International flavors spice up what is thought of as American food
Today's consumers want more than tahini and turmeric, focusing on hyper-local flavors such as Cantonese XO sauce and Javanese sambal oelek.
As social media and travel continue to shrink the world and blur borders, American consumers are gaining glimpses into different regional kitchens, an insight which has prompted them to seek to recreate ethnic cuisines in their own homes.
Coupled with the fact that Hispanic and Asian populations are growing and changing United States demographics, it’s no wonder that one-third of Americans eat ethnic food at least once a week, according to Technomic.
However, as consumers become more familiar with global flavors, they are beginning to demand more for their palates. While yogurt, sushi, hummus and tahini were once considered exotic additions to a dish, now they are commonplace ingredients that many consumers thoughtlessly select from a grocery shelf as part of their weekly shop. In fact, trying to market any of these choices as an ethnic food might elicit a laugh from the average consumer.
“We’re seeing a lot of foods that have become just part of the fabric of what 'food' means," Mintel global food analyst Melanie Bartelme told Food Dive in an email. "As people have come to the U.S. and shared their cuisines, these flavors become wrapped up within 'American' food and take on a life of their own.”
As once-foreign flavors become familiar, some, like wasabi, simmer down in popularity. Others, like turmeric, transform from a background spice ingredient to one with a role on center stage that can star as a freshly sliced addition to a salad, Bahige El-Rayes, partner in the consumer and retail practice of A.T. Kearney, told Food Dive.
At the same time that these more recognizable flavors become standard, consumers continue to seek adventure for their taste buds. However, as global flavors and regional cuisines have become more familiar through the years, analysts say the newest iteration in the search for flavor will come from hyperlocal regions of Asia, Africa and South America that even the most well-seasoned traveler may not have visited.
“We’re seeing a lot of foods that have become just part of the fabric of what 'food' means. As people have come to the U.S. and shared their cuisines, these flavors become wrapped up within 'American' food and take on a life of their own.”
Global food analyst, Mintel
According to El-Rayes, Cantonese XO sauce, which is a spicy seafood sauce that originated in Hong Kong; Japanese seven-spice condiment shichimi togarashi, which combines chilies, citrus and nori; Southeast Asian galangal, an herb similar to ginger; a salty, fermented Filipino fish paste called bagoóng; and raw, vinegar-based chili paste Javanese sambal oelek, are the latest flavors hailing from Asia. Egyptian dukkah, a hearty spice blend full of nuts, mint and fennel; and Ethiopean berbere, which contains a long list of aromatic spices and has a smoky taste are two popular flavors that are coming out of Africa. Corn and cilantro, two familiar ingredients, have also gotten a twist thanks to Latin American influence where the ingredients are used in arepas, elotes and chimichurri.
Bartelme offered a similar list of ethnic ingredients to watch for. However, she noted that on the whole, the hyperlocal flavors that are starting to pique consumers' curiosity are deeper explorations into more familiar ethnic trends that have been gaining traction during the last few years, like Southeast Asian, Korean and Latin flavors.
The spice of life
International flavors continue to be on-trend across the industry, and the preference for global cuisine shows no signs of slowing. Between 2013 and 2017, products that highlighted "American flavors" declined 7.2%. During the same time period, the growth of ethnic flavors grew 20%, according to research from Innova Market Insights. Likewise, Prescient & Strategic Intelligence reported that the global spice market would grow 6% between 2018 and 2023 to reach $30.4 billion.
Much of this increased interest in ethnic flavor is driven by food acting as an avenue for consumers to fulfill their desire for new experiences and aspirational fulfillment. But there is also a third component that is driving this surge in flavor searches. Consumers are turning to spices as they search for healthier alternatives that don’t skimp on flavor, said El-Rayes. To continue to provide functional flavors to consumers, food companies are going to have to start looking far afield to the remote corners of the world.
“If you try to introduce an Asian dish, say like chop suey, they’re not going to engage on it. But if you do a Korean chicken that uses the authentic spice that’s used in authentic Korean cooking, (the customers) are going to engage,”
Vice president of merchandising, Peapod
According to Kerry’s 2019 Taste Chart, North and East African flavors, exotic fruits and herbs, Korean staples and spices from Southeast Asia are some of the latest trends emerging in the market.
One particular emerging ingredient is coriander or cilantro. Tony Stallone, the vice president of merchandising for Peapod, told Food Dive it is a unifying force between the two world cuisine heavyweights of Asia and South America. With capabilities to use cilantro in dishes ranging from chimichurri to lime-cilantro roasted chickpeas and Vietnamese pho, this leafy herb and its flavorful seeds acts as a bridge to introduce consumers deeper into regional culinary variants.
Once consumers are ready to dive in mouth-first though, a whole new world of flavors opens up, literally.
Although Kraft Heinz has yet to introduce the latest fan-favorite flavors into their products, Robin Ross, Kraft Heinz’s director of culinary with Food Dive in an email that the company follows flavor trends closely. Last year, she said, the company specifically highlighted berbere, harissa, ras el hanout, dukkah, za’atar, baharat and advieh. She noted that internal discussions migrate into products when the balance between cost and consumer demand finds equilibrium.
This year at Kraft Heinz, flavor discussions for the CPG giant appear to be migrating even further east.
Ross explained the culinary team is continuously discussing new ingredients in-house, and that the latest flavors that are on their radar for consideration in future products are tropical fruits including mangosteen and feijoa, as well as the soybean paste doenjang and yuzu kosho, a condiment made with salt, chilies and Japanese citrus yuzu.
At Peapod too, Stallone said meal kits have allowed the company to more easily tap into trends and try out new flavors as consumers are becoming more adventurous in the flavors they want to learn to cook with. Although Peapod consumers are still keen on spice staples like garam masala and harissa paste, Stallone said new tastes like za’atar, kaffir lime, Thai basil and sambal oelek are starting to make regular appearances in their meal kits. The key to successfully introducing an unfamiliar flavor, Stallone said, is authenticity.
“If you try to introduce an Asian dish, say like chop suey, they’re not going to engage on it. But if you do a Korean chicken that uses the authentic spice that’s used in authentic Korean cooking, (the customers) are going to engage,” he said.
This engagement, he said, can be much more meaningful in a meal kit than in a packaged product. Meal kits are primarily where Peapod has the luxury to experiment with up-and-coming world flavors whose popularity in the market remain unproven. Receiving the Javanese chili paste sambal oelek in a separate container allows the consumer to appreciate the spice for its look, smell, taste and application, Stallone said. It also allows consumers to learn how to use the flavor in their own kitchens rather than just associating it with a snack, which Stallone noted, adds to its aura of authenticity.
Kraft Heinz also finds recipes to be a good way to gauge consumers’ interest in a new flavor. Ross noted that Korean recipes that have been promoted on their website My Food and Family have grabbed the attention of their consumers that are looking for regional recipes. Some popular recipes that have helped introduce Kraft Heinz customers to East Asian flavors include Korean Beef Short Ribs, Bibimbap, BBQ-Gochujang Chicken Wings and Korean Coleslaw. To capitalize on consumers' interest in these Korean flavors and tie them back to the Kraft Heinz brand, the site offers consumers shoppable recipes that Ross said "take advantage of Kraft Heinz’s broad portfolio of brands and products."
Although international flavors are in no danger of fizzling out in popularity, there is a balance that needs to be struck for companies when deciding on the next taste profile to push forward. El-Rayes called it a matter of placing the right bet.
“There’s definitely risk to going overboard in a given direction, and if it’s the wrong time, even the right product can fail,” he said.
Still, when done right, companies will be handsomely rewarded for introducing a new, trendy ingredient into their offerings. According to Technomic's 2018 Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 32% of customers are willing to pay more for authentic taste, which is usually achieved through herbs and spices.
In order for CPGs to hedge their flavor bets and turn trial and error into trail and success, Stallone said good decisions come down to lots of data. At Kraft Heinz, Ross said data comprises the cornerstone that cements the balance between pioneering new flavors and responding to consumer demands.
The discussion of launching new flavors in old products is a perpetual one, but Kraft Heinz has found more ready success in nurturing smaller companies through its Springboard program. This program works with startups, reinvigorates older Kraft Heinz brands, and charges up new acquisitions. Late last year, Kraft Heinz acquired Primal Kitchen, a better-for-you brand primarily focused on condiments, sauces and dressings, and integrated the company into Springboard. Ross said the company is developing innovatively flavored products, such as Lemon Turmeric Vinaigrette. In an effort add a little extra spice to Kraft Heinz’s portfolio, the program’s first incubator class featured an avocado sauce based on a popular Venezuelan condiment called Kumana and an Ayoba-Yo, an African spiced biltong jerky brand.
For smaller companies, introducing international flavors into their product offerings could be a logical approach to resonate with their target demographics. Getting access to some of the flavors can be challenging. Prices of ingredients like saffron and Madagascar vanilla can be too steep to make it financially feasible to offer meal kits with these ingredients, Stallone said.
For centuries spices have been a luxurious indulgence. Jesse Merrill, co-founder of Good Culture cottage cheese, which features Brazilian açaí as one of its four flavors, told Food Dive in an email that not much has changed in that respect.
“Exotic/international ingredients are typically twice the cost of conventional/domestic ingredients, and international ingredient availability is less secure and based on demand from larger companies,” he said.
“There’s definitely risk to going overboard in a given direction, and if it’s the wrong time, even the right product can fail."
Partner, consumer and retail practice of A.T. Kearney
Relying on demand to be generated by larger companies not only prevents a company’s supply chain from operating independently, but it also means that for a hyperlocal cuisine to get a foothold stateside, CPG giants are going to have to buy into the trend.
While it can be a nearly insurmountable task for CPG companies to turn on a dime and respond to consumer demands for new tastes, earnings reports in the last few quarters from companies like Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Campbell Soup shows the writing is on the wall if these companies don’t take consumer preference into account.
Ross told Food Dive “the most important factor (in innovation) is always input and conversations with consumers.” Still, recent product launches outside of the company’s Momofuku Ssäm Sauce include options like Asian Style BBQ Chicken Lunchables and a Chicken Tikka Masala meal kit, which are emblematic of generic regional flavors but are not reflective of today's super trendy hyper-regional ones.
To really differentiate themselves and resonate with new consumers and the younger, more ethnically diverse American demographic, El-Rayes said CPGs need to dig deep and go against their established principles of economies of scale in favor of zooming in on particular regions like Macau or Java. While the world is getting smaller, he said, consumers’ appetites for flavor is only getting bigger.
“Clearly as consumers become more adventurous, everything is on the table,” said El-Rayes, “It’s only a matter of time before these tastes find their way into products we can find on grocery or even mass-market outlets’ shelves.”