'Before music was important for identity but food is taking over that role.'

Foodpairing uses data-driven flavour combinations to streamline NPD - and shape people's identity

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Foodpairing
© Foodpairing

Related tags: Food

The role food plays in our lives is changing fast and industry needs to innovate if it wants to stay relevant. Data-driven flavour combinations are a good place to start, says Foodpairing founder Bernard Lahousse, and they can even be matched to themes like sustainability.

Foodpairing has the largest global flavour database of ingredients, scientifically analysed using techniques such as spectroscopy. Over 2000 ingredients are profiled with information on aroma, taste, texture, origin, seasonality and nutrition, along with over 8000 aroma molecules and 600 descriptors.

The firm originally started out suggesting flavour combinations to high-end gastronomy chefs but quickly moved towards whole recipe generation. “This was because of our surprising combinations. Only a limited amount of chefs can make a nice dish out of, for example, chocolate and soy sauce, ”​says Bernard Lahousse, co-founder and scientific director, who is based in the Belgian town of Bruges ("one of the culinary hotspots of the world​", he adds).

Today the 13-strong Foodpairing team works with food industry new product developers, reducing the time to market and product failure rates for new flavours.

Sweet ‘n’ sustainable: Matching a flavour to an issue

“Food is changing fast. The speed of taste is changing dramatically mainly from what Millennials are doing. Before music was important for identity but

Bernard Lahousse

we see food taking over that role more and more," ​he told FoodNavigator.

“There’s no indication that this is [a bubble] that’s going to burst. Interest in food is only growing and also taking different directions. People are more interested in the overlay between tasty foods, sustainable foods and healthy foods. That’s where the opportunities are. And so that’s why we are working on insects, by-catch and micro algae.”

It’s almost like pairing flavours with themes and issues affecting the industry.

For instance, Foodpairing has been working with North Sea Chefs’ by-catch initiative to promote unwanted fish species and cut down on food waste.

Daring dairy and plant-based smoothies

When Alpro made the switch from soy milk to other plant-based alternatives such as almond or hazelnut milks, it teamed with Foodpairing to create an

Flavourpaired nuBei for the Vietnamese market. © Foodpairing

online smoothie generator platform where consumers could try, test and suggest flavour combinations - a sort of co-creation process. “We inspire them but also from their matches we get inspired about what the kind of combos they want.”

It also worked with Dutch dairy giant FrieslandCampina on developing the right flavour for a sour milk drink for the Vietnamese market and targeted towards young adults. In just two months, it whittled a "sheer impossible number of flavour combinations​" down to just 12 which tested well in quantitative consumer tests, according to new business innovation manager at FrieslandCampina Marco Bongers. 

For the moment, Foodpairing has worked mostly with big food companies rather than SMEs for cost reasons. But all its partners have two things in common: an awareness of the speed of change affecting industry and an interest in moving away from intuition-based idea generation (‘old-style’ consumer research) towards data-driven ideas and decision making.

This is an evolution that is happening across markets for the simple reason that “there’s more data available today – so if you make a decision it should be data driven. It’s more reliable,”​ he adds.

The full flavour loop

Looking ahead to the future of Foodpairing, Lahousse says the company wants to focus on gathering more data and to align its flavour predictions with how a product performs on the market using sales figures.

The company will also shortly be celebrating its first flavour pairing ‘full loop’ where it worked with a frozen vegetable and ready meal manufacturer from the idea generation stage to the final product launch. The product is set to launch on the European market in a few months, and this is something it intends to do more of, says Lahousse.

It will also be developing more machine learning models in order to “make a connection​” between how a machine tastes and smells and how a human does, coming up with better flavour predictions in the process.

Ones to watch: Freekeh, huacatay and gochujang 

Beetroot, goat's cheese and pistachio ice cream. © Foodpairing

One of Foodpairing’s creations was a beetroot and goat’s cheese made with pistachio and honey, created with New York chef Sam Mason last year. For Lahousse, beetroot is an example of an ingredient that has gone through a typical trend journey.

“It started two years ago to become more popular in high end restaurants, then with foodies and now it’s a mainstream product. It’s really important to have a view on those three sections, to know what’s coming in the future. For food manufacturers it allows us to predict what will be trending in three or four years.”

As for what ingredients are currently at each stage of the trending journey, Lahousse says to keep an eye on cauliflower and aubergine at the mainstream stage.

Meanwhile gochujang (a Korean condiment made with chili, fermented soy beans and glutinous rice), jackfruit and Middle Eastern freekeh made from green durum wheat are all at the ‘foodie’ stage.


Ahead-of-the-curve chefs are currently experimenting with seaweed such as codium, by-catch fish and Peruvian black mint known as huacatay.

Mugaritz crispy guts (2)
Michelin-starred Mugaritz served up crispy guts at Brainytongue culinary event in the Spanish Basque country.

As for the most adventurous consumers in Europe, Lahousse says the Spanish are most open to a broad range of textures and ingredients like intestines. "You also see this in restaurants from bistro to high-end."​ 

Lahousse will be at the US festival SXSW in Austen, Texas next year demonstrating how he uses machine learning with recipe recommendation app Yummly and ‘intelligent oven’ manufacturer June. 

Related topics: Market Trends

Related news

Follow us


View more