetter, a former hotel chef from Baltimore who since it’s inception has led the Flavor Forecast project. But, the task of distilling these down to the final six trends that made it into the final report wasn’t as laborious as one might think. “Many of the trends from the various regional teams were strikingly similar,” Vetter adds. The “Flavorful Swaps” trend which basically speaks to the idea of replacing unhealthy components such as salt and fat with much more salubrious ingredients like herbs and spices, and the ‘Veggies in Vogue” which reflects a new-found culinary respect for vegetables were both born out of a world-wide preoccupation with health and well-being. Similarly, the “Honoring the Roots” trend evolved from a renewed global priority to celebrate the roots and authenticity of a cuisine, and couch tradition within a fresh, modern perspective.
Indeed, the forecast reflects so much more than merely what tickles the tastebuds. The teams study retail and lifestyle trends extensively and use these to buttress their final recommendations. This year’s “Veggies in Vogue” was supported by the fast-growing popularity of locally-grown, heirloom produce, CSA schemes and home-grown vegetables. Domestic edible gardens are up 24% since 2007 in the US according to McCormick’s research. When the pairing of pickling spice and rice wine vinegar made the cut in 2011, it was inspired by a similar lifestyle movement. “We saw that the business of Ball mason jars had increased exponentially, and that people were canning and pickling much more and that really helped to push this flavor pairing,” explains Vetter. “Pickling spices wasn’t one of the hottest, sexiest blends out there, but it spoke to a newfound enthusiasm for specialty homegrown produce and farmer’s markets.”
Once the team agrees on the trends, it has to decide on two flavor combinations to accompany and articulate the essence of each trend. The final step is to divide the trends and flavors between McCormick’s global team of chefs who create specific dishes based around the combinations. The eggplant and sofrito pairing of the “Honoring Roots” trend was captured in an almond and date bulgur salad with sofrito. Meyer lemon, lemon thyme and lemon peel were expertly balanced in palate-popping lemon tarts with Limoncello blackberries to demonstrate the “Quest for the Ultimate” trend. Grilled oysters with grapefruit and red pepper relish featured the fanciful combination of red tea, cinnamon and plum in an inspired articulation of the ‘Flavorful Swaps” trend.
In light of the far-reaching impacts of the forecast, it’s no wonder McCormick takes the project as seriously as it does. “In 2008, we talked about rye whisky and sage as a pairing and we’ve seen a huge growth in the retail segment of products that contain whiskey as a flavoring in all areas of the supermarket, from dry seasoning blends and BBQ sauces to frozen dinners,” says Vetter. As of 2010, the inclusion of chipotle chili – featured in the 2003 forecast – in new grocery products increased by 1,353%. After it was included in the 2006 report, McCorkmick’s own sales of smoked paprika grew 300% (also as of 2010). The forecast’s influence on restaurant menus – from quick service (clients include Wendy’s and Yum! Brands) to fine dining, is no less significant. When lemon grass made an appearance in the 2008 report, it enjoyed a staggering 48% nationwide increase in menu mentions that same year. Similarly, menu mentions of Thai basil increased by 35% in 2010 when it was featured that year.
Bearing in mind just how niche some of the flavors in the forecasts can appear, it might seem as it manufacturers are taking something of a leap of faith by including them in new products. But according to Marianne Gillette, McCormick is adept at cajoling consumers to try, and love, new and unusual tastes by pairing them with ingredients that they are already accustomed to so that they are not entirely out of their culinary comfort zone. “We call it familiar with a twist – for example, wasabi maple was one of our flavor pairings where maple was a flavor Americans were familiar with and wasabi was the more unusual element- but not entirely new, they had some exposure to it at sushi bars,” explains Gilette. And while this initially provoked a lot of head scratching even in McCormick’s avant grade flavor circles, advocates successfully promoted it as simply a contemporary take on the classic honey and mustard combo, where hot, pungent, tart and sweet flavors play off each other perfectly. When broken down and explained like this, it all makes sense – at least to the flavor wizard’s at McCormick. Eggplant, honey and harissa, anyone?