Consumers shifting from sweet to sour

 Kombucha, kimchi and other fermented flavors are gaining favor as consumers shift from sweet to sour. A combination of health concerns and an interest in exotic cuisines is influencing the trend, said Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst for Mintel, Chicago.

“It’s not surprising to see that consumers are really looking to avoid eating too much sugar,” Ms. Mattucci said during a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, held July 11-13 in Chicago. “In fact, 70% of U.S. consumers say they’re concerned with how much sugar overall affects their health, but only about a third are looking to lower sugar in their diets as a way to decrease their calories, suggesting that this opinion about sugar causing more effects than just adding weight are really affecting consumers’ perception.”

Recent recommendations of sugar intake from leading health organizations and proposed labeling changes in the United States and Canada are pushing sugar concerns to the top of consumers’ minds.

“As we continue to see more media on added sugar and how much it’s affecting our overall health, it’s going to change an entire generation’s relationship with sugar, as we saw with the low-fat trend in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Ms. Mattucci said.

Many are shunning sugar-laden products, as seen in the recent decline of carbonated soft drinks, driving a shift toward less sweet flavors, such as Greek yogurt. More than half of U.S. yogurt consumers perceive Greek yogurt is healthier than traditional products, Mintel found.

“Not only does Greek yogurt have a higher protein content, but it’s also richer in texture, aiding that satiety,” Ms. Mattucci said. “Another advantage is the sour flavor, kind of giving you that perception that it’s less sweet than some of the other spoonable yogurt products out there.”

Nearly a fourth of U.S. consumers are looking for less sweet flavors in carbonated soft drinks, and 57% believe carbonated soft drinks made with natural ingredients are healthier.

“This has given rise to products like kombucha, which is a healthy alternative to carbonated soft drinks,” she said.

Kombucha has grown fivefold in the United States between 2013 and 2014. In the past year, 25% of U.S. consumers said they have purchased a ready-to-drink kombucha beverage. That number skews higher for millennial males, 48% of whom have consumed kombucha.

“As consumers become more exposed to diverse flavors, tart and sour can be seen as the antithesis of sweet,” Ms. Mattucci said.

Then there are the potential health benefits linked to fermented foods, such as improved digestion and stronger immunity.

Along those lines, other trending beverages with a sour taste include drinking vinegars, shrub cocktails and switchels. A Vermont company called Up Mountain Switchel is billing the apple cider vinegar-based drink as an “American heritage beverage” made with roots, fruits and sap.

“Drinking vinegars can appeal to consumers looking for a way to cure the modern ills of today,” Ms. Mattucci said. Historically used as a tonic to treat health ailments, drinking vinegars are associated with enhanced digestion, increased energy and decreased muscle pain, she added.

Another sour superstar is kimchi, associated with probiotic benefits.

“Also, studies are indicating it may be anti-cancer, anti-obesity and anti-aging benefits, or that it may enhance the immune system,” Ms. Mattucci said.

Kimchi has become a flavor inspiration in such snack foods as peanuts and chips, too. Food Should Taste Good, a business unit of General Mills, offers a kimchi-flavored tortilla chip.

“As consumers look more at what they eat and how they feel, they’re interested in healthy foods and real foods that really tap into the nostalgia of our agrarian past,” Ms. Mattucci said. “The media attention on sugar is going to continue to drive consumers to be more aware of how much sugar they eat…

“Flavors that offer alternatives to sweet are going to become more appealing. Especially to those millennials who are craving more intense and authentic flavor experiences.”