The world really is getting smaller, at least as far as culinary tastes go. Americans have always had a taste for foreign foods, as evidenced by the popularity of Italian and Mexican restaurants and recipes. Today, though, those cuisines are being joined by other fare from around the world, each of which adds a little extra spice to the American palette.
“It is not uncommon to see previously rare ethnic restaurants — Indian, Vietnamese, African, and Brazilian, for example — well outside of major U.S. cities,” notes Elaine Tecklenburg, marketing director for Spicetec at ConAgra Food Ingredients, Omaha, NE. “Slowly but surely these new tastes and flavors find their way into the supermarket.”
Tecklenberg cites the greater diversity and growth in the U.S. immigrant population as the catalyst for this transformation, providing more exposure to cultures and foods of places unfamiliar to the majority of Americans a decade ago.
Diane Pallanich, industrial sales specialist for Williams Ingredients, Lenexa, KS, says that the chefs on Food Network and other television shows not only are preparing meals but also giving descriptions about dishes’ ingredients and history. That makes “new and different” more user-friendly.
“Restaurants are slowly and cautiously adding new, unique flavors and ingredients to their menus. The common mushroom sauce is now given distinctive titles like porcini or shitake mushroom sauce,” she adds.
American consumers also are looking for flavors that warm up the palette, says Bruce Armstrong, research & design manager for Kerry Ingredients - Kerry Savory Ingredients, Waukesha, WI. “This flavor is made up of spices such as red pepper, white pepper, ginger, and cumin. The heat of the seasoning made with these spices will be perceived as hot if the consumer eats the meal quickly,” he says. “If the consumer savors each bite, the perceived heat is warm.” That warmth brings out the best of the flavors.
Doing their homework
If a spice supplier wants to stay on the cutting edge, it has to keep apprised of all the latest trends. Marcy Epstein, director of research and development for First Spice Mixing Co., Long Island City, NY, says that her company collects input from customers on both coasts, which can differ greatly because of population differences. “For instance, our customer base on the East Coast is more interested in Russian and Polish-styled flavors. On the West Coast, we see more interest in Mexican and Spanish-styled flavors and seasonings.”
Seasoning, spice and flavor companies have to do considerable research to come up with just the right blend. Susan Parker, a certified flavorist and research scientist for Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN, says the research often depends on what the customer wants. “Some customers are looking for something that's very authentic,” she explains. “In that case, I'll start my research by working with our culinary team here at Kraft Food Ingredients, in addition to looking through cookbooks and online resources to see what kind of spices and ingredients go into a dish. Cooking magazines are another great resource for seeing what’s on trend and how it ties in well with what’s hot in restaurants.”
“Once we identify a particular application, we look at how that item is prepared, whether it's roasted, fried, grilled, sautéed, or smoked because the method incorporates flavor into the dish,” Parker adds. “Our specialty is to integrate the flavors of cooking into the customer’s desired flavor profile. This savory product line allows us to create unique flavors with a single ingredient without sacrificing fatty flavor attributes.”
Spicetec also looks through farmer’s markets, cooking shows, and magazines, as well as gathering data on restaurant menu items and retail sales. “It is not unusual for some of the flavor concepts we demonstrate for customers to be just a little more cutting-edge than the mainstream market is ready for,” Tecklenburg says. “In this way we help provide a glimpse of what’s ahead while also offering traditional tastes that never go out of style.”
Red Arrow Products Co., Manitowoc, WI, has put extensive research into investigating the characteristic flavors when red and white meats are grilled. Along with conjuring up memories of backyard cookouts when an item is described as “grilled,” consumers also perceive it as healthier than items cooked by other methods, says Melissa Ventura, CEC, executive research chef.
“We discovered some very striking differences between what is now available to the industry and what really authenticates the grilling experience using other cooking methods,” she says. The flavor characteristics most frequently attributed to the grilling process are char-grill notes, with the ability to customize charred notes, savory juices, smoke components, and flavors from a heat source such as charcoal. The company took that information and created the Grillin’® Series of flavors.
Hot for 2006
Pallanich at Williams Ingredients says that while traditional flavors such as Italian, Chinese, and Hispanic will continue to be popular, the flavors are becoming bolder.
“Indian and Thai cuisine is [also] gaining in popularity, and I see more island cuisine — to include Cuban and South American — sweet heat, lesser-known citrus fruits and leaves, chocolate-chili combo, coffee as an ingredient or rub, white tea, and habanero. Whatever it is, it will have high-impact flavors.”
Armstrong says that Asian and Hispanic, which includes chipotle, chili, and Southwest flavors, will be popular, as will Caribbean flavors based on Jamaican Jerk flavor. Those flavors all offer a warm mouth sensation when the consumer savors each bite. He adds that companies understand the sub-Asian flavors of tandoori and tikka, but those two flavors haven’t translated well to the average American consumer yet.
“It will take time. An example of how long it will take are Buffalo wings,” he notes. “These were first served at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, in 1964. They did not gain mainstream popularity until the late 1980s.”
Tecklenburg says spices and flavors that will reach more mainstream popularity include adobo, Thai, and mole. She adds that frozen entrees are a perfect place to offer new flavors, as consumers are seeking out more convenience, single services, and greater portion control than in the past. “Rubs, including those containing cracked pepper, will continue to be hits,” she adds, “due to the great flavor and excellent visual impact of large, colorful particles.”
Along with developing popular spice and seasoning blends to match consumer tastes, manufacturers also have to keep consumer health issues in mind. The year 2006 is the year of no allergens. Major changes are being made in labeling that require all allergens be listed, which is a significant shift for all food and ingredient suppliers.
“Dairy flavors provide richness and smooth flavor,” Armstrong says. “Soy and wheat provide strong meat notes in hydrolyzed flavors. Soy has potential health benefits. It is difficult to replace these desired flavor notes when these ingredients are not allowed on a customer’s label because of marketing considerations.”
The amount of trans-fatty acids also must appear on the labels, which has led to other formulation changes, Parker says. “That has become quite important to many of our customers,” she says. “They are asking us to provide them with products that do not have partially hydrogenated oils in them. Many of our products, such as our Natural Grill Flavor, are now available in versions that do not contain hydrogenated oils.”
The new label mandates are just a part of the increased drive for healthier foods. Epstein at First Spice says that consumers are demanding foods with no MSG or salt, but with higher flavor. Unfortunately, they can’t always have it all. “Using a little MSG is going to decrease the amount of salt required. Salt is a natural flavor enhancer, so by decreasing salt and forgoing the use of MSG, there is an inherent conflict that has to be sorted out,” she says. “Perhaps a new generation of ingredient flavor enhancers will enter the market, or alternatively, consumers can be re-educated on how the moderate use of MSG and salt in their foods is not harmful to the majority of the population.”
Right spice, right protein
When processors or consumers are considering the type and amount of spice or seasoning to add to a particular flavor, they should first consider the type of meat being used. Beef, poultry, and pork have very different flavors, and even different cuts of the same meat can result in very different tastes, Parker says. “Beef has a wide range of flavors,” she explains. “If you’re dealing with a Flat Iron or sirloin, the flavor profile of the meat itself tends to be stronger than poultry or pork. It brings a lot to the table to start with, and when you start to dimensionalize it, you sometimes get very unusual notes.”
Red Arrow’s Ventura adds, “Each protein has its own distinct taste, so when choosing a seasoning blend, that needs to be kept in mind. Beef has more of a full flavor, and warmed-over flavors are easily masked.” When working with beef, she recommends staying on the high side of the recommended usage range, while poultry products may require staying on the low side of the recommended usage range.
Different proteins have different ratios of fat, types of fat, and marbling, which also determine the flavor characteristic of the meat, explains Epstein. “This fat content also contributes to how much spice or seasoning is required in the meat. Mellower flavored meats, like chicken or pork, often require less seasoning,” she says. “Beef and pork, however, require higher levels of sale to bring out their natural savory notes.”
Pallanich likens formulating spices and seasonings for a particular protein to choosing a wine to pair with meat or fish. “A chili/chocolate rub might be fabulous on a beef tenderloin but totally overpower a pork tenderloin,” she says. “The same ingredients could be used in rubs for both, but the chili/chocolate would need to be background rather than up-front flavors on pork or chicken. Constant tasting and testing while developing helps the scientist or chef create the balance needed for the protein base.” NP
Spice/seasoning suppliers participating in the story include: