Years ago, ethnic ingredients for the American consumer meant tomato sauce, maybe basil and garlic and pasta. Flash forward a few decades and ethnic foods are so much a part of our national pantry a divide is actually increasing between ethnic foods and ethnic-style foods, and both categories are growing.
Ethnic cuisine is all about fresh, authentic and the traditional; ethnic-style uses the tastes of ethnic foods on foods characteristic of a host cuisine in order to expand it.
Consumer demand for Southeast Asian flavors such as sriracha garlic chili sauce, shows familiarity way past soy sauce.
According to ACNielsen (www.acnielsen.com), Chicago, the most popular new frozen ethnic entrees remain Asian and Hispanic -- no surprise -- echoing the restaurant trends of years 2000-2002. As food trends mature, they go mainstream, with fast food, frozen and prepared products taking on the popularity of yesterday's dining-out trends.
Total retail sales (excluding Wal-Mart) of Asian foods rose by 4.5 percent, to $1.1billion for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 4, 2006. Sales of Mexican foods continued a four-year upward trend to reach $3.2 billion, up 3.5 percent from the previous year.
However, the star within Asian foods (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean) has become two-item frozen entrées. That segment has been on a four-year roll that culminated in a 21 percent sales gain in 2006 to almost $88 million. That category has more than doubled in size since 2002.
Same story in the Mexican category, where growth of the two-item frozen entrée eclipsed all others, increasing 36 percent, to more than $30 million in the last year (these are still relatively new categories).
"Although a modest part of Asian and Mexican offerings overall, the popularity of frozen ethnic entrées suggests they play a growing role in ethnic, and even non-ethnic, households as convenient packaged foods that make meals easy to assemble and prepare," says a spokesperson for ACNielsen. The largest contributor to Asian sales continues to be one-food frozen entrees, which edged down 1.6 percent to $379 million in 2006.
A study by Business Insights (www.businessinsights.com), London, compared ethnic flavor trends. Although Asian flavors made up the majority of ethnic-flavored items, its share, as a percentage share of new products launched, dropped from 43 percent to about 39 percent between 2004 and 2006. The difference between the two time frames is small, but German and Slavic flavors gained 3.5 percent, and Indian flavors gained about 1 percent. It should be noted this is the British point of view, and the U.K. trends as more accepting of new flavors than the U.S.
According to Business Insights, "Southern European flavors will take a much larger share of total ethnic product launches over the next three to five years as consumers become increasingly health-conscious and consequently interested in the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with longevity and optimum health. Products such as olive oil, salad, fish and bread will benefit from this positive reputation."
Hummus, the Middle-eastern dip made of chickpea and sesame, is becoming an ingredient in chips (or "crisps"), and its flavors include the span of Indian, Thai, Japanese and other flavors. London has a heavily ethnic population, and curry is a major food influence. U.S.-based companies view the U.K. as a trend setter, but usually don't act on its influences right away. Yet the past few years have seen geometric increase of flavored snack chips hit the market, including ethnic-influenced flavors.
Americans have developed a familiarity with tortillas that extends beyond tacos.
On the Mexican side, tortillas remain the most popular product. While the population of Hispanic residents increased by around 15 percent in the past five years, sales of tortillas doubled in the same time frame, reaching $1 billion in the 2006 period. Mexican salsas and sauces ran a close second at $945 million, up 2.8 percent from the previous year. The Tortilla Industry Assn. notes that tortilla sales are catching up to white bread sales in this country.
In a telling mix of ethnic influences, Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas and Snacks, Hollywood, Calif., was among the first tortilla processors to manufacture certified-kosher tortillas. The company also offers such multicultural tortilla flavors as pineapple-banana and garlic-pesto.
As a means of transferring a plate meal to hand-held, the tortilla has gone beyond Mexican and Spanish-American specialty to the now-ubiquitous wrap. Mission Foods (www.missionfoodsfsc.com), Oldsmar, Fla., introduced a no trans fat tortilla, sold primarily to the restaurant industry. The company supplies flour tortillas, corn tortillas, wraps, multigrain tortillas and low-carb tortillas with extra fiber. Another company, Azteca (www.aztecafoods.com), Summit-Argo, Ill. has specialized in low- to zero-fat flour tortillas and salad bowls, baked or fried.
Ingredients for tortillas and taco chips have been of special interest to Cargill Co.'s (www.cargillcornmilling.com) dry corn milling group, with production facilities in Paris, Ill., and Indianapolis. For those interested in pursuing a whole-grain health claim, the line of whole-grain corn products under Cargill's Innovasure line (identity preserved) includes a wide variety of textures, grinds and colors, both white and yellow.