Consumer craving for bitter flavors increases as trend grows beyond cocktails
Fried egg dish with bitter charred kale (Photo: Amelia Crook/Flickr)

Sweet, salty and spicy flavors have been captivating consumers for years, but a new taste is carving out a space on menus and supermarket shelves. The rise of bitter flavors began in earnest this year as consumers’ continued love of kale, Brussels sprouts and bitter IPAs carried over into an appreciation for black coffee, cocktail bitters and charred foods.

The trend may stem from consumers’ desire to be “challenged” by new flavors, Mintel analyst Marcia Mogelonsky told FoodNavigator earlier this year. “Salty/sweet used to be cutting edge, and now it is so routine,” she said.

Bitter flavors have made the strongest showing in the beverage sector, in drinks ranging from coffee concoctions to craft cocktails to green juices made with kale and other bitter greens. As consumers’ acceptance of bitter flavors grows, bars are including the term in more menu descriptions to drum up interest, according to a report from Datassential Menu Trends, which found that “13.4% of beverage menus contain bitter in the menu description and it is the largest penetrated menu part. However, as consumers become more familiar with the term, other areas of the menu are beginning to trial bitter such as entrees and desserts.”

The report cites bitter drinks descriptors ranging from the Belgian Bittersweet Chocolate Milkshake at the Flying Star Cafe in Albuquerque, N.M., to the non-alcoholic Perrier Paris Paris cocktail at the Sofitel New York, which stars angostura bitters as the central flavor, accented by lemon and lime.

Alcoholic beverages are still the most popular vehicle for bitter flavors, and the growing popularity of the flavor profile has spurred a rising interest in cocktails with gin, amaro, various types of bitters and tonic water, which gets its astringent bite from quinine.

Chefs are also finding uses for cocktail bitters beyond the bar, such as adding them to ice cream, baked goods or coffee beverages for a double dose of bitter flavor, according to a recent story in Bon Appetit magazine.

Other menu categories are getting a dose of bitterness from eggplant, bitter greens and exotic offerings such as bitter melon. Menu descriptions highlighting bitter flavors have increased 95% in the last four years, and 15.6% of all menus now include the word bitter in the description of at least one item, according to Datassential.

“Bitter as both a description and food/flavor has been growing and we do predict this to continue at this pace for at least another year or so given the menu adoption cycle -- we are seeing menu penetration move from fine dining to quickservice and fast casual introductions,” said Datassential’s Colleen McClellan.

McClellan said Datassential also predicts the rise of more charred items on menus in 2016, which “supports further adoption of bitter taste.”

Bitter flavors have slowly started to trickle down into snacks and other prepared foods such as kale chips and other vegetable snacks, and confections with bittersweet chocolate.

The rise of bitter flavors could someday help food manufacturers create products with less sodium, Mogelonsky told FoodNavigator. “Bitter flavors offer a big mouthfeel and may provide enough flavor boost that that consumers no longer need a salty taste as well,” she said.

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