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 (, 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 (, 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.

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