Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

Snacking has become an everyday occurrence for nearly all Americans, with “salty” flavor as a standout, separating it from other traditional Western taste categories, including “sweet,” “sour,” “umami” and “bitter.” Not only is “salty” the top flavor profile in snacks, but it’s so popular that “salty snacks” is a recognized food category. “Sour” is also an established flavor note in snacks, especially those flavored with sour cream. However, the “one to watch” flavor profile in salty snacks is “bitter”, which is becoming more popular in US foodservice menu items.

Consumers sour on “salty” and “sweet”

“Salty” is a flavor that crosses markets and snacking subcategories. Because of its popularity and ubiquity – combined with its negative health implications – it presents a challenge for manufacturers. In order to improve the snack products, manufacturers are experimenting with low/no/reduced sodium products, with only moderate success.

Snacks with a sweet flavor profile are not as common: sweet-flavored snacks that do not fall into the confectionery or bakery categories, but are classified as “snacks,” tend to be combined with savory or salty ingredients. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD), only 5% of snack products launched since 2013 have been positioned as “sweet,” led by snack and cereal bars (19%) and popcorn (15%). Research suggests consumer sentiment toward sweet snacks are not improving. Mintel’s Snacking Motivations and Attitudes US 2015 report discovered that 34% of US adult snackers are limiting their intake of sweet snacks, and 33% are snacking on healthier foods this year compared to last year, highlighting opportunity for bitter snacks to grow their share of the category.

“Bitter” makes a move

Snacks with a bitter flavor profile may be less common, but they are gaining popularity as consumers become more familiar with bitter-tasting food amidst growing health concerns facing salty snacks. In the US foodservice category, for example, there has been an increase in menu items that are described as “bitter,” including cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and a range of bitter greens including collards, kale, chicory, and mustard greens.

According to Mintel Menu Insights, there are a number of bitter ingredients – primarily bitter greens – appearing on restaurant menus ranging from fast casual to fine dining. Also becoming more popular with restaurant diners are bitter flavored beverages, including bitter lemon or orange and a range of alcoholic beverages, from beer/ale to cocktails made with bitters (herb or plant extracts).

Bitter flavors are being derived from the use of matcha green tea, beer and bitter gourd

Although the bitter flavor profile is not yet a common feature of snacks, it is starting to be used in some products, driven in part by the growing popularity of kale and root vegetable-based chips. Beyond kale, other bitter flavors are being derived from the use of matcha green tea, beer and vegetables such as bitter gourd. As consumers experience more foods with a notably bitter flavor, it is likely that they will accept similar flavors in snacks; the presence of bitter flavors may prove to be a boon to manufacturers as the strong bitter notes may remove the need for large quantities of sodium in the products.

What it means

  • Foods with a “bitter” flavor profile are becoming more popular in foodservice, and as is the case with many foodservice trends, the acceptance of bitter-flavored products is moving into retail.
  • In snacks, bitter-flavored products are still somewhat rare but they are occurring through the use of bitter gourd or melon, matcha green tea, and other ingredients that impart a bitter flavor to the snack including some herbs, spices, and fruits.
  • As a strong flavor note, “bitter” may prove to be a way of reducing the use of sodium in snacks.