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The Big Playoff: Produce versus Flavoring

Soon you may walk into your favorite café and see that it offers curry Graham cracker coffee. Or how about sriracha rose? Banana bacon?

These are some possibilities raised by the Kerry Taste Chart, a recently released list of current flavor trends on the food scene.

The list is broken down into four categories: mainstream (top 10 for the last 5 years); key (the next top 15 for the last 5 years); up-and-coming (20 fastest growing in the last 2 years); and emerging (20 fastest growing in the last year).

Fruit and vegetable tastes abound, ranging from the mainstream strawberry and raspberry to emerging pomegranate and pear in the sweet category. On the vegetable side, we find black garlic as an emerging ingredient, along with fennel and Hatch Valley pepper.

There are several lists: for ingredients; sweets; salty snacks; savory; hot and dairy beverages; and waters and cold beverages. Certain items appear on more than one list. Is lemon an emerging flavor? Yes, though not for sweets, but for salty snacks.

The list is partly intended to serve as an idea generator for chefs and foodservice professionals, so we may well see kimchi-pineapple hamburgers or buffalo-cranberry pasta on menus soon.

But the real focus is on Kerry’s business: flavorings. I imagine that an enterprising food engineer looking at this list could go to the lab to create some ketchup-flavored potato chips: ketchup is an up-and-coming flavor for salty snacks.

Consequently, when we see blackcurrant as up-and-coming in the sweet category, we realize that very few people are going to eat or even find actual blackcurrants. The same is true for elderberry, which is up-and-coming in the cold beverage category.

All of this, though amusing, may seem beside the point for fresh produce. I would suggest that it is not.

As I noted in last week’s column, fruit and vegetable consumption has been flat for the past twenty years. This fact may lead us to ask what the real competition is.

In many cases, the real competitors for fruits and vegetables are processed and flavored products, usually beefed up with a heavy shot of salt or sugar.

To understand what I’m talking about, ask yourself whether the typical child would rather eat a strawberry Twizzler or an actual strawberry.

Industrialized food products have long been shaping the American palate in favor of simple, not necessarily natural or even natural tasting, flavors instead of produce items. Yet even the most insipid piece of fruit has more subtlety of flavor than these artificial products.

I have no intention of decrying this situation: I don’t like sermonizing. But it does seem to me that the produce industry needs to take note of this important aspect of eating trends.

Maybe the answer is to make an ally of an adversary: add flavoring to actual produce items. If you added green apple flavoring to a green apple, you would have a green apple that tastes more like a green apple than a green apple does.

I shouldn’t be putting ideas in people’s heads.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.