New flavors are building sales, consumer base as technology takes center stage.
Not so long ago, the Red Delicious apple was the gold standard for produce. It is pretty, withstands shipping, hides bruises, and stores well. But it often doesn’t deliver in taste. In fact, Nielsen Perishables Group reports that while dollar sales of managed varieties such as Pink Lady, Ambrosia and Honeycrisp are up, Red Delicious and other traditional varieties have dropped.
Millennials lead the charge toward flavor. Mintel’s Lynn Dornblaser notes that Millennials seek fun and flavor over value or convenience. Millennials also enjoy dining out and trying new foods, so it’s no surprise chefs are influencing produce flavor expectations.
The Flavor Revolution
Ideas for new varietals often come from chefs. Michael Mazourek, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, spends lots of time creating new cultivars from hybridized heirlooms. “I need an audience, and that’s where chefs come in,” says Mazourek. “They want great new ingredients, and that creates a dynamic exchange between us.” The white cucumbers and mini-sized squash he cultivated for chefs will soon be available at retail.
Breeding For Flavor
Breeding for flavor is relatively recent. “In 2008 and 2009, we decided to rebuild our company around flavor,” says Jim Beagle, chief executive, The Grapery, Shafter, CA. “We changed everything —farming methods, harvesting, and retailer buy-in. In the beginning, a few small retailers took a chance on our new products, and their grape sales went up within a week.”
Seed breeders incorporate genetic mapping to help them identify desirable traits and cultivate new items such as tomatoes of different colors, shapes, and sizes that still maintain quality and consistency while delivering on flavor. “Breeding without technology is like driving without a map and hoping to get where we want to go. Technology tools are our maps and GPS,” says Carl Jones, Ph.D., global accelerated breeding technologies lead, Monsanto Vegetable Seeds, Woodland, CA. “The breeding process and challenges are the same as in the past, but we have a powerful set of tools and technology to deliver all the flavor traits that customers desire.”
The USDA-supported RosBREED project applies modern DNA tests and related breeding methods to deliver new cultivars of apples, berries and stone fruit. The project is co-directed by Amy Iezzoni, Ph.D., professor, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University, East Lansing. “DNA tests allow you to combine traits more efficiently, like good texture with a right acid-sweetness profile. With markers for disease resistance and fruit quality, we can identify seedlings that have those qualities in the greenhouse and not have to plant acres of seedlings. I am developing tart cherries with a higher sugar-acid ratio and am exploring crossing tart cherries with sweet cherries for more complex flavors.”
Seed breeders also use analytical chemistry tools to identify the biochemical underpinnings of flavor. In the Melorange melon, for example, breeders worked with an existing genetic variation and identified molecules responsible for ripening and great aroma. “Technology allows us to bring high-flavor products year-round to the consumer,” says Jones. On the consumer side, Chow-Ming Lee, Ph.D., consumer sensory lead at Monsanto, conducts monthly focus groups to help connect consumer liking scores to genetic profiles and sensory properties.
In the end, flavor is key. “Quality attributes, primarily those associated with appearance, will be responsible for the initial purchase of the product but flavor and texture drive repeat purchases,” says Larry Pierce, Ph.D., director, celery research and seed operations, Duda Fresh, Oviedo, FL.
Flavor is a complex blend of tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory) — with aroma, texture, mouthfeel, and other sensory properties of fruits and vegetables. For example, “People tend to prefer more sweetness and less bitterness in celery, lettuce, and other items that are consumed raw,” says Pierce. “But certain varieties under certain growing conditions can range from sweet to bitter or sour.”
“In our apples, we seek balance between sweet and tart, plus the right texture, to give the palate a great ‘wow’ experience,” says Don Roper, vice president, sales and marketing, Honeybear Brands, Elgin, MN. “Our goal is a light, delicate cell structure that allows the apple bite to cleave off with a crisp snap. Subliminally, that signals to the consumer the apple is fresh and wholesome.”
“Consumer expectations are very high for flavor, because they experience great flavor in items from farmers markets, specialty retailers, and restaurants,” says Alecia Troy, senior marketing manager, Sakata Seed America, Morgan Hill, CA. “We commission third-party flavor analyses to measure our Infinite Gold melon and Touchstone Gold beet against the competition.”
A Higher Standard
Growing and harvesting conditions affect product quality. Zespri, for example, employs a comprehensive quality system to ensure consistent flavor in its Green and SunGold Kiwifruits, and links a percentage of grower payments to the taste profile of the fruit.
Glen Arrowsmith, market manager, Zespri North America, Newport Beach, CA, explains Zespri sets guardrails for brix measurements prior to picking. “For the first time this year, our kiwifruits will be available through the spring, because we assess the optimal time for picking.”
Table grapes are among the leaders in today’s flavor revolution. “We are pioneering, adopting, and refining various farming practices, including feeding, drip irrigation, and exposure to sunlight, to result in optimal flavor,” says The Grapery’s Beagle. “During the harvest, our team picks only those grapes that are ripe and ready to be carefully packed and shipped.”
“Flavor is not just variety-related but also related to how one manages the growing and harvesting of the vineyards,” says Scott Reade, vice president, sales and marketing, Pandol Brothers, Delano, CA. “Some of the newer varieties allow the grower to hold the fruit on the vine for more maturity and a true improvement in flavor.”
Growers continue to face and overcome challenges in growing delicious tomatoes. Certain aromatic compounds associated with tomato flavor are released when the tomato cell wall softens; a softer tomato is more vulnerable during shipping.
“Apples are a hot commodity in produce,” says Roper of Honeybear. “They deliver great gross margins and have an enviable consumption curve.” Honeybear was among the first Honeycrisp growers in the United States and supports a dual-hemisphere strategy that maintains a year-round crop. Honeybear and others cross the popular Honeycrisp with other apples to create new and flavorful varietals.
Roper explains its Pazazz apple, introduced in 2015, harvests a month later than Honeycrisp and maintains its flavor well in controlled atmosphere (CA) storage. “Moms will pay for flavor. The Honeycrisp changed the paradigm of produce pricing and promotion forever. The simple act of introducing a product with ‘real flavor’ reinvented the apple industry.” He notes, however, shoppers may not continue to support boutique pricing in the future.
Roger Pepperl, marketing director, Stemilt, Wenatchee, WA, expects the flavor revolution and season expansion to continue. “Technology and better parent varietals are speeding up the development of newer, even more flavorful apples. What used to be great in apples is not good enough anymore.”
Stemilt is introducing its new Rave apple next summer, a full six weeks before the first New York crop. A cross between Honeycrisp and MonArk, Rave has full color, fractures like a Honeycrisp, is very juicy, and offers a different flavor profile. Its Piñata (bred from heirloom Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Duchess of Oldenburg) has a unique bite and fracture, is among the best apples for pie, and is available from November to April. The company’s recently planted Royal Red Honeycrisp has high crunch and acid, packs and ships better than Honeycrisp, and holds up to long-term storage.
The variety of grapes continues to expand, with new varietals joining The Grapery’s Tear Drops, Cotton Candy and Gum Drops. Pandol is importing new varieties from the Southern Hemisphere and Mexico to extend its season into winter and spring.
Cornell’s Mazourek anticipates growth in smaller-sized varietals convenient for snacking with the added benefit of more concentrated flavor. Among the leaders is Sakata with smaller-sized Takara shishito peppers, melons, watermelon and butternut squash. Mazourek also expects more purple vegetables. He cautions, however, “color compounds can impart a bitter or astringent taste, so breeders have to select varietals that deliver both sweetness and color.”
Retailers play an important role in reaching influencers. “Sampling is huge. People who have a great eating experience are more likely to buy,” says Honeybear’s Roper. Michigan State’s Dr. Iezzoni encourages produce departments to provide history and descriptions of new items as a way to attract consumers.
Customer feedback is most important. “Technology allows us to have real conversations with consumers that we couldn’t have 15 or 20 years ago,” says Beagle. He adds breeders, growers and pickers join retailers in appreciating information from customers on whether products are meeting their flavor expectations.
“Millennials in particular share every taste experience, good or bad, via social media, making flavor more important than ever,” says Duda’s Pierce.