Savoring the Possibilities
By Lynn Petrak, Special Projects Editor
Pre-seasoned and marinated fresh meats add value as well as flavor.
If variety is the spice of life, the current marketplace for meat and poultry products is certainly well seasoned. The type and range of flavorings now added to fresh cuts of beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken, turkey, and even raw processed meats run the gamut from simple, traditional seasonings to unusual, globally-inspired ingredients.
As consumers’ tastes expand and as retailers and foodservice operators seek to differentiate themselves, processors are looking for fresh, enticing ways to jazz up traditional offerings.
Indeed, gone are the days when a bit of pepper or dash of paprika dressed up otherwise plain proteins. In addition to a growing array of ingredients, the number of cuts that are available in pre-seasoned or marinated form has risen considerably, from boneless breasts and tenderloins to grill-ready steaks and stir-fry strips.
The biggest reason for the move toward more flavor-enhanced, value-added meats seems to be consumer demand.
“We have seen marked increases in consumer interest in marinated, seasoned, smoked, and grilled meat and poultry products. As the consumer's palate has evolved, our customers have responded with increased emphasis on these types of enhanced flavor profiles,” reports Michael duBois, product line manager for SpiceTec, a brand of ConAgra Food Ingredients, Omaha, NE.
Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board (NPB), Des Moines, IA, agrees that consumers’ tastes are broader today, a result of exposure to different foods in restaurants and via culinary television shows and cookbooks.
“Frankly, consumers are more sophisticated with flavor profiles. They go out to eat more and are more familiar with them. They like having flavors added and having different varieties to choose from,” she says, adding that the shift has also allowed the industry as a whole to expand its business. “It’s given processors and packers more flexibility and let their creative juices flow.”
At the retail level, meat merchandisers have increasingly expanded their cases to offer more flavored raw products. While most pre-seasoned products arrive at supermarkets case ready, some retailers do their own flavor additions in the back room. Either way, such value-added items can command higher price points among discerning shoppers. “It’s been an evolution over the last five years,” says David Casey, owner of Casey’s Market in Western Springs, IL, and Mike’s Market in Villa Park, IL, which offers a variety of cuts that have been seasoned with marinades or dry rubs. “These products break up the monotony, and it’s all done for you. Within reason, people are willing to pay for that.”
In addition to taste, convenience also plays heavily in the development of flavored fresh meat and poultry items. “I think the industry is looking at ways to provide consumers with products to get on the table quickly. By providing pre-seasoned or marinated products, the convenience factor helps consumers,” notes Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director, marketing and communications for the Washington, DC-based National Turkey Federation (NTF).
Richard L. Lobb, director of communications for the Washington, DC-based National Chicken Council (NCC), agrees. “Marinated products are part of the trend toward convenience products that have really taken the industry by storm in the last several years,” he says.
To that end, the category for flavor-enhanced fresh meat and poultry has now grown to include a greater variety of proteins, many of them developed for convenience-oriented consumers who want the flavor but not the fuss of preparation. What started in the pork industry with tenderloins, for example, has expanded to other cuts.
“We are seeing some small roasts and loin products that are marinated, and even the cutlets and grilling strips are flavored now,” Boillot notes.
It’s a similar situation for the turkey, chicken, and beef categories, as items like pre-marinated flank steaks, marinated chicken breasts, and pre-seasoned ground turkey are now meat-case staples. Beyond whole-muscle cuts, meanwhile, sausages have also been spiced up in recent years, from maple-flavored breakfast links to bratwurst infused with hot pepper sauce. Even uncooked bacon comes pre-seasoned.
What’s hot and not
Indeed, there is a broad range of flavors now available for meat and poultry products, which despite their rather plain history, lend themselves well to seasonings. “Meat and poultry are perfect proteins for the addition of seasonings and flavors. There are many ways to incorporate seasonings and flavors into the protein,” notes duBois. “They are very complementary to cooking processes such as grilling, pan frying, rotisserie, roasting, and braising, and consumers welcome the addition of ‘culinary artistry’ using fresh herbs, spices, and other natural-taste ingredients.”
As any food marketer knows, consumers can be notoriously fickle in their demands, with tastes changing and emerging on a regular basis. Still, there are some notable trends in flavor profiles used to season fresh cuts of meat and poultry products.
“Popular flavors run from the subtle lemon/pepper to the piquant, vivid, and sometimes hearty themes featuring garlic, mustards, chilies, and dramatic spice blends,” observes duBois.
Industry groups have also tracked flavor trends closely, as they work with processors to promote proteins through a variety of programs, from retail promotions to recipe development. “We did a study and actually asked consumers what flavor profiles they were looking for. Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, and Southwestern were at the top, and not far behind was Mexican,” relates Rosenblatt, adding that turkey processors have worked to provide products that accommodate those profiles.
Becca Hendricks, strategic marketing manager for the National Pork Board, says that ethnic flavors continue to evolve for pork as well. “Some of the Hispanic flavors, like chipotle, are big,” she notes.
Boillot, meanwhile, foresees more regionalized ethnic flavors coming to the fore. “What we’ve seen is that it’s not just Mexican, it is a Cuban influence or a certain area within Mexico. And it’s the same with Asian flavors, in that you are seeing Thai and other more narrow flavor profiles,” she explains.
Likewise, duBois agrees that spice companies are developing more specific ethnic flavors. “Recently, we have seen more interest in Asian and Asian Fusion concepts from the more traditional soy sauce-based recipes, all the way to more adventurous taste profiles featuring sweet mixed with savory, ginger or lemongrass infused, and also Thai and Indonesian seasoning,” he reports.
In addition to globally-inspired seasonings, savory flavors remain a top choice for many spice houses and processors seeking to please consumer tastes. “The top flavors for pork, if we look at the largest tenderloin category, are still things like teriyaki, peppercorn, hickory barbecue, and grilled rosemary,” Boillot says.
Not venturing too far outside the mainstream is probably a good idea when it comes to savory flavor options, points out Lobb. “A very basic seasoning like lemon/herb is very popular because it is very widely acceptable. You won't turn people off with a seasoning like that,” he observes.
Beyond what holds consumer cache, the type of seasoning used for raw meat and poultry depends on other factors. Some seasonings, for instance, simply work better with certain proteins. “Because of its naturally mild taste, chicken takes well to a variety of flavors,” points out Lobb. Turkey offers similar versatility, adds Rosenblatt: “No matter what the seasoning is, turkey will lend itself perfectly to it — you could enjoy turkey every day of the week and have a different flavor,” she remarks.
In its long-time “Other White Meat” campaign, meanwhile, the pork industry has tried to emphasize pork’s versatility. “Because of the mild profile of fresh pork, it is a natural for marrying it, from traditional teriyaki to some of the Italian flavors,” says Boillot.
On the other hand, beef cuts are different because beef isn’t as mild of a carrier. “When adding a flavor component to fresh beef it’s most important to ensure that the flavor added is compatible with the distinctive flavor of beef. What sets beef apart from other proteins is its unique flavor. Processors should be careful not to overpower beef's natural flavor when using marinades and rubs,” explains Dave Zino, director of the Chicago culinary center for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Zino adds that flavors that pair well with beef include soy sauce, barbecue sauce, tomatoes, and Worcestershire sauce, among others.
While many seasoning companies provide flavors to processors for in-plant applications on fresh cuts of meat and poultry, other ingredient suppliers meet the need for natural flavor enhancements.
Summit Hill Flavors in Middlesex, NJ, for example, has worked with several meat and poultry companies to enhance the natural meat flavor of value-added and further processed cuts. “We supply unique savory flavors that are very clean label — no MSG, no soy sauce. We also are starting to work with meat companies to flavor organic meats they are trying to enhance,” says Dwight Grenawalt, vice president and general manager.
Grenawalt says that food technologists at Summit Hill add the natural flavors back into meat products that have somehow been enhanced for tenderization or eating quality purposes.
“We do a lot of business for people who pump products and want to get the flavor back in,” he explains, adding that the most requested profiles are for roasted, grilled or sautéed flavors. “We make the flavors from the meat products themselves. We go back to the basics because if you want a good meat flavor, you use meat.”
SpiceTec, which supplies ingredients that evoke roasted, smoked, and grilled tastes, has also met demand for more natural meat flavors.
“Grilled, roasted, and smoked flavor from slight to bold are also finding their way into a more mainstream diet,” says duBois.
Finally, as the fresh meat case features more flavored raw products, ingredient suppliers and processors are taking on the work in their own kitchens.
“A lot of packers are using chefs for research and some are opening culinary centers. They are also looking at the whole industry in regards to what flavors are working in foodservice and where the overall trends are going,” says Boillot. NP
Ingredient sources participating in this article include:
SpiceTec-USF, phone (800) 872-9236, or fax (630) 462-9953