Kalil, Ehrhardt of Frito-Lay discuss seasoning and flavor innovations

PLANO, Texas Four-alarm flavors, hard-to-pronounce berries from the rainforest and sweet combinations have had a big impact on the snack category. Drug Store News asked Stephen Kalil, executive chef at Frito-Lay North America’s Culinary Innovation Center, and Gary Ehrhardt, senior group manager of FLNA seasoning development and flavor innovation about where flavor trends are headed.

Drug Store News: Snack flavors are getting spicier. What is driving the trend to turn up the heat?

Stephen Kalil: It all comes down to what consumers are exposed to in their everyday lives. People are consuming food prepared away from home more often and are being exposed to many more styles of cuisine as a result. These include ethnic cuisines, such as Mexican and Asian, where spice and heat are common elements. Spicy heat elevates the food as an experience.

DrSN: Where do you see influence from other cultures going?

Kalil: The trend is heading to more regional authenticity. For example, in Mexican cuisine, more focus on regions, such as Veracruz, Oaxaca and the Yucatan, and more influences from Southeast Asia—Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Gary Ehrhardt: And you can see that in our product development. For example, last year we launched a very successful Cheetos Chile Limon product that delivered excellent ‘earthy’ chile pepper notes with a splash of lime, consistent with traditional Mexican cuisine. Many of the new flavors in our development pipeline are inspired by regional cuisines.

DrSN: What are some new flavor profiles consumers can look forward to?

Kalil: There are specific flavor profiles such as lemongrass, kaffir lime and red chili, but I see the trend moving more to layers of flavor—sweet, spicy, tangy and savory. This again makes food more experiential.

Ehrhardt: In fact, within the past year, we’ve launched several new products with these layered flavors. Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili tortilla chips combines the savory notes of soy sauce with hints of garlic, onion spice—all balanced with sweetness. Two products we launched this year for a limited time only were Lay’s Sweet & Spicy Teriyaki potato chips and SunChips Roasted Sweet Chili snacks. Many of the new flavors that we’ll launch in 2009 continue this trend of flavor combinations.

DrSN: How have new flavors influenced non-chip segments, such as nuts?

Kalil: Nuts used to be two things: something roasted and salted that you snacked on or an ingredient in a recipe. What’s happening now is the recipe, or the culinary use of a nut, is influencing the snack form. Macadamia and coconut-crusted shrimp with an apricot curry sauce might inspire a curry-flavored nut mix with apricot and coconut pieces.

DrSN: Is the life of new flavors getting shorter due to consumers’ ramped-up desire for something new?

Kalil: There will always be tried-and-true iconic flavors—some of which are classic Frito-Lay flavors like sour cream and onion or nacho cheese. As the consumer becomes more adventurous, there will be a need to introduce new flavors more often, while at the same time providing options with those iconic flavors.

Ehrhardt: The challenge is to offer our consumers a balanced portfolio of well-known and loved flavors such as Cheetos Cheese, while also appealing to their desire to explore new flavors, such as Cheetos Cheddar-Jalapeno, Cheetos Mozzarella and Cheetos Cheddar-BBQ.

DrSN: Has the Internet become a big part of communicating new flavors to younger consumers?

Kalil: Absolutely. Younger consumers are communicating with their peers through instant messaging and social networking. In doing this, they are sharing experiences, many of which involve food and flavor.

Ehrhardt: A great example of this was last year’s launch of Doritos X-13D, with a mystery flavor. The product was launched in an anonymous black and white bag as a new flavor ‘leaked from the research and development flavor labs at Frito-Lay.’ Consumers were invited to guess the flavor. There was a tremendous amount of online/blog discussion as people tried to figure out the flavor. The correct answer was cheeseburger.

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