While desired effect is an important aspect of any cannabis-infused food or beverage, taste plays a key role in enticing consumers.

Behind THC content, taste or flavor is the second most important purchase decision driver, whether or not consumers are new to cannabis, market research firm BDSA reported in December.

And as more markets become operational, cannabis consumers will seek products that meet their needs and offer enjoyable experiences.

“As the cannabis-infused food and beverage market grows, an influx of new products, new ways to use or consume cannabis, and new flavors are emerging,” said Rebecca Shurhay, senior flavor marketing specialist, Flavorchem. “The factors propelling growth include strong consumer demand, an influx of newly operational legal state markets in recent years, the normalization of cannabis consumption and increasing societal recognition of the plant’s therapeutic and wellness applications.”

Flavor firms say classic combinations continue to pervade the edibles market, but manufacturers are increasingly exploring profiles that communicate wellness, offer culinary adventure and celebrate the distinct flavors of the cannabis plant.

Flavor trends

Traditional fruit-based flavors are popular among edibles manufacturers, but that’s beginning to change, said David Banks, senior director of marketing, Bell Flavors and Fragrances.

“The basic flavors seem to be popular with most customers — flavors like Grape, Orange, Cherry, Strawberry, Lemon, Lime and Watermelon,” Banks said. “There are other ‘fan favorites’ like Blue Razzberry, Mango, Cherry Limeade, Grapefruit and others. I do see the flavor options expanding in 2023 and beyond as the need to get beyond the basics increases.”

Banks predicted culinary-based and cocktail-inspired flavors will continue to hit the market, including examples such as Oatmeal Cookie, Girl Scout Cookie, Mint Brownie, Grilled Pineapple, Dirty Shirley Temple, Old Fashioned, Margarita and Bellini. He also pointed to the potential for more complex flavor pairings, such as Blackberry Lemonade, Raspberry Lemon, Mango Peach, Mixed Berry, Lemon Meringue and Fruit Punch.

“Fantasy flavors” — ones that draw their names from space, weather or other spiritual themes — could give manufacturers the “creative license to keep consumers wondering what it truly is,” Banks said. He cited examples such as Magic Carpet Ride, Dreamworld and Moonwalker.

Mirroring traditional consumer packaged goods brands, many edibles manufacturers are leaning into seasonal offerings, such as Pumpkin Spice, Candy Cane, Apple Cranberry, Eggnog, Strawberries & Cream and Red Velvet.

“Overall, I see this category getting a lot more creative as more consumers enter the market and loyal consumers push for more interesting and exciting flavors to satisfy their flavor curiosities,” he said.

Shurhay agreed, also noting nostalgia and breakfast flavors are inspiring new product launches.

“Adult-inspired beverage flavors like Mai Tai, Margarita and Rosé appeal to adventurous consumers seeking a more elevated taste experience in the food and beverage space,” she said. “Nostalgic flavors like Birthday Cake, Tutti Frutti, Sour Apple and Cherry Limeade, along with breakfast-based flavors like Cold Brew Coffee and cereal-inspired iterations, are hitting new products in the cannabis sector as consumers seek out comforting and familiar taste sensations.”

Shurhay also pointed to the proliferation of exotic and tropical flavors in the edibles market, presented individually or paired with other complementary flavors.

Pineapple, one of the leading fruit flavors in the last year, is emerging with fusions: Pineapple Guava, Pineapple Passionfruit, and Mango Pineapple,” she said. “Other fruit flavors to watch for include Yuzu, Blood Orange, Elderberry, Peach and Dragon Fruit.

No matter the flavor profile a brand or manufacturer chooses, another important decision centers around whether to use natural or artificial flavors. That decision often depends on the brand’s messaging, Banks said.

“If the brand has a more healthy positioning, they are looking for organic and natural flavors, but if the brand is more ‘recreational’ then we see less need for natural flavors,” he said. “Overall, there is a general perception from consumers that natural is better, and they also apply this to their cannabis preferences. I will say that CBD-based gummies have a tendency to require more natural ingredients and flavors than THC-based gummies, just due to their perceived healthier base.”

Building on a healthy positioning, some brands are incorporating botanicals not only to enhance the product’s flavor profile but also its functionality. Ashwagandha, mushroom, elderberry, L-theanine, guarana, green tea, green coffee bean extract, ginger and turmeric are among popular botanical ingredients.

“The global appeal and positive consumer sentiment towards botanicals has florals inspiring food and beverage innovation,” Shurhay said. “Over half of global consumers are looking for products with botanicals to improve their health with perceived benefits such as mental wellness, along with cognitive and energy support. The continued focus on mental wellness, combined with the growing demand and interest for food and beverage items that are infused with cannabis, signal a bright future for innovation in this space.”

And while some customers have sought help with masking bitterness or other off-notes, Banks said other Bell customers aim to accentuate cannabis flavor. In 2020, the company introduced a line of cannabis-inspired and terpene flavors, including strains such as Blackberry Kush, Blue Dream and Pineapple Express.

“We are seeing products require more ‘authentic’ strain flavors, and in this area we are helping them satisfy this requirement,” Banks said. “If they advertise that the strain is Pineapple Express, they want that flavor to shine though.”

Products on the market

Many products introduced in the last 12 months fit within the trends Banks and Shurhay described.

MariMed, Inc. turned to traditional and tropical flavors, as well as a variety of botanicals, when it relaunched its Betty’s Eddies fruit chews in October. The company balanced flavors such as Raspberry Creme, Very Cherry, Pineapple Orange and Elderberry with botanicals including turmeric, chamomile and L-theanine.

Several brands seek to play up naturally-occurring terpenes, pairing flavors that marry with a specific cannabis strain’s flavor notes. 

Last March, Wana Brands introduced Wana SPECTRUM Live Rosin Gummies. With each piece containing 10 mg THC, they’re available in Tropical Smoothie, which has fruity, floral terpenes; Citrus Sorbet, which has bright, citrusy terpenes; Watermelon Slushy, which has earthy, pine-dominant terpenes; and Berry Gelato, which is for lovers of funky, gas-like terpene profiles.

In October, Cheeba Chews debuted three taffy varieties made with live rosin. The flavor and strain pairings include Strawberry x Papaya, Sour Apple x Jelly Rancher, and Lemon Meringue x Lemon Limez.

Kiva Confections, which introduced its strain-specific, live resin Lost Farm brand in 2020, partnered with Jetty Extracts to introduce limited-edition gummies and chews. The collaboration included:

  • Honey Apple x Sunshine OG Lost Farm Gummies: Jetty Extracts' 100% Live Resin Sunshine OG features a sweet 'n sour chorus of citrus notes turned spicy and herbal in this sativa-dominant strain. The Sunshine OG live resin notes take a backseat in the fruity, flavor-forward Honey Apple gummy that finishes with a touch of sweet honey flavor.
  • Sour Berry x Legend OG Lost Farm Chews: A pungent, earthy palate reveals the OG Kush roots of the indica-dominant hybrid strain Legend OG, which is converted into 100% Live Resin by Jetty Extracts. With tart, juicy berry flavors on a background of citrus, the limited Sour Berry fruit chew is ripe for the picking.

Some brands have drawn inspiration from popular cocktails and other alcoholic beverages. Insa debuted Piña Colada Drops for summer and Cosmopolitan Drops for Valentine’s Day. Good Day Farm also introduced Spicy Margarita and Rosé gummies in Missouri last year.

Garden Society, based in Sonoma County, California, has embraced its origin’s wine-making roots by introducing Wine Country gummies. The company’s Kiwi Lime Sauvignon Blanc variety joined Tart Cherry Pinot Noir, Peach Prosecco and Sparkling Strawberry Rosé in December.

Meanwhile, Pure Sunfarms Corp. employed nostalgic flavors inspired by classic treats late last year. The company introduced its Sundaisies gummies in Ontario in three varieties: Rhubarb Pie, Cherry Cola Float and Lemon Meringue.

Other brands have turned to seasonal flavors to add variety to their product portfolio. Good Day Farm introduced Apple Pie gummies in Arkansas and Missouri last fall. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, LEVIA launched a limited-edition Raspberry Cheesecake seltzer, and Insa debuted Red Velvet truffles.

“This Valentine’s Day, we searched to find the best recipes to incorporate our love of chocolate and rich seasonal flavors for a lasting impression,” said Julian Rose, head chef and director of R&D at Insa. “We use holidays like this one as inspiration for developing distinctive flavors that amplify the essence of this special time of year.”