Trending Now: Flavor and Innovation on the Menu


A recent trend report from Mintel, “Innovation on the Menu: Flavor Trends” identified some developing trends in specific ingredients, flavors and cuisines that are worth watching.  In this issue, we’ll look at a few highlights from the report of particular relevance to the pasta category.


Columbus Day last month marked 520 years since Italian culture first hit the shores of the Americas, so it may be a bit of a surprise that in 2012 Italian is still the #1 ethnic cuisine in the US, by a wide margin. Menu incidence is more prevalent for Italian than the next five ethnic cuisines combined,including Mexican and Chinese.[1]

Better still, it’s the cuisine most (56%) consumers say they want to see more of at restaurants. That preference for more Italian food when dining out holds true across all income levels and ethnic backgrounds. As a positive sign for the future, that preference is even higher among millennials at 64%[2].

It’s clear that Italian food resonates with American diners across the board. The key is in finding ways to differentiate your Italian food from the guy next door’s, and making it fit the particular tastes of your customers and style of your concept. Here are some of the flavors and preparation methods gaining momentum:

Healthier Cooking Keeps Sizzling

The top cooking preparation method on American menus is “grilled” as it has been for the past several years, just ahead of “fried.” Both grilled and roasted are among the fastest growing preparation methods as well. [3]This may be a sign that restaurants from Chevy’s to Pei Wei to Cheesecake Factory are starting to use these methods as part of a broader better-for-you strategy, or are using them as subtle cues of healthier, fresher food. Interestingly, classically healthy prep methods like “steamed” or “baked” seem to have lost their luster, perhaps because of an association with the bland, healthy food of yesteryear.

Bold Flavors in Demand, with a Fresh Newcomer

Garlic and Spicy are the top two flavors on restaurant menus, showing the enduring power of bold flavors with the American palate. In Mintel’s exclusive consumer survey, more than half of respondents (52%) agree that spicier food has more appeal to them now than when they were younger, and 46% of men regularly add spicy flavors, like pepper sauce, to restaurant food.[4]

While lemon rounds out the top 10 list of flavors on restaurant menus, it seems to be the one to watch, leading the flavor list in growth at 27% since 2009[5]. Lemon’s “fresh” aura likely has a lot to do with that, and it’s charge on the savory side of the menu is most interesting. Here are a few recent examples:

  • At Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantation, April was “Lemon Month” and they celebrated with a set of lemon-centric dishes, including Lemon Linguine with Fresh Basil and Lemon Cream Pasta with Capers.
  • At LYFE Kitchen, the new natural-food restaurant founded by a former McDonald’s executive, there’s Free Range Chicken & Mushroom Pasta, which combines free-range chicken with multigrain penne pasta, roasted mushrooms, spinach, scallions, Parmesan, and creamless sherry sauce (made from cashew cream), garnished with grilled lemon.
Barilla Insight: Pasta is an ideal platform for all these on-trend flavors, not only because of the enduring popularity of Italian cuisine. As the comfort-food foundation of a dish, pasta can carry and complement a wide array of flavor profiles, from spicy Cajun or aromatic garlic to fresh and clean lemon and citrus.

[1] Mintel Menu Insights, 2012[2]Mintel, April 2012[3] Mintel Menu Insights, 2012[4] Mintel, April 2012[5] Mintel Menu Insights, 2012