Ethnic Cuisine Offers Innovation Opportunities For Food Manufacturers

Authentic flavor is a start, but ethnic food ingredients now face the same scrutiny as their apple pie neighbors.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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Taco Bell reportedly has sold half a billion Doritos Locos Tacos since they were introduced in March 2012. That was the figure tossed out in August as the chain launched the third flavor (Fiery) of the co-branded taco.

It's been nearly 50 years since the Frito-Lay Co. purchased the Doritos brand from a small Disney vendor doing business as Alex Foods. The success of Doritos (and how they have transformed the salty snack and condiment segments) speaks volumes about how ethnic foods have become big business. And mainstream.

Today, ethnic food trends reflect the diverse ethnic mix of North America, and they are also influenced by broader factors such as nutrition, dietary and food sustainability concerns, and heightened consumer interests in cooking and cuisines. On the horizon, there may be an even more complex array of ethnic foods available in a wider variety of forms.

However, for future consumers to embrace them, those foods will also need a clean label, a reasonable sodium count and certification demonstrating that they were produced carefully and thoughtfully without harm to the environment or exploitation of workers.

"Ethnic cuisines are associated with healthy eating, and as Americans become more educated about food, they are experimenting, seeking out bolder flavors," says Magda Dziembowski, a marketing specialist at Kikkoman Foods, San Francisco. "There's definitely room for innovation among food manufacturers here."

Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., was started in 1964, the same year that Frito-Lay acquired Doritos. It is now the market leader in Mexican-style frozen foods, selling burritos, snacks and entrees under the El Monterey brand in a variety of retail and foodservice channels.

We have certainly seen a rise in ethnic flavors in regular mainstream items, such as snacks, condiments and even entrée selections in the frozen food aisle.

– Magda Dziembowski, Kikkoman Foods

Ruiz Foods' president and CEO Rachel Cullen says other trends that dovetail with ethnic foods include the rampant popularity of hand-held foods. She says the types of ingredients used in Mexican foods have diversified as more consumers have grown up with authentic but American-made Mexican foods.

"While no ingredients were 'off limits' 10-15 years ago, we have seen an increase in the consumer appeal of such items as chipotle and cilantro … even a touch of habanero," Cullen says.

Ruiz Foods recently introduced El Monterey Shell Shocker Taquitos -- crunchy corn taquitos that are flavored on the outside (in Nacho Cheese and Jalapeno Ranch) with juicy chicken on the inside.

"Authentic Mexican food has always used a wide range of spices and chiles," Cullen says. "With the continued growth of Mexican food in the U.S., as well as consumer's increasing desire for taste variety, we will continue to expand our repertoire of ingredients to deliver exciting, flavorful tastes that delight consumers."

If ethnic foods have only just reached the center aisles of the grocery store, the ethnic foods of the future may look quite a bit different than those we are familiar with today, and they will be immeasurably more complex and varied than those simple, lightly flavored tortilla chips were back in 1964.

More flavors, more places

Most supermarkets in the U.S. feature an international foods aisle or a Latin food section, while others, particularly in more diverse markets, might be focused only on ethnic foods or specializing in one ethnicity.

If current trends continue, however, ethnic-influenced foods will be found in nearly every part of the store, in family-owned or corporate restaurants, including the top fast food chains, and in nearly all segments of food and beverage manufacturing.

While PepsiCo's, Frito-Lay division is dominant in savory snacks, one of the few competing brands it hasn't yet wolfed down is Takis, a spicy-hot salty snack manufactured and sold by Bracel, a division of Mexico's Grupo Bimbo. In taste tests (and even in the sales figures in certain markets), Takis gives Frito-Lay's Cheetos a run for the money.

A competitor with a classic potato chip would have little chance of elbowing much shelf space from Fritos brands, but the authenticity and flavor intensity of Takis has given the product a foothold. And there's a lesson in that.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a group of marketing and craft beer experts recently launched an independent craft brewery whose innovative beer styles are made with flavors and ingredients drawing inspiration from Latin American cuisine. 5 Rabbit Brewing Co., Bedford Park, Ill., sells beers such as 5 Lizard wheat beer and Huitzi Midwinter Ale to traditional craft beer audiences as well as to restaurants making Latin and other ethnic foods.

Ethnic flavors offer a consumer pull and a competitive advantage, so food manufacturers will continue to expand and overlay this niche.

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