Striking a Balance

By Diane Strzelecki

Consumers demand a cornucopia of flavors from a variety of protein products, and suppliers are racing to deliver the seasonings and spices that hit the mark.

American flavor preferences are, quite literally, all over the map. Consumers are loyal to traditional flavors of home-cooked meals; at the same time, exotic ethnic flavors appeal to their perennial sense of adventure. Americans clamor for juicy burgers but remain concerned about food safety. We want our chicken to have a chargrilled, smoky flavor – but don’t expect us to be cooking outside during wintry weather. Comfort food appeals to the sentimental palate – just make sure you keep the fat content to a minimum. The year 2007 finds the seasoning/spice marketplace focusing on reconciling the seemingly contradictory culinary considerations of American omnivores.
Staying ahead of the wave
Seasoning and flavor manufacturers make it a priority to monitor consumer preferences. Zachery Sanders, senior flavor scientist for Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, Tenn., points to internal marketing programs and external segments as sources of data used to compile flavor and cooking trends – but other influences are also considered.
“Trends can be observed from consumer actions, such as buying habits at grocery stores and restaurant menu selections,” he says. “The professional culinary environment can be utilized as well to predict new cooking techniques and flavor profiles.”
“Flavor research is a long process that incorporates both detailed market research and ‘crystal balls,’” jokes Chris Keegan, research chef for Ohio-based Cargill Seasonings. “We look at where we think the market is going and where we think it will hold for the time required for a prototype to be developed, approved, manufactured and then distributed.”
Keegan notes that the influx of an ethnic population often determines whether an ethnic cuisine will become a mainstay or not.  
Jay Hall, president of Excalibur Seasoning Company, Pekin, Ill., explains that his company keeps close watch on category movement and adjusts accordingly. “We continue to market the items that are doing well, such as our garlic-and-pepper-based steakhouse marinade or our teriyaki flavor,” he says.  He notes that Excalibur never got “heavy” into hot pepper sauces.  “Heat’s great, but it shouldn’t be all there is to it — it tends to limit the palate.”
A healthy mouthful
American consumers are increasingly health-conscious — even if adult obesity levels in the United States are, well, expanding. Consumers have been through the low-fat/no-fat revolution, the low-carb craze and the sodium scare, and lately have become more into allergen avoidance. And even when the next health craze comes along, the buzzwords tend to stick.  
“The ongoing challenge to the seasonings/spices marketplace coming from consumer-health issues is to deliver rich, full and authentic flavor in trans-fat free, lower-fat, lower-sodium and natural products,” notes Marion Dalacker, director of market strategies for Wild Flavors, of Erlanger, Ky. Ideally, healthier products contain less sugar, salt and fat — the main texture and flavor vehicles that convey flavor to the taste buds.
“The goal is, therefore, to develop flavors and seasonings that replace those missing qualities and minimize the differences in the eating experience,” Dalacker says.
As a research chef, Keegan says he’s definitely up to the challenge. “That’s what I thrive on: Give me a situation where you want this dish to be low in calories but have a full-fat taste,” Keegan says. “We’ll add different textures and intense flavors to bring out different attitudes of the dish or get fuller flavor out of a lower-fat protein.”
Americans also remain focused on eliminating trans-fatty acids from their diets – a concern affecting restaurant fare as well.
“Trans fats will continue to be in the spotlight as many national restaurant chains and processors will implement removal of these ‘bad’ fats during 2007,” Dalacker says.  “This attention will continue to heighten awareness for total fat content and strengthen the upward trend of lean meat/poultry consumption.”
She notes that a current trend in the trans-fat game has product developers using chicken to replace traditional proteins in sausage, bacon or chorizo. She also sees chicken taking the place of beef in “surf & turf” menu offerings. Kraft’s Sanders predicts that the term “natural” will be demanded more and more in retail items.
“The USDA is currently developing a more focused standard of identity for this claim,” he says. “Once this occurs, I think you will see more companies touting this benefit.”
He notes that organic demands will also increase, as they have done so “tremendously” over the past five years. Dalacker agrees.
“There has been a noticeable surge in the popularity and demand for more natural and fresh products over the past year or two,” she says. “This is leading to more simple ingredient labels and the rise in the use of natural flavors, seasonings and colors.
“Although they will remain smaller than the natural market, organic products will continue their growth over the next several years as well.”
The real deal
The demand for ethnic flavors is still strong, with Asian, Mediterranean and Hispanic dishes remaining popular. Nick Pajor, corporate chef at Red Arrow Products, sees these primary ethnic labels becoming more specific, dividing into subcategories as Americans continue to expand their culinary horizons.
“Asian profiles, such as Tandoori, Wasabi and Satays, are becoming popular,” he says, “as well as Mexican/Hispanic profiles, such as Tinga, Chipotle/Adobo and Yucatan.”
Sanders sees the same breakdown reflected in restaurant establishments as well. “Restaurants such as Taco Bell and Olive Garden flourish just as much as standard burger chains,” he says. “These types of dining establishments have been further dimensionalized through entities such as Chipotle Grill, Abuelo’s, and Texas de Brazil. The increasing number of these restaurant chains indicates that there is a growing market for authentic, ethnic flavors.”
While some point to the adventurous American palate for this market growth, others note that the continuing influx of ethnic cultures and cuisines in the United States drives the demand for authentic flavors. Dalacker sees regionally specific Hispanic, Asian and Mediterranean flavors as the growth areas, with authenticity being the key to success.
“Examples [of these growth areas] include Oaxacan, Thai, Vietnamese, Sicilian and Milanese,” she says. “Wild Flavors focuses on developing flavor blends true to the cooking methods and ingredients found in these cuisines.”
Cargill’s Keegan says the Information Age has allowed consumers to become their own best critics as far as authenticity of a recipe or cuisine.
“Ever since the Internet took off, people are more informed and look for authenticity in a dish,” he explains. For example, Keegan notes Cuban recipes that name soy sauce as an ingredient.
“You think, ‘What is soy sauce doing in Cuban cuisine?’ But once you do the research, you find out that pockets of Asian immigrants came to Cuba in the late 1800s, which accounts for the influence.”
Sticking with tradition
Hall maintains that basic flavors never go out of style.
“Everybody wants to throw a trend out there, like it’s this ethnic flavor of the moment, but the standard products are staying strong,” he says. “I keep saying go back to the basics. If you get too exotic, the customer can’t imagine it.”
Indeed, demand for traditional slow-cooked flavors could be on the rise – as long as consumers can make a healthy meal quickly. Red Arrow’s Pajor points to ingredients offered by his company that achieve the same flavor as fried chicken without having to deep fry, as an example.
And for home chefs who don’t want to cook in the snow, the grocery store’s pantry or meat department can help them replicate the flavor of outdoor cooking.
“We are selling a lot of grill flavor, which lends that grill taste even when cooking in the oven or a skillet,” Hall says.
Rodney Schaffer, direcor of technical services for Pennsylvania-based Con Yeager Spice Company, notes that the company’s steakhouse flavoring outsells its other blends nearly 4 to 1. In a report in mid-January, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith agrees that the traditional flavor trend is here, but is more of a blend with the exotic.
“Home cooks are again embracing traditional, back to basics American dishes, but with a twist,” Schaarsmith reports. “Think macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and chocolate layer cake, but updated to be healthier – say, using lower-fat meat and whole grains – and more exotically spiced.”
“Keeping the familiar close at hand yet fresh with new ideas is the goal,” Dalacker says. “Small steps away from traditional are accomplished by combining a familiar flavor with something unexpected like the latest combination of chocolate with chile.”
Schaffer notes the company’s customers continue to ask for new and different flavors. “Our development efforts focus on flavors outside the box. We’ve had good experience changing flavors around to meet specific, custom requirements.” As an example, Schaffer points to their adding high-temperature cheeses to Italian sausage as a new twist on an old favorite.
Safety first
E. coli concerns remain in the minds of consumers, but cooking with the recommended temperatures can often lead to a dried-out cut of meat or poultry. It falls to spices and seasonings manufacturers to enhance juiciness and flavor profiles despite high cooking temperatures. For example, Schaffer notes that Con Yeager product development tends to focus on the impact on final product, especially in marinades and flavor blends for ground meat used in grocery store meat departments.
“In today’s world, everyone wants their hamburgers well done -- especially if you’re going to feed it to kids,” Schaffer says. “Con Yeager works on profiles that will maintain juiciness so that the consumer can grill the burger to well-done with the meat holding up.”
Pajor points to combinations of products that provide a charcoal-grilled beef flavor in hamburger with a medium-rare top note. “In this instance, a commercial beef burger can be cooked to well-done, lowering bacterial issues, but still deliver a medium-rare grilled-beef flavor in a finished cooked product,” Pajor says.
Beyond health issues, identification of the flavor trends of the moment often depends upon whom you ask. Right now, Cargill’s Keegan sees more exotic fruits, such as mango and papaya, being included in marinade prototypes, while Hall notes that blends of ethnicities are often in demand. Bottom line: The days when simple flavor enhancers were used are gone.
“People are really looking for natural-tasting flavor and restaurant-quality food,” Keegan says. In other words, ingredients must taste fresh.