Bigger, Bolder, Spicier: our new-found love of flavor

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We’ve always liked our flavors the way we like our politicians.

A little dull, a little bland. In a world of extremes, America has remained moderate, clinging steadfastly to the middle. But the winds of change have been blowing. Iceberg lettuce has given way to arugula, mayonnaise to garlic aioli, yellow mustard to dijon.

Take a quick stroll down any supermarket aisle and you’ll see how manufacturers are amping up the flavors with mintier chewing gum, darker chocolates, fruitier juice drinks, and spicier chips. Browned butter, with its deeper, more savory flavor, is replacing the buttery taste found in snack crackers. We’re averaging a whopping 40 little jars on our home spice racks.

Why is hot so hot?

There are societal changes that have broadened our definition of the mainstream. Immigrant populations have introduced complex, high-octane flavors like wasabi, chili-lime, and ancho and chipotle peppers. We travel more, eat out often, and have a slew of new food media that have made Americans more sophisticated eaters.

Food scientists and marketers think there is another reason for the broad, nationwide shift toward bolder flavors. Baby boomers are getting old. Some time around age 40, the nerve receptors in the nose and tongue begin to diminish in number and sensitivity. Smells are muted and flavors are less distinct. Flavors need to be torqued just to recreate the taste sensations of their younger days.

Unlike previous generations, the baby boomers have reached middle age with their teeth intact, broadened appetites, and the wealth to indulge the demands of their tastebuds. At 80 million strong, they are by far the most influential demographic group in history, with the spending power to shape the entire food market.

Sushi is the new fishstick.

The boomers’ shifting preferences are being passed down to children and grandchildren, shaping the tastes of younger generations. Growing up with pesto and peppers, even very young children are demonstrating a yen for boldly pronounced flavors. The under-13 set cites Chinese food as its favorite, followed by Mexican, Japanese, Italian and, in fifth place, American food. Quesadillas have replaced grilled cheese sandwiches on restaurant kiddie menus.

Sweeter, spicier, bigger, bolder: it looks like the new flavor profile is here to stay.

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3 Responses to Bigger, Bolder, Spicier: our new-found love of flavor

  1. i agree with you about the sushi, my girls at school love it!

  2. Dana says:

    That’s a very interesting point you make. Flavor is getting bigger here in North America. It’s going to be interesting to see all of the changes it will effect in North American cuisine.

    I mean, the barbecue of the Southern States is a type of cooking I would call pretty American. It certainly isn’t what I would call bland, but it would be interesting to see how interest in other, bolder flavors will effect it’s tradition.

  3. Interesting post, informative:)

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