New flavor trends are emerging at the intersection of persistent food inflation and pent-up consumer demand leftover from COVID lockdowns.
According to industry experts, consumers are looking for authenticity and transparency above all else, and those values are largely dictating which flavors will win out next year.
With that, here are three of the top flavor trends experts say to watch in 2023:
1. Complex Heat
Spicy food has been gaining popularity over the last decade, but today’s consumers crave more than just heat—they want to learn about different peppers and the complexity of their flavors.
According to Spoonshot’s 2023 Trends Report, interest in complex heat “goes beyond level of heat to specific varieties of pepper from around the world, underlying flavor notes, and even pairing with other flavors.”
Spoonshot’s data shows that the complex heat trend is being driven by consumers’ growing interest in international flavors, which some experts attribute to a collective desire for new experiences in the wake of COVID lockdowns.
“What we’re learning is that this is partly about making us feel something,” Robyn Carter, founder and CEO of Jump Rope Innovation told The Food Institute. “Breaking up the monotony, amusing and stimulating ourselves.
“There are also cuisines that are trending, as consumers seek new experiences through food, where spice levels are more complex and at higher levels than U.S. consumers are generally used to—Indian, West African, etc.” Carter explained. “As those cuisines continue to go mainstream in 2023, we’ll see more complex heat ahead.”
Coming out of the COVID pandemic, many consumers are drawn to comfort foods that remind them of simpler, pre-pandemic times. Nostalgic foods have become hugely popular over the last year, and the trend doesn’t show signs of slowing in 2023.
“In times of change and uncertainty, human nature takes us back to the things that make us feel safe and comfortable,” Dan Mesches, CEO of Sprinkles Cupcakes told The Food Institute. “Food especially has the power to do this.
“So when you start seeing certain flavors you remember having growing up or dishes that remind you of cooking at home with your family, there’s an instant connection there,” Mesches said.
Kellogg’s banked on this kind of instant connection when it brought back Frosted Grape Pop-Tarts earlier this year, a flavor that was discontinued in the 90s, when millennials were growing up.
McDonald’s also tapped into the nostalgia trend this year when it released an adult Happy Meal, complete with a plastic toy, as part of a limited-time collaboration with streetwear company Cactus Plant Flea Market. The fast-food giant is doubling down on nostalgia this Halloween by bringing back the Boo Bucket, a Happy Meal served in a familiar trick-or-treating pail, which debuted in 1986.
3. Street Food
Consumers are looking for new experiences through food while navigating a steady increase in food inflation at the same time—street food reconciles both of these truths, making it a cuisine of the moment.
“Street food carries an aura of authenticity that people right now, especially Gen Z, seek out,” Leith Steel, senior strategist and Head of Insights at Carbonate told The Food Institute. “By nature, it is accessible and carries a lack of pretense, it can also be seen as an antidote to fine dining.”
Elote, Mexican street corn, is one example of an authentic street food that reached mainstream appeal in the U.S. over the last few years. PepsiCo released Mexican Street Corn Cheetos as a limited-time offer in 2021, and Kellogg’s came out with Pringles Mexican Street Corn Crisps this summer.
According to Spoonshot’s report, chaat masala, a spice blend from North India and a staple ingredient in many street food dishes, could be the next big thing in 2023. Right now, consumer interest in chaat masala is five times greater than business interest, indicating that there is demand waiting to be fulfilled.