When Thomas Hong was developing his mushroom-based jerky product, Vegky, he decided to include Chinese 5-spice powder in the recipe. The multi-taste seasoning added a twist to his vegan product that connected it to a burgeoning trend of less-common Asian flavors in processed food.
“This powder has been used in Chinese and Taiwanese cooking for centuries,” says Hong, who launched Vegky in 2018. “We want to bring something from Asia to America that will leave a ‘wow’ factor and let this spice ripple through the western world.”
Hong’s idea to add an interesting Asian flavor is totally on-trend and backed up by several research reports. Ethnic flavors have long had a place in processed food, of course, but consumers today are seeking more diverse, uncommon flavors from around the world.
"Because of COVID-19, we’ve all been cooped up in our homes the past few months, and many consumers are longing for adventure and travel," observes Philip Caputo, marketing & consumer insights manager at Virginia Dare. "While we’re unable to travel to taste the many ethnic and exotic tastes the world has to offer for us at the moment, many brands are coming to the rescue, offering the products with flavors that satiate consumers’ desire for adventure."
Ethnic on the rise
Innova Market Insights identified Americans’ growing fascination with global flavors in a report issued in 2019. The researchers noted that two out of three U.S. consumers “love to discover new flavors,” which means bold, unconventional flavors can attract favorable attention.
"Many brands are merging familiar flavors like vanilla or cocoa with more ethnic and exotic flavors like habanero and hibiscus to elevate their offerings, adding a sophisticated twist," adds Caputo.
The Innova report also notes, “Consumers love to explore new flavors from different countries with an increasing range of ethnic flavors appearing across the board to satisfy culinary adventurers. Ethnic flavors proliferate, with 65% growth in food and beverage launches with an ethnic flavor.”
Younger consumers appear to be on the forefront of the adventurous eating trend. Jessica Morton, sensory and consumer insights manager for ingredient supplier Blue Pacific Flavors, notes that the flavors themselves are not new, but they’re being newly discovered by consumers.
“Really what we’re talking about are culturally authentic flavors,” Morton explains. “These have been popular in those communities for decades if not centuries, so it’s not necessarily an ethnic trend, but more cultural curiosity on the part of consumers. Especially younger generations -- Millennials and Gen-Z are the most ethnically diverse group of individuals, and they’re learning about culture through the flavors of their family and the flavors of their friends.”
Flavors from around the world are growing in popularity in processed food, but three broad areas are finding traction currently: Africa, Asia/India and the Middle East.
Africa is a vast continent with countless cuisines and spices, but relative to most other parts of the world, its flavors have had less impact on American dinner tables. But that is changing.
“We’re seeing a lot of requests from that region,” says Kerri Goad-Berrios, vice president of sales for Kalustyan Corp. “Africa is a big deal right now.”
Most Kalustyan clients are meat processors. A flavor profile from Africa that is trending is the spice blend found on shawarma, a meat dish that is often associated with Middle Eastern cuisine but also is widely consumed in Africa. Common spices found on shawarma include cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, turmeric and pepper -- but each region may have a different blend.
“When you’re making fresh shawarma, you’re grinding spices by hand, and it can take 45 minutes to create the blend,” Goad-Berrios explains. “My customers are creating sauces or spice blends that are ready for customers to make right off the shelf. Or they’re even making ready-made meals, frozen dinners, anything easy to grab-and-go.”
Christopher Hansen, assistant vice president-culinary and corporate executive chef of OSI Group, confirms the growing appeal of shawarma flavors.
“Shawarma are very common in many cultures around the world and are now incredibly popular here in the U.S. due to the great sensory experience they provide, including their aromas, flavors and textures,” Hansen says. “The suya skewer is the West African street food equivalent to shawarma that uses a blend of ginger, hot chile powder and ground roasted peanuts to bring a spicy, nutty flavor to the meat.”
The spices found in shawarma are available from many spice houses, but it’s important to keep in mind that spices can have vastly different flavors depending on what part of the world they are from, Goad-Berrios notes.
“For example, not all cumin is created equal,” she says. “You can get some fierce flavor from Chinese cumin seed versus Turkish or Indian cumin seed. Chinese cumin has super high volatile oil, and that’s where the flavor is coming from. Soil, weather and region all play a role in the flavor profile.”
Asian flavors have been popular in the U.S. for decades, but today consumers are seeking more complex or unfamiliar Asian tastes.
Blue Pacific Flavors, which is known for its organic flavor portfolio, often includes interesting Asian flavors in its customized solutions for food processors. The company offers ingredients developed from yuzu, for example, which is a citrus fruit that grows in Japan, Korea and Australia and adds an intense tart flavor to sauces and seasonings. Morton says yuzu is even being used to flavor an electrolyte beverage.
Even a more familiar Asian ingredient, ginger, can take on various complexities in processed food. “Ginger is used in a lot of Asian-inspired applications,” Morton says, adding that the form it is used – powder, extract, or oil, for example – depends on the application.
“Ginger often comes with heat, so you want to know the application you’re putting it in and make sure you balance that for the consumer. Sometimes it also comes with bitterness. And you also want to make sure you get a high-quality ginger. Some gingers as they age get a little too woody and lose those top notes, the citrusy component.”
Interesting Asian spice mixes, like the 5-spice powder found in Vegky products, are also on the rise. Traditional 5-spice powder includes anise star, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel, Hong explains.
“Chinese 5-spice powder blends sweet, bitter, sour, salty and pungent into something very tasty in the form of savory umami which you can’t put your finger on,” Hong says. “We source this from Taiwan. Four of the five ingredients are indigenous to Asia; therefore, it’s best to source 5-spice powder from Asia. If you source it from the West, there could be substitutes that alter the original taste. For example, cinnamon found in the USA is very different from Chinese cinnamon.”
Another interesting Asian spice mix is schichimi, which contains seven ingredients, typically red chili pepper, orange peel, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ginger, seaweed and poppy seed. Among processed foods, schichimi can found in rice products such as rice cakes and rice crackers.
Indian flavors also are on the rise. In fact, Indian flavors were a trop trend identified in research conducted by Comax Flavors in 2019.
“We found Indian flavors were popping up everywhere,” says Catherine Armstrong, brand ambassador for Comax Flavors. “It’s not so much that Indian food is new to us, but it’s becoming mainstream.”
Popular Indian flavors found in processed foods include curry, saffron and masala, which is a spice mix including cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and various other spices. Indian and Asian spices and spice blends are available from Olam Spices, Pacific Spice Co., Monterey Bay Spice Co. and Flavica.
Café Spice, a manufacturer of frozen Indian entrees such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Saffron Rice, has benefited from the growing love for Indian flavors. The company emerged from a fine Indian restaurant in New York in the 1990s and now sells frozen entrees through retailers across the country.
“We get so many emails telling us that Café Spice makes the best chicken tikka masala,” says Chef Hari Nayak, the company’s culinary director. “We’ve seen growth in our plant-based entrees, too. Indian food has always been heavily plant-based and high in protein, so dishes like our Channa Masala with Lemon Rice have become very popular, too.”
Maintaining quality Indian flavors while ramping up from restaurant-size production to retail production presented some difficulties.
“It’s always a challenge to commercialize and scale-up recipes,” Nayak says. “In restaurants, you’re taking an order for one person – with our facility, it’s as if we’re taking orders for a thousand people. The flavors still have to be there as does the quality.
"The challenges are not too bad for us, because we use the best ingredients," he continues. "However, it’s harder to control the level of spice (heat) in a large batch than in an individual order. We’re constantly holding food tastings so we can check on quality.”
Indian flavors also can be found in countless processed foods that are not inherently Indian. For example, Lay’s potato chips are available in Magic Masala flavor, and StarKist Asian Inspired Tuna Creations includes a Red Curry with Coconut variety.
Middle Eastern mystique
Walk through any urban area in the U.S. and the prevalence of Middle Eastern flavors becomes evident, from gyros to hummus to kabobs. Restaurants serving that cuisine have been around for decades, so it’s no surprise that those same flavors are making their way into processed/packaged foods.
“Most recently we have seen growth of Middle Eastern flavors, such as Lebanese, Turkish and Egyptian,” Hansen says. “Because of all the media coverage of food and cooking these days, the average person is much more familiar with items they may never have known about just 20 years ago.”
Hansen notes that among the interesting flavors coming from the Middle East is baharat, a spice mix that often includes cardamom, paprika, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, turmeric and dried chile peppers, but may include many other spices. Another is dukkah, an Egyptian blend made with nuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin. While it’s difficult to find processed foods with those spice blends specifically identified, examples exist that use various spices in those mixes to lend a Middle Eastern note to the product.
For example, some of the Near East line of rice mixes include Middle Eastern spices such as turmeric and parsley; and Snacklins brand yuca chips are seasoned with cumin and paprika. Commercial teas also often contain Middle Eastern flavors – Republic of Tea Cardamon Cinnamon Tea contains cardamon, cloves and ginger.
And of course there are plenty of examples of processed Middle Eastern entrees on the market, such Jemila brand Stuffed Grape Leaves, Baked Kibbee Balls (also known as Kibbeh balls, filled with ground beef, bulgur wheat and pine nuts), and Spinach Pie. Amy’s Kitchen also offers some Middle Eastern entrees, such as Organic Moroccan Vegetable Tagine and Moroccan Tagine Wrap.
On the more unusual side, Innova Market Insights suggested in a 2020 report on food textures that Middle Eastern “stretchy ice cream,” which is otherwise known as booza and is made with mastic and orchid flour, may become trendy in the U.S.
The bottom line is that consumers – especially younger ones – are more aware of world flavors and interested in experiencing them, which creates new opportunities for food processors.
“Millennials and Gen-Z are looking for that piece of heritage that comes from foods and flavors they’ve known or heard about from family,” Morton says. “That’s what we’re seeing driving flavor trends.”