Product Developers Find Ethnic Flavors Continue To Succeed with U.S. Consumers

With Mexican, Chinese, etc., now mainstream, adventurous shoppers look for Thai, Japanese and Caribbean foods.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Only 25 years ago, Italian or Mexican flavors seemed foreign and unfamiliar to most Americans. Today, with the entire world at our fingertips courtesy of smart phones along with YouTube, food cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean seem equally as close and accessible as those of Europe or regional America.

"Looking forward in foodservice, the two we think have the most potential are Asian and Mediterranean," says Ron Paul, president and CEO of Chicago-based Technomic, a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industries.

Mexican, which once seemed other-worldly, is either passé or mainstream. "Other than an obvious standout like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Mexican hasn't had seen much new activity, and our friends there are now going after the Asian market with the recent launch of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen," he explains. "Indian is a long shot. Bottom line, it's Asian and Mediterranean. Those trends generally carry over to retail, and a good model would be through the appetizer section. Consumers like to share, and that's how they learn about new cuisines."

The Culinary Institute of America (www.ciachef.edu/california), St. Helena, Calif., plans to reach deep into more than 20 regional food cultures and ethnic traditions, looking internationally as well as in the U.S., during its 2011 Worlds of Flavor Conference Nov. 3-5. Ethnic flavors planned for discussion are:

  • From Europe and the Mediterranean: Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey
  • From Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, West Africa and South Africa
  • From Asia: India, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Korea
  • From Latin America: Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil.

This explosion of enthusiasm in global flavors substantially ups the ante in new product development and the need to stay on top of trends. Customer appetites for global culinary adventure are not only bringing bigger flavors to our packaged foods and our cooking but also transforming the very idea of a restaurant -- think four wheels.

Food trucks are accelerating interest in South American cuisines of Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela, as well as specific regions of Mexico, especially the Yucatan, according to New York-based Packaged Facts. In terms of Asian food, Japanese food will draw the most attention, especially with yakatori, bite-sized marinated beef, seafood or chicken pieces grilled on skewers. Indian and Korean food will become better established. Already ubiquitous Greek cuisine is likely to gain a greater presence at retail (Greek-style yogurt has really taken off) while Moroccan and Turkish food will gain recognition and an entirely new genre of Scandinavian cuisine could well create a culinary stir.

Further afield
Among packaged food products, lesser-known ethnic fare -- specifically, Thai, Japanese and Caribbean food -- has experienced rapid growth, according to Mintel's Global New Products Database (www.mintel.com), Chicago.

"Italian, Mexican and Asian cuisine are the more mainstream, popular ethnic cuisines," says David Lockwood, senior analyst at Mintel. "But Thai, Caribbean and Japanese foods are seeing healthy growth, and consumers seem to be getting more comfortable with a wider variety of ethnic flavors."

In 2010 alone, Mintel's GNPD tracked a 150 percent increase from 2009 in new food items containing "Caribbean" in the product description. "Japanese" product launches increased more than 230 percent from 2009-2010, and "Thai" product launches rose by 68 percent.

One reason ethnic product launches are increasing, according to Mintel, may be the wide variety of outlets consumers can use to learn more about foods that aren't common to their ethnic background. Some 26 percent of ethnic food-lovers say they were introduced to a new cuisine by TV programs, newspapers or magazines. Other findings include: 23 percent of ethnic food users said they tried the items after reading cookbook recipes that included ethnic dishes; 18 percent said they grew to like ethnic fare after traveling abroad; and 25 percent said they were introduced to a new ethnic cuisine because of living in a culturally diverse neighborhood.

Mintel said these outlets are contributing to a trend called "professionalization of the amateur," in which consumers are more interested in doing things at home that would normally be done by an expert, such as preparing a complex ethnic dish. "Cooking programs, culinary magazines and recipe websites are an easy way to get more comfortable with ethnic food preparation," says Lockwood.

Changing U.S. demographics
"In the U.S., we are concentrating on the Hispanic market," says Phil Sprovieri, vice president of sales and marketing at Flavorchem Corp. (www.flavorchem.com), Downers Grove, Ill. "We believe the popularity of Mexican food has not yet peaked. What caught our eyes is that horchata and flan, available in restaurants, is not readily available to the general public."

In five to 10 years, 35-40 percent of teens will be Hispanic and, according to the U.S. Census, the Hispanic population is growing in every metropolitan area in the U.S.

"We're not doing tacos, but we are looking to develop new categories, including beverages," Sprovieri continues. "When you are in Guadalajara [he spends time there checking out trends] you see vendors along the side of the road with large jars containing horchata, tamarindo (tamarind), and limosa (lime) beverages. That's also what they serve in shopping plazas there. Los Angeles is the only city in the U.S. readily offering those beverages. We offer those flavors for milk and dairy products, and have added guava, mango, pina colada, and chocolate with cinnamon to our Hispanic line of flavors.

"On an industrial scale, processors can't go through the homemade techniques that add flavor nuances to any foods or beverages. We make distillates from botanicals to capture top notes. One of our customers wanted to make mojito mix. If you want a great mojito, you need to macerate fresh mint leaves to release the oils and green top notes to give the beverage an aroma and flavor as if it was freshly made," he adds.

"Other cuisines such as Far Eastern and Indian food are gaining attention as well," says Sprovieri. "Today you can find many options in Chinese convenience foods. Indian will be next because it's healthy, and ideal for vegetarians. Young folks today are tuned into variety; which we offer the industry along with imagination and research to help achieve the character, aroma and authentic flavors of these foods."

Colors add value
Among more sophisticated palates, authenticity is important. And a large part of establishing authenticity in a packaged food involves color.

"In the context of processed foods, today's consumer expects that a food or beverage product look minimally processed," says Steve Morris, commercial director of United States Food Colors at Sensient Food Colors (www.sensientfoodcolors.com), St. Louis. "Products must also be more natural, and that is achieved by using fewer, more simplified ingredients and natural colors. We help processors achieve an authentic appearance through the application of an extensive spectrum of stable natural colors."

Value-added products offering texture, taste or functional ingredients drive the yogurt market, and both Greek and French style yogurts are gaining popularity. "Color vibrancy plays an important role in yogurt products, and natural colors enhance what is lost during processing," says Emina Goodman, technical support manager for Sensient Food Colors' beverage and dairy group. "It is important that the color naturally represent the fruits or ingredients used. We provide natural colors that represent varietals like Meyer lemon or Mexican lime, as well as sophisticated blended ingredients like pomegranate-maqui berry."

The company's Microfine colors add color and premium sensory appeal to processed foods where it is important to visually highlight colors and authenticity of ingredients. They deliver plating characteristics commonly found in synthetic pigments in a natural color powder.

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