One of the most anticipated features of SNAXPO 2023 (taking place in Orlando, FL March 19–21) is the Flavor Showdown competition. Hosted by Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery, the event (formerly known as the Flavor Pavilion) invites flavor companies to show off their wares for a chance at glory.

“The Flavor Showdown is an opportunity for SNAXPO’s leading flavor/seasoning suppliers to showcase their most inventive, on-trend flavors to the broader industry,” says David Walsh, vice president of membership and communications, SNAC International. “Each participant is allowed to enter two flavors—one savory, and one sweet—served on a snack ‘base’ (i.e. popcorn, tortilla chip, chocolate) of their choice. Attendees sample the flavors, vote for their favorite, and the SNAXPO Flavor of the Year Award is presented by SF&WB on Tuesday, March 21 at the SNAXPO Closing Party.”

The following companies have committed to participate in this year’s Flavor Showdown:

“The participants in the Flavor Pavilion not only receive visibility in front of the entire industry but credibility,” says Walsh. “By participating, they are showing they have their finger on the pulse of consumer snacking behavior.”

To learn more about the competition, flavor trends, and what attendees can expect at this year’s event, SF&WB connected with a number of experts from participating companies:

  • Mike Cantore, vice president of sales, Carolina Ingredients
  • Casey Claflin, marketing manager, LifeSpice
  • Shannon Cushen, director of marketing, Fuchs North America
  • David Janik, insights manager, Griffith Foods
  • Rachael Jarzembowski, marketing manager, Wixon
  • Lisa Stern, senior vice president of sales and marketing, LifeSpice
  • Ben Zirbel, innovation manager, Revela Foods

Jenni Spinner: Could you please tell us a bit about your company—who you are, what you do, areas of specialty, and what sets you apart?

Mike Cantore: Carolina Ingredients is in its 33rd year of business. We are a seasoning blend manufacturer located in Rock Hill, SC. We specialize in all types of snack seasonings and functional blends for food processors. We have an on-site R & D Lab staffed with five food scientists that are creating innovative seasoning blends daily. We have unique blending technology that allows us to use NIR (near-infrared technology) to guarantee our seasonings are 100% blended properly. This technology allows us to add micro ingredients i.e. probiotics to our seasonings and guarantee the inclusion rate into the blend. We are backed by the Mitsubishi family of food ingredient companies and source our ingredients from all over the globe.

Casey Claflin: LifeSpice was created when our company president, Peter Garvy, saw a void that needed to be filled within the seasoning world, which had become increasingly consolidated over the years. Fewer companies in our field had translated to less competition, which meant that customers had to endure a lack of quality customer relations and creativity from their providers. LifeSpice was inspired with the vision of creating a seasoning company that valued close, collaborative relationships. We prioritize these personalized partnerships with our clients and pair them with the industry expertise of our food scientists and culinarians, attentive sales and superior client service teams, and the latest global market trend research to craft successful, craveable seasonings.

Shannon Cushen: Fuchs North America is a go-to spice and seasoning supplier for many of the leading brands in the snack industry and beyond. For over 75 years, brands of all sizes and types have trusted us with developing custom seasonings for their products. Our mission is to bring the joy of food to life for consumers around the world, and we deliver on that mission by providing superior support for our customers through all stages of the product development cycle. With deep expertise in creating successful snack products, Fuchs is more than just a flavor supplier; we’re a resource for snack brands. From providing trend insights and concept ideas to offering comprehensive R&D and sensory support, our team is here to assist with all aspects of snack product development.

David Janik: Griffith Foods is a product development partner specializing in food ingredients. We serve global and regional food companies worldwide. As a family business, we’ve valued people above all else for over 100 years. Griffith Foods is renowned for true, collaborative innovation. Our people care. We’re committed to helping our customers create better products—and a better, more sustainable world.

Rachel Jarzembowski: Wixon has partnered with snack manufacturers for over 100 years, creating custom flavor systems for their brands. With our in-house taste ingredients toolbox (seasoning blends, flavors, and flavor technologies) our R&D and culinary scientists can create flavor systems that deliver not only great taste but also functionality. We understand label requirements and with fluid communication between our R&D and regulatory teams, we ensure flavor systems are created that meet the ever-changing regulatory landscape. Our innovation process (based on market research, along with culinary insights and scientific formulation expertise) ensures on-trend blends balanced with functionality. 

Ben Zirbel: Revela Foods is a diversified food ingredient company. We are rooted in dairy and are vertically integrated into the areas of flavors, sauces, seasonings, and functional cheese. Our people and our products set us apart from others. We are a group of foodies that enjoy everything the food industry has to offer. Our customers are the reason we get to do what we love. For snacks, we get excited about the opportunity to make unique flavor profiles for just about any snack base our customers can imagine.

JS: Please share your thoughts on what consumer preferences and behaviors have been impacting sweet and savory snack flavors.

Lisa Stern: We’re seeing a lot of the same trends impacting the snack food world as the food world at large. Nostalgia-inducing flavors have become increasingly trendy, and snack foods have started to delve deeper into the nuances of nostalgia, crafting products that speak directly to different generations and consumers with different cultural backgrounds. 

We’re also keeping an eye on the behaviors of new, younger generations of consumers. Millennials, and especially Gen Z consumers, seem less bound by the three-meal-a-day structure of past generations. They are snacking more and are looking for more from their snack foods, from exciting world flavors to cleaner labels and functional ingredients. We expect this generation of consumers to drive snack food companies to experiment with more adventurous flavors and creative packaging solutions to meet the demands of this growing base of consumers.

BZ: We have seen an increase in cleaner labels and healthy snack options. Here at Revela Foods we are committed to formulating to meet those requirements. In addition to the healthy options, we have also seen a desire for innovation around flavor profiles and plant-based snacks. On the trend’s spectrum, it ranges from brand new/trendy to nostalgic/familiar.

DJ: Overall, I think consumers are really interested in bold, impactful flavors that deliver an experience. Salty snacks are meant to be a treat to consumers and eating something that tantalizes the tastebuds provides that experience. When it comes to flavors, especially savory it’s all about cheese or combinations with cheese, spicy flavors, or unique twists on classic flavors like Lemongrass BBQ. 

RJ: Sure. Consumers continue to prioritize their health. In fact, more than two in five consumers are seeking more snacks with functional benefits. At the same time, there’s a balancing act going on. We see consumers balancing comfort and indulgence alongside a rise in “permissible indulgence” – which balances health and taste. People want better taste combined with better-for-you attributes without guilt. Although people turned to familiar foods as a source of comfort throughout the last several years and continue to do so, they now want those same comfort foods to be healthy. Brands can help consumers strike this balance by providing them with healthier products that still provide a sense of comfort and/or indulgence.

We see this in flavors, as well. Familiar flavors can provide a sense of nostalgia and comfort for consumers. By incorporating new/exciting/emerging flavors with familiar, comforting flavors, new snacks can provide consumers with a sense of adventure without much risk.

SC: It’s no secret that consumers have been relying on snack foods to allow them to explore the cuisines of far away, exotic places. International flavors have been in demand with consumers of all ages who are getting tired of more of the same. The industry has been cycling through trends faster than ever, but interest in international flavors is here to stay. 

Gen Z and Millennial consumers, in particular, are looking for especially exotic snack flavors, like those inspired by popular foods and ingredients from countries like Korea, Ethiopia, and Argentina. Older consumers, too, have been expanding their horizons, demonstrating interest in sweet, spicy, and savory global flavors. Especially with inflation on the rise, consumers will be looking for more affordable ways to explore global cuisines, making the snack market ideal for helping them do so. 

Beyond global flavors, consumers have been focused on improving their physical and mental well-being, looking to innovative snack products to support their wellness goals. This has meant that functional ingredients have been making their way into snack flavors and bases. As consumers continue to prioritize their overall health and well-being, we anticipate that they’ll be turning to better-for-you snacks with flavors that evoke the “health halo” and allow them to simultaneously satisfy their cravings and support their goals.

MC: We have seen a strong trend in sweeter flavors. Regional preferences and international flavors have had an impact on our innovative blends. We have not seen as many organic requests as we feel more customers have been reacting to the economy and trending to more “all-natural” or non-GMO offerings.

JS: What have been some of the most notable trends in sweet snack flavors in recent years?

BZ: On the sweet side we have seen a lot of nostalgic desserts with a fun new twist. A strawberry basil glaze for a traditional cheesecake is a good example of this notable trend. Other popular nostalgic snack flavors include cookies n’ cream and birthday cake.

SC: Stressful times call for comfort foods. These days, consumers’ stress levels are at all-time highs, with economic, social, political, and health stressors seemingly never letting up. When consumers are stressed, they turn to comfort food, and the flavors of popular comfort foods, to help them cope. For snacks, this has meant that consumers have been seeking out super indulgent flavors and those inspired by their favorite comfort foods. We’ve been seeing this especially for sweet snacks, as consumers have been gravitating towards indulgence and flavors that let them experience nostalgic flavors that put them at ease and remind them of more simple times.

MC: We have received a lot of sweet requests that add something else to it like heat. For example Chili Pineapple. We are launching a few sweet innovation items with some familiarity to consumers like a Biscoff Cookie Butter type flavor or a doughnut seasoning reminiscent of a familiar yeast doughnut company in the market.

RJ: Interestingly, the boundaries between sweet and savory snack flavors continue to blur – flavors like coffee straddle the divide, creating different sweet-savory flavor experiences. Innovation with sweet flavors remains key in enhancing the indulgent nature of sweet snacks. Companies can capture consumer interest with ideas that are big on taste/flavor but have added value through nutritional claims, like being low in sugar or having extra protein or fiber.

Some sweet flavors with the broadest appeal, include chocolate, orange, vanilla, strawberry, and apple. Whereas sweet flavors with the most growth potential are more adventurous, like tajin (which paired with mango results in a “mangonada” – a sweet, heat flavor experience), dragon fruit, and matcha. Floral notes like lavender and hibiscus are also trending in sweet applications.

Trending sweet flavors include familiar favorites like chocolate, s’mores, and salted caramel.   Incorporating flavors like s’mores adds a nostalgic touch to snacks, which can resonate with consumers who find comfort in their flavor memories.

Other trending sweet flavors come from desserts, such as cake flavors, including birthday cake, black forest, and tres leches. These can be taken to the next level by incorporating flavors that would typically be used in cake fillings, like tropical fruit flavors (pineapple, coconut, passionfruit, lemon curd, etc.) and adult beverage flavors used for fillings (rum, limoncello, and other liqueurs).

CC: We have been noticing a few different fusion trends in sweet snack foods, notably the combinations of sweet and salty flavors ("swalty"), and sweet and spicy flavors ("swicy") in a variety of different snacks, think Sweet Heat BBQ, Crème Brulé pretzels, Kettle Corn, Birthday Cake, etc. We’ve also noticed that the health-conscious approach of “functional” sweet snacks has become more popular, with consumers looking to get added protein or probiotics from their sweets.

JS: Please tell us what you think have been the significant consumer trends in savory snack flavors.

DJ: Within the savory category, I think new twists on familiar flavors or flavor mashups will really drive innovation and line extensions. Look at the popularity of Jalapeno Cheddar, Spicy Dill Pickle, or Parmesan Garlic in the chip and popcorn space, and what used to be individual flavors come together for a unique flavor experience. This also may allow for brands to introduce more “innovative” flavor ideas paired with something traditional. In the past flavors like Gochujang, Black Garlic, and Lemongrass wouldn’t appeal to many mainstream consumers. Yet pairing BBQ with Black Garlic may make Black Garlic more approachable for the consumer while delivering a differentiated eating experience. 

RJ: In savory snacks, consumers gravitate towards cheese flavors. Familiar cheese flavors (like cheddar) have been very popular with consumers. And now, specialty cheese flavors (gouda, gorgonzola, asiago, etc.) are beginning to become more mainstream as consumers become more adventurous and broaden their horizons. Beyond cheese flavors, hot and spicy flavors are still trending. We’re seeing brands now offering more “mild” options to broaden consumer appeal to those who don’t want extreme heat. Chilies can offer more than just heat; they can offer layers of flavor and add complexity, resulting in a more dynamic flavor experience. We see innovation opportunities in tempting consumers with more mildly spicy and international flavors. These milder versions of spicy snacks/flavors can attract non-users by adding sweet flavor notes to tone down the heat by using yuzu or other novel, exciting flavors.

MC: We have seen a strong trend in regional cuisine savory requests. We have done plenty of umami-type seasonings this past year, such as Japanese Thai Curry, Miso, or Elote (Spicy Elote)

LS: We’ve seen consumers seeking out snack flavors with increasing levels of heat over the past few years, and now consumers are even seeking out snacks with individual chili callouts from around the world, like Hatch Peppers, Scotch Bonnets, Carolina Reaper and Peri Peri. Pickled and Fermented flavors have also permeated the snack food world, with brands tapping into the sour-inducing and flavor-boosting power of pickles, kimchi, miso, and more, while also touting the gut health benefits of such snacks. Lastly, Nostalgic flavors with a twist Jalapeño Ranch, Sriracha Ranch, Buffalo Ranch, Togarashi Ranch, etc.

BZ: Savory has covered everywhere from very trend forward to traditional, but I think one thing that is consistent throughout is the desire for some heat in the profiles. A wide variety of peppers with different heat levels has created a consumer that is more accepting of heat. Acceptance of more global cuisines has also had an influence on savory profiles. 

SC: As international cuisines have been on the rise, consumers have been exposed to more exotic peppers from around the world. A jalapeno flavor just doesn’t cut it anymore. So, we’ve seen more interesting and unique peppers being incorporated into snack flavors. Some of these peppers are very hot, but others like the shishito pepper deliver a more mild flavor. Consumers have been seeking out these flavors, which happen to be incredibly versatile and are well-suited for a variety of snack bases. 

Cooking method callouts, or flavors that reference a particular preparation, have also been trending in the snack category. Flavors that include smoky, roasted, and toasted notes, in particular, have been generating a lot of buzz. This is due to consumers’ interest in more complex flavor profiles that aren’t just savory or spicy.

JS: Then, could you please share what you think consumers might be looking for in sweet snack flavors in the coming months/years?

CC: As we mentioned before, swalty flavor profiles provide both sweet and salty satisfaction. Indulgent, decedent snacks that satisfy cravings in a few bites. Additionally, we think that consumers will be looking towards alternative sweeteners in their sweet snacks in the coming years. There has been a growing demand in the past few years for sweet snacks that are indulgent but also perceived as healthier. We may see more snacks that are made with sweeteners, like dates, maple, honey, and coconut sugars. Think Honey Butter, Maple, Sea Salt, etc. We also see growing demand for sweet flavors from around the world, like Ube from the Philippines, as social media and other digital mediums make it easier for consumers to share unique flavors with consumers from different countries. Some of these products may need to be LTO due to supply chain challenges. 

MC: I think the familiarity trend will continue. Flavors that they can enjoy on snacks that they can correlate back to another item. For example Chocolate Chip Cookie Seasoning, Fruit Loop type, etc.

SC: Although sweet heat flavors have long been popular with younger consumers, innovative sweet and spicy combinations have been among the top predicted flavor trends for the coming years. Expect to see more snack flavors that pair a popular sweet flavor with an unexpected hint of heat. Think a mixed berry and five spice or a cayenne key lime pie. 

Flavors inspired by exotic fruits are also ideally suited to begin trending in the snack category in the near future. As consumers have been on their journey of exploration with food, they’ve been encountering fruits that are commonly incorporated in global cuisines, fueling their cravings for exotic fruits. Yuzu, a popular citrus fruit in Asia, for example, has been trending in foodservice recently and will likely end up trending in retail as consumers grow more familiar with it. Snack brands can consider featuring global fruit-forward flavors on snack bases, or incorporate exotic fruits into familiar flavor profiles for products that consumers will totally crave.

RJ: We definitely see more flavor mashups ahead. Think sweet and savory combinations like chili + chocolate, offering a hit of sweet + heat. Global fruit flavors are another area where we see growth. These flavors offer a taste adventure, yet they also tick the better-for-you box, as fruit has an inherent healthiness or healthy halo. The versatility and complementary nature of global fruit flavors allows for fun, creative flavor pairings. It's easy to imagine pineapple, for instance, being used in both sweet and savory applications. 

BZ: Consumers are as aware as they have ever been of what something should taste like. I believe having a flavor profile that meets expectations is a big part of a profile’s success. If someone is going to release an ethnic profile on a snack it had better deliver or the consumer will call it out for not being accurate. From a trend standpoint, I still think most of our customers want to stay in the mainstream with a twist area. However, I do think inspirations will come from a variety of areas. I think the bar is one to watch. Some of the more well-known cocktails out there will become snack profiles. 

JS: Please share your predictions for consumer trends in savory snack flavors in the months/years ahead.

LS: Consumers love traditional snacks but will also seek BFY products. New bases and healthier options, like cauliflower, chickpeas, or different types of beneficial grain products as bases, with flavors that will make them appealing to the masses and not quite so niche. We also expect to see more and more popular dishes translated into flavors for snack foods, as Everything Bagel, Churros, and Elote, have done in the past. Regional flavor profiles like Pimento Cheese and Crab Boil will also expand as TikTok and social media spread these flavors throughout the country. Other trending food items are leaping into snack flavors including French Onion Soup, Chili Crisp, Cacio E Pepe, Cheesy Pickle, and Grinder Subs. We expect this to continue, especially with the rise of social media apps like TikTok driving consumer food innovation.

BZ: Just like the sweet snack category, meeting flavor profile expectations are important for savory snack flavors. Consumer trends show that indulgent but healthy snacks are trending. Flavors are more adventurous with consumers looking to try new flavor profiles. Exclusive or limited edition flavors have also seen a rise in popularity lately. 

SC: What starts trending in foodservice typically ends up trending in retail. Recently, umami flavors and earthy flavors have seen quite a bit of growth in foodservice, meaning that consumers will likely come to expect to see these flavors in retail in the coming years. Snack brands should consider introducing new flavors that capitalize on this trend. Ingredients that deliver these flavor profiles, like herbs, mushrooms, and garlic, happen to also be trending for their perceived health benefits, meaning that they have already been catching consumers’ attention. Bring these ingredients and flavors to the snack aisle to give consumers something new to get excited about.

DJ: The rise of more complex flavor profiles. I’m seeing consumers wanting to taste the nuances of flavors beyond something super spicy or super salty. Yes, spicy, salt, and cheese are still important, but having other complementary ingredients to add some complexity in that flavor while developing with clean-label ingredients will really hit that sweet spot with consumers. 

JS: Other than what’s going on in your booth, what are you most looking forward to at SNAXPO23?

BZ: We are looking forward to seeing what’s new in innovation for the snack world. It’ll be great to network with colleagues and build even more connections within the snack industry. We are also excited to see what snacks are trending and who wins the Flavor Pavilion, of course.

DJ: It’s always fun to see what other flavors are available in the Flavor Pavilion and of course the opening ceremony and Keynote speakers are great.

SC: In addition to exhibiting, we are looking forward to SNAXPO’s Flavor Pavilion. We’ve been participating in the Flavor Pavilion since its inception in 2017 and look forward to showcasing some of our newest innovations every year. 

MC: I really enjoy the networking aspect of SNAXPO. We have been involved with SNAC International for over 15 years and there is no better trade show for networking than SNAXPO. I’m looking forward to meeting up with existing customers and making connections with new potential business partners.

RJ: We are excited to be back in person with our customers and industry partners. There is so much innovation happening in the snack category right now, and we are thrilled to be a part of it!