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Global Flavors Are Capturing Imaginations And Driving Sales

Authentic spices are the key as even the most mainstream food companies try out bold new ethnic offerings.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

"Global, bold, gourmet," is how Campbell Soup Co. describes several new lines of its namesake product. From the Coconut Curry in the new Go! pouches to Jammin' Jerk Chicken with Rice & Beans in the Chunky line to Sweet Potato Tomatillo and Thai Tomato Coconut in the Gourmet Bisques portfolio, authentic flavors from around the world are driving new product development at this and other mainstream food companies.

"Campbell is reframing what soup means with a variety of new choices that tempt the taste buds and fit the lifestyle of the millennial generation and beyond," says Mark Alexander, president of Campbell North America. While stodgy old baby boomers are pretty set in their ways, millennials are just coming into their own as a purchasing powerhouse, and anything that can attract them will serve a company well in the coming decades.

"This is the new face and flavor of Campbell Soup Co.," Alexander said.

Campbell arguably needed a new face. After putting most of its eggs in the low-sodium basket a few years ago, the R&D lab in Camden, N.J., churned out such exciting new products (in early 2006) as chicken noodle with 25 percent less sodium and Healthy Request cream of mushroom with up to 45 percent less sodium than regular varieties. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but sales sagged.

Now, as we climb out of that nasty recession, food processors are looking to take back ground lost to private label by differentiating their higher-priced products. Whether you've been to foreign countries or just wish you were there, flavors from around the globe are capturing imaginations and driving sales.

Just try to find Moroccan-style Chicken with Chickpeas (another Campbell Go! Soup) in a store brand.

It's becoming increasingly important for food processors to find ingredients with both the authenticity to satisfy immigrants coming into the U.S. and the excitement to tempt the worldly and sophisticated American palate. Often those are fresh herbs, spices and botanicals or otherwise fragile ingredients, so a trusted source is a great find.

Flavors can be developed

While the influx of Hispanics into the U.S. may be slowing (see our September story, The New American Majority), their culinary culture remains the biggest current ethnic influence. They account for 16.7 percent of our population, and more American vacationers have tasted Mexico and Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean than have been to Thailand.

"The growth of the Hispanic population in the United States is driving the need for both traditional and innovative Hispanic flavors," says Phil Sprovieri, vice president of sales and marketing at Flavorchem Corp., Downers Grove, Ill. "These flavors have not been readily available on an industrial scale -- not only in the U.S., but throughout the Americas."

"Roadside vendors offering beverages such as horchata or those flavored with tamarindo (tamarind) and limosa (lime) have resulted in development of new flavors for Flavorchem," he says. "The company has also spotted flavors such as guava, mango, pina colada and chocolate with cinnamon in a wide range of dairy products at shopping centers. The firsthand accounts documented by [our] representatives are coupled with market research – often supported by Mintel -- to determine which Hispanic flavors will be developed."

Quite literally, research followed by development has resulted in such Flavorchem flavors as Horchata (a traditional Mexican beverage made with milk, rice, vanilla extract and cinnamon), Mamey (an earthy and creamy exotic fruit, similar to a combination of sweet potato and pumpkin) and Tamarind (with a unique dried sweet-tart raisin character). Plus a half-dozen others.

Recreating these flavors on an industrial scale, however, poses some technical challenges. Flavor suppliers "cannot easily duplicate the homemade preparations and methods used by vendors to create the flavor nuances in foods and beverages found in many geographic locales," says Sprovieri. But his company's flavorists blend essential oils, oleoresins, botanical distillates, extracts and other flavor ingredients to achieve the desired results.

Spices are carefully sourced

Spices and spice blends are not the result of laboratory tinkering; they require artful sourcing and careful transportation, often from far-flung corners of the globe. For home cooks, chefs and even food processors, ethnic spices are the keys to delivering or developing an authentic ethnic experience.

"There clearly is a demand for ethnic flavors," says Jeff Troiola, corporate chef in the R&D department of Woodland Foods, Waukegan, Ill. "The consumer market is more sophisticated and adventurous thanks to travel and the Food Channel."

Throughout its 25-year history, Woodland Foods has specialized in spices and spice blends – "procuring and providing ‘difficult to find' dried and frozen specialty foods from around the world," as the company says in its marketing materials. It sells to food processors and foodservice, and also creates consumer-sized packages it private-labels for club stores.

"We currently have 1,100 products in our catalog, and it's always growing," Troiola boasts.

Lemongrass powder and tomatillo powder have been available for years and are nearly mainstream, he says. Recent focus has been on spice blends to appeal to very specific and more discerning tastes. They include:

  • Baharat – The word simply means "spice" in Arabic. It's a common North African spice mix in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. It's a mixture of paprika, peppercorns, cumin, clove, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and cardamom. "This blend is often used to season lamb but is an all-purpose flavor enhancer useful for fish, chicken, beef, tomato sauces and soups," says Troiola. "It's a great addition to lentil dishes, pilafs and can even perk up plain old meatloaf. It is great for anything on the grill."
  • Berbere – An Ethiopian all-purpose seasoning containing Hungarian paprika, coriander, sea salt, cumin, cayenne, fennel, Aleppo pepper, fenugreek, peppercorns, ginger, ground Ajwain (looks like small cumin seeds with a taste similar to thyme), mace, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.
  • Kabsa – A version of a classic Arabian spice mix used in the ancient Saudi Arabian dish called Al Kabsa or Al Kabsah, a chicken and rice dish which is fragrant and lightly spiced -- and is thought to originate from the nomadic Bedouin tribes. The spice blend depends upon chile powder, cayenne, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander, ginger, saffron powder and turmeric. 
  • Ras el Hanout – A general-purpose Moroccan seasoning, "it's loosely translated from Arabic to mean ‘top of the shop,' referring to the best spices a merchant has to offer," says Troiola. "It's hand-blended from coriander, cumin, cardamom, fennel, black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, and paprika."

Curry is an increasingly common flavor – actually several -- and Woodland offers blends that will help create the traditional hot and sweet curries. But the company also has developed Vadouvan, a masala curry that gets its French influence from roasted garlic and shallots, and Garam Masala, an Arab-influenced curry powder.

A trip to the local grocery store, for either the spices or a well-executed packaged ethnic meal, is a lot cheaper than an airfare to Casablanca.