Flavor Combinations: The Tried, the True, and the Unexpected

May 8, 2019
Beverage Flavor Fruit Ingredients Trends Confectionery
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As commonplace as PB&J, flavor combinations in food and beverage are going through a time of transition. While some innovative brands are pushing the envelope with unique pairings – other categories (ahem, cereal) are sticking with the tried and true. From buzzworthy conversation starters to those favorite flavor combinations that never say die, let’s explore what tastes are partnering up to create growth in food and beverage. Turns out there’s opportunity to be found in both the classics and the not-so-classic.


Recent trends have shown a divide in generational preference when it comes to flavor. Younger generations, such as Gen Z and Millennials, are more willing to try new flavors, while older generations, such as Baby Boomers, stick to a narrower selection of flavors. Flavor combinations offer the perfect vehicle to capture a wider audience. Pairing the tame with the innovative is what some brands are doing successfully. One thing the consumer can agree upon no matter the generation: taste.
  • 67% of consumers choose flavor as a purchase driver for snacking products
  • 64% of consumers choose flavor as a purchase driver for confectionery products

“The growing divide in flavor preferences between millennials and boomers heightens the need for a product mix that appropriately balances familiarity and innovation” - Kelly Weikel, Technomic, Oct, 2017


Let’s take a look at recent notable products that have tested flavor combination boundaries.

In July of 2018, Sprinkles launched their Sprinkles Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cupcake. Made with their signature vanilla cake filled with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and topped with a white cheddar cheese frosting, the combination made for a treat that was sweet, spice, and everything nice.

Sprinkles hot cheeto cupcake not hot enough? In 2017, Tim Horton’s delved into a sweet and spicy creation with a spicy buffalo latte bound to make your mouth water.

Two worlds collide with this up-and-coming beverage trend. Cheese tea first launched in Asia and has now made its way to the states, offering consumers a unique beverage consisting of fruit-blend tea topped with a cream cheese blend. Social media mentions are up 25%

Known for their wide array of flavors, 55 according to Teen Vogue, Oreo continues to think of what’s next with their Hot Chicken Wing and Wasabi-flavored Oreos in China, combining chocolate with the out-there.

Catered to sweet and salty lovers, Calbee Plus in Japan offers potato chips topped with strawberry and chocolate that balance sweet and savory.


“While some food creations are designed purely for shock value, more dishes are being created to push the boundaries of what could be considered enjoyable” - Mintel


Of course, there’s still an audience for the classics. The top overall flavor combinations across food and beverage feature the sweet and savory tried-and-true flavors that so many know and love.

Cross-Category, Most Used Flavor Combinations

  • Apple & cinnamon
  • Pumpkin/squash & spice/spicy
  • Fruit & punch
  • Lemon & Lime
  • Strawberry & banana
  • Tomato & basil
  • Chocolate & peanut butter
  • Garlic & herbs/herbal
  • Sour cream & onion

(GNPD, All Food and Beverage North America 2014-2018)


Tart, tangy, and acidic, these mouthwatering, lip puckering flavors (typically a combination of a sour flavor paired with a fruit flavor) are on the rise. From 2017 to 2018, sour confection launches increased 21.5%. Additionally, most of the top confectionary flavor combinations included the word sour. In fact, when searching “sour & lemon”, more than 7,280 products globally returned, making sour’s presence a stand out in this category. Can other categories pair sour with flavors in new development?

Top Confectionery Flavor Combinations

Though combinations including caramel, peanut, and nougat make an appearance, sour dominates the list in the confection category.
  • Salt(sea)/fleur de sel & caramel/caramelised
  • Sour & lemon
  • Sour & apple (green)
  • Peanut/groundnut & caramel/caramelised & nougat
  • Sour & strawberry
  • Sour & blue raspberry
  • Sour & cherry
  • Sour & orange
  • Sour & apple

(2014-2018, North America)


Products of Note: 

SOUR PUNCH STRAWS are described as a sour and strawberry flavored candy. The product is said to be an artificially flavored and kosher certified product produced with genetic engineering.
  • 46% of consumers responded that they likely or definitely would buy this product, significantly OUTPERFORMING  its subcategory.

TROLLI SOUR BRITE CRAWLERS MINIS are said to be a sour gummy candy with flavors including cherry-lemon, strawberry-grape and orange-lime. The product is described as having lip smacking, sweetly sour, and mind warping tastiness.
  • 48% of consumers responded that they likely or definitely would buy this product, significantly OUTPERFORMING  its subcategory.

A Unique Take on Sour: Sour Patch Kids Cereal

FIRST THEY'RE SOUR THEN THERE'S... MILK?  This take on Sour Patch Kids seems like a miss with some consumers. According to the Washington Post, though the cereal itself is a treat, when combining the sour cereal and creamy milk, the result is the taste of, well, sour milk. Not only is this taste unwelcomed by most consumers, but it also deprives them the luxury of sipping the leftover sugary milk at the bottom of the bowl. Looking at consumers’ initial impression, 30% of consumers responded that they would possibly try this product, UNDERPERFORMING against subcategory.


For product developers looking to create a new flavor combination, going the LTO or seasonal route is often the right bet. A lower risk way to innovate, research shows that seasonal offerings often receive positive consumer response.
  • 88% of consumers are more likely to try a new flavor if its seasonal
  • 96% agree that seasonal menu items feel like a treat
  • 80% look forward to fall seasonal items the most


Speaking of fall, near and dear to many consumers’ hearts lies pumpkin spice, the all-time favorite fall flavor combination that never seems to die. With 44 social mentions per minute in the Fall 2018 season, pumpkin spice comes in many forms from the classic pumpkin spice latte to 5-minute paleo pumpkin muffins to drunken RumChata pumpkin lattes. With 92% positive perception from consumers, pumpkin spice is not going out of style just yet. In fact, mentions grew 29% 2017-2018. Kate Taylor, Business inside reporter states, “I think every year it’s going to feel like pumpkin spice will hit its peak, but somehow continues to drive sales.”


Regarding seasonal food and beverage, we’re spotting what you might expect, such as classic indulgences that bring back nostalgic memories. And of course, pumpkin spice makes the top of the list.

All Food & Beverage North America 2014-2018

  • Pumpkin/squash & spice/spicy
  • Caramel/caramelised & apple
  • Salt (sea)/fleur de sel & caramel/caramelised
  • Lemon & lime
  • Chocolate & marshmallow
  • Sour & apple
  • Chocolate & peppermint
  • Peanut/groundnut & caramel/caramelised & nougat/turron
  • Apple & cinnamon


When it comes to snacking and cereal, the classics remain the most used flavor combinations in these segments. Topping the list are sweet snacking combos such as peanut butter and chocolate and apple and cinnamon. Savory combos in snacking such as sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, and teriyaki and beef make their way onto the list of most used flavor combinations as well. In cereal, familar flavor combinations such as apple and cinnamon and maple and brown sugar topped the list of most used flavor combinations.

What’s interesting is that although usage of mint/chocolate; pumpkin/spice; and maple/pecan have grown significantly 2014-2018, consumer perception on many of the new releases remains low.

Growing Flavor Combinations from 2014-2018

  • Mint & Chocolate flavor combinations have grown 350%
  • Pumpkin & spice flavor combinations have grown 500%
  • Maple & pecan flavor combinations have grown 500%


Regarding snacks and cereal, these flavors have had high growth percentages, yet still show low response rates from consumers.

Products of Note: 

is said to be made with high-dh hydrolyzed whey protein in a a crème filled wafer bar form. Providing 13g protein and 5g sugar, the product is described as an energy bar.
  • 28% of consumers responded that they likely or definitely would buy this product, UNDERPERFORMING its subcategory.

PUMPKIN SPICE LIFE MULTIGRAIN CEREAL is said to be made with high-dh hydrolyzed whey protein in a a crème filled wafer bar form. Providing 13g protein and 5g sugar, the product is described as an energy bar.
  • 36% of consumers responded that they likely or definitely would buy this product, UNDERPERFORMING its subcategory.

MAPLE PECAN THINKTHIN PROBIOTICS HOT OATMEAL is said to contain 10g protein and is described as a nutritous and delicious oatmeal crafted for muscle and digestion support.
  • 30% of consumers responded that they likely or definitely would buy this product, UNDERPERFORMING its subcategory.

The Takeaways

Whether classic and expected, bold and daring, or downright shocking, flavor combinations can pave way for innovative or nostalgic tastes. According to Mintel, 91% of consumers say they want a flavor they prefer when snacking, while 34% look for exotic flavors. There are contrasts in generational preferences opening the door to adventurous flavor combinations in future years. While tried and true flavor combinations –executed with excellence – will always find an audience, there’s also an interest in spins on the traditional. Insta-worthy out-there combos and seasonal releases are worth exploring for some brands. Consumer response to growing flavor combinations in cereal and snacks reveals that those segments may not be moving the needle quite enough. All in all, the space shows there is a time and a place for flavor innovation, but the right combination often means balancing traditional faves with “new and different.”

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Sources in full report