Upscale restaurants have long aimed to challenge diners with novel ingredients and taste sensations. Now the trend is going mainstream, with experimental flavors popping up everywhere, from packaged food and drinks to quick service eateries.

Starbucks recently generated a wave of reaction with the launch of a special edition braised pork flavor coffee to celebrate the Lunar New Year in China. Available at Starbucks Reserve stores, the “Abundant Year Savory Latte” combines espresso and milk with a sauce inspired by ‘Dongpo’ braised pork and comes served with a sliced pork garnish.

The meat-flavored coffee concept comes in the wake of a flurry of savory ice-cream launches. In 2023, American ice cream parlor chain Baskin-Robbins released a Chick’n & Waffles flavor crafted to mimic the taste of fried chicken, while competitor Van Leeuwen announced a collab with Hidden Valley Ranch based on the flavor of the latter’s eponymous dressing.

Gen alpha palates (trend #41 in the Future 100 2024) tracks the appetite from today’s younger cohorts for such weird and wonderful flavor pairings, like French’s Mustards flavor Skittles. According to VML Intelligence research, more than 50% of Gen Z and Millennials in the United States, United Kingdom and China are also keen to explore these unconventional culinary options, with more than 20% of Gen Z saying that they already indulge in foods that “some might consider unusual or challenging.”

Much of this interest can be traced to a desire for novelty as well as a passion for the curious and even the absurd. Social media also plays a role, with kudos to be garnered from being the first to post about the latest quirky flavors. Surprising food hacks and recommendations are a surefire way to earn likes and shares: there are currently more than 21 million TikTok posts on dipping chicken nuggets in a Frosty (an ice dessert from burger chain Wendy’s).

In an interview with Food Ingredients First, Ian McGarvey, senior vice president, Global Technology and Innovation at Kerry Group shared his view that “young consumers are craving bold and unusual flavor combinations, driven by social media’s influence and a desire for novelty” which he explained, is paving the way for “sweet-savory pairings like bacon milkshakes, coffee infused with black garlic and chocolate bars with wasabi.” Back in the Future 100 2016, we noted that palates were embracing greater complexity in Swavory foods (trend #44): now younger generations are taking this to a new level.

The appetite for quirky flavor combinations extends to drinks too, evidenced by the rise of savory cocktails and spirits. Empirical Spirits recently debuted its Nacho Cheese Spirit in collaboration with FritoLay snack brand Dorito’s, with the tasting notes: “Nacho Cheese, corn tostada, umami, hint of acidity.” Cocktail joints around the world are shaking up savory meal-inspired libations too (see Culinary Cocktails, #41 in the Future 100 2024) with drinks based on everything from cold pizza to tom kha soup.

In The Age of Re-enchantment, VML Intelligence uncovered an appetite for experiences that spark emotions, delivering adventure, thrills, surprise and magic. People crave excitement as an escape, an a time of perceived algorithmic efficiency and cultural stasis. 65% now say they want to be wowed by brands’ marketing. In food and drink this is translating to an appetite for tastes that spark imagination and deliver a novel experience worth sharing. Bold, wacky and even ‘grossout’ flavors can cut through and capturing attention.

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