Ethnic Foods Equal Healthy Foods

With good reason, many ethnic foods are associated with health-imparting benefits.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Sabra Hummus Single Packs
Two decades ago, few Americans were familiar with hummus; now it's at many Super Bowl parties. Sabra has introduced singles for individual snacking.

While the term "ethnic flavors" has long since ceased to bring merely Mexican, Italian and Chinese foods to mind, this mushrooming category has begun to encompass much more than the tastes of other exotic cultures. Processors are finding that consumers are not just demanding Thai, Middle Eastern and Brazilian items — they're demanding healthy Thai, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, etc.

"Consumers are looking for healthy and flavorful foods and are truly eager to expand their culinary horizons," says, Nicole Hofmann, brand manager at Sabra Dipping Co., Queens, N.Y. "We just conducted a national Taste Intervention promotion and sought out people who felt they were in a ‘food rut.' The entries poured in, with thousands of people indicating a desire to bring more authentic, interesting and great-tasting foods into their lives."

But Hoffman notes convenience is now an important factor in creating and marketing ethnic cuisine. "We provide variety in terms of flavors and also in terms of packaging, so that people can serve their favorite hummus to friends and family, add it to their recipes or enjoy it as a snack at home or on the go."

Annie Chun's, a San Rafael, Calif.-based Pan-Asian food marketer with emphasis on Korean (and one of our R&D Teams of the Year), provides Americans with authentic Asian flavors geared toward the newly sophisticated American palate that also demands health. The focus at Annie Chun's is to present healthy choices to meet a variety of dietary needs. For example, the company offers vegetarian, gluten-free and organic options.

Most recently, Annie Chun's launched Brown Rice Noodles. "This new addition fits into the modern lifestyle in which consumers with limited time for creative cooking, still desire healthy and all-around good food," says Diana Wang, director of marketing for Annie Chun's. The company's goal, she says, is simplicity of ingredients yet authentic flavorings.

"Adding flavor into your everyday meals doesn't have to entail additional work and a long list of ingredients," she continues. "Instead, you can improve your menu with simple mealtime solutions and snacks that bring Asian flavors into a busy American day." Flavors such as roasted sesame oil, ginger and scallions carry the Asian message without being overly exotic. Also, twists on basics, such as the company's new Brown Rice Noodle dishes, are made with 100-percent whole grains and available in Pad Thai and Maifun styles.

Variety is the spice of ...
Serving this demand for more interesting ethnic foods requires processors and ingredient suppliers to be a combination of world travelers, ethnobotanists and crystal ball gazers.

"Consumers today are increasingly interested in a wider variety of flavor profiles and are sampling different ethnic cuisines," says Gitti Crowley, vice president of Tribe Mediterranean Foods Inc., Taunton, Mass. "But we also consistently hear from people who are looking for easy meal and snack solutions to fit into their busy, active lifestyles. And, they also are looking for foods that are healthy and delicious, with on-the-go choices to provide positive nutrition without sacrificing taste."

The company meets all three by manufacturing a line of all-natural hummus made from a few simple ingredients and without artificial flavors or preservatives. Flavors include Tribe Origins Spicy Red Pepper, Tribe Classic Calamata, and Tribe Classic Roasted Eggplant. The company also has a special "Forty Spices" flavor to appeal to the more extreme ethnic seekers and notes the flavor has become one of its best sellers.

As enticing as the flavors of ethnic foods is the passion brought to their creation, from ingredients to final production. "In the early 1990s, we noticed the emergence of three megatrends in the American grocery industry: health and wellness foods, convenience foods and specialty foods," says Meera Vasudevan, executive vice president of Stamford, Conn.-based Preferred Brands International. The company hit on all three trends when it introduced Tasty Bite ready-to-eat foods in the Indian and Asian categories, including entrées, flavored rices, spiced legumes and cooking sauces.

Vasudevan says an increasing number of Americans were traveling internationally in the 1990s, while newer immigrants were settling in America and bringing their cuisine influences with them. This meant more international-style restaurants opened, educating consumers on trendy new cuisines.

Riding the coattails of the natural foods trend, these ethnic items were perceived as more healthful. This was true, in a way, because of the heavy use of non-animal protein sources such as soy, lentils and beans, as well as whole grains, spices and multiple vegetable varieties within single recipes.

"It made sense for us to leverage these three megatrends and launch a concept like Tasty Bite," says Vasudevan. "Our brand sits in the ‘sweet spot' in the middle of all three. It is all-natural, the food needs only to be heated in a microwave for 90 seconds and served."

Another contributor to the perception of health in ethnic foods is their use of spices that have long histories of nutraceutical properties in other cultures.

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