Melting Pot of Flavor
By Andy Hanacek
Seasonings suppliers have kept their passports handy in response to consumer demand for a global flavor experience and the convenience of a snack
As American consumers become more and more experimental in their food choices, trying different and new flavors, dishes and delicacies, food manufacturers and suppliers have had to expand their horizons as well.
It’s not just the old standbys that are gaining in popularity. Consumers are looking for new varieties of snacks, particularly ones that allow them to treat themselves to a taste sensation, possibly even one that they’ve never experienced before.
The regular, salted snack has its place on the shelves and will never go away, but consider that, according to Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Datamonitor’s Productscan Online, consumption of herbs and spices in the last 20 years (from 1983-2003) has doubled in the United States. That’s excellent news for importers of those international spices and for restaurants serving dishes with international flair.
But that statistic also points to a changing consumption mindset in the U.S. The American consumer has changed from a meat-and-potatoes or burger-and-fries kind of consumer to one that isn’t afraid to try a diverse buffet of foods from far reaches of the globe as different groups emigrate to the U.S. and bring their culture — and culinary skills — with them.
“We’re seeing [a] shift in the demographics,” Dan Bellah, director of sales for Williams Ingredients, says. “There’s a larger number of Hispanics and people from other countries [in the U.S.]; we’ve become more of a melting pot. I think through those cultural changes in our country, we’re seeing those flavors starting to dominate more than they had in the past.”
And the introduction of culture-based flavors to a more mainstream-oriented audience has made Americans more willing to experiment more with their culinary interests, adds Dianne Pallanich, industrial sales specialist for Williams Ingredients.
“America is eating out more and they’re more adventurous,” she says. “They’re trying restaurants and dishes in restaurants that they haven’t maybe explored before. They’re becoming more familiar with them and they’re asking for it more.”
And consumers have been asking for different flavors too, as Vierhile points out. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture import data presented by Vierhile, cardamom, ginger, red pepper and cumin experienced the biggest increases in U.S. consumption from 1983-2003, among spices. Consumption of cardamom jumped an astonishing 667%, while intake of the others jumped more than 125% each. The increase in popularity shines new light on the melting pot that the U.S. culinary experience has become.
Yet, this transformation is nothing new. It began with the influx of the Hispanic culture, particularly the insertion of Mexican fare, into the U.S. Snacks have followed suit, with spicy flavorings such as barbecue, the old standby for those craving hot and spicy snacks, becoming a must-have in any company’s portfolio. That’s because consumers crave the comfort of knowing what they are tasting, says Jeff Higgins, president of Savor Seasonings.
“While there are new innovations and products coming out,” he says, “what seems to play well in snack products are things that still are familiar, tried-and-true things.”
Those tried-and-true flavors have carried seasonings suppliers for decades, but now the old reliables are getting facelifts, minor tweaks that allow consumers to try something new without straying too far from the mainstream.
“With adding sweet to barbecue, it’s nothing really upscale or fancy,” Higgins adds. “It’s just adding an aspect to a familiar product that gives it a new twist and is really gaining pretty good acceptance.”
Another new trick some of the old dogs are learning is to bolster the flavor, Pallanich explains.
“Believe it or not, still the very basic ones like Cheddar [are popular],” she says. “But they don’t want just Cheddar, they want a Super Cheddar or a blow-me-away-type Cheddar flavor.”
Elaine Tecklenburg, director of marketing for ConAgra Food Ingredients, agrees and says boosting flavor is a strategy that holds true especially when marketing snacks to a younger crowd.
“Extreme tastes are particularly popular with tweens and teens, where marketers aim to deliver the cheesiest cheese or the hottest hot, using such descriptors as ‘screaming’ and ‘flaming,’” Tecklenburg explains. She also agrees that consumer familiarity with a specific flavor can help a combination develop and get off the ground, particularly flavors that try to provide the taste of complex foods, such as nachos or pizza.
“We are now seeing interest in combinations creating the tastes of seasoned chicken wings, stuffed baked potatoes and even fajitas,” Tecklenburg adds. “New twists on perennial favorites, like barbecue and sour cream and onion, are also gaining traction. By combining these classic tastes with other flavors, such as specialty cheeses, specialty onions, like red, green [or] Vidalia, and specialty barbecue notes like mesquite [or] hickory, exciting new profiles are created.”
Clark says that flavor combinations are a trendy way for snack manufacturers to grab the taste buds of the consumers, as are the culture-based flavors that pop up on the shelves. All these ideas, Clark says, give the consumers the novelty that they seek in new products. Both trends hit hot buttons with different groups of consumers.
“You have the person who is just interested in new and different things,” Clark explains. “But then on the other extreme, you have people who are fanatics about [culture-based flavors] because it reminds them of where they came from, or their heritage or living at home — all those emotional factors that drive it.”
It’s safe to say that many consumers get their first tastes of a new culinary culture by trying dishes in an ethnic restaurant, which means seasonings suppliers and buyers keep close tabs on what is popular in the restaurant industry.
Cynthia Sasaki, senior research manager for Kerry Ingredients, says customer requests often go beyond the broad-based labels that are in the mainstream. Consumers want to delve deeper, she says.
“They are more interested in new seasonings, which can be attributed to increased exposure through travel and the cooking channels,” Sasaki explains. “This is a great time for developers to expand their ingredient knowledge and be creative.
“We have seen requests for more regional than broad-based [seasonings]. For instance, Mexican is a broad term, but a specific area of Mexico may be more interesting.”
Clark says he keeps an open mind when he is introduced to new seasonings, and recently was asked to test peppadew, a very popular African flavor.
Yet, flavors are only half the story, however, as far as research and development of seasonings goes. Healthfulness and the push toward organic and all-natural seasonings is the other half.
Sasaki says that those types of seasonings allow consumers one more option to eat healthy by eliminating the artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and that Kerry has devoted a key group of developers to devising organic and all-natural solutions for customers.
Higgins thinks that there is still more that the snack industry can do to put itself in the minds of health-conscious consumers, and that seasonings may offer another alternative for manufacturers.
“I don’t think there’s enough that’s been done in the snack industry with the natural seasonings aspect of it, in terms of making healthful types of products,” Higgins suggests. “For instance, people are playing around a lot with whole grains, trying to make the base more healthful, or trying to reduce the oil in it. But I see very little with people saying, ‘Hey, what can we do about the seasonings?’”
He suggests that additives, possibly nutraceuticals, might be in the future of seasoning development, especially if they allow the manufacturer to make a health claim on the packaging.
Of course, there are other ways to make seasonings more healthy, and Spicetec, a division of ConAgra Food Ingredients, is working on improving the healthfulness of its offerings as well, Tecklenburg says.
“Particularly relevant to the snacks industry is the growing concern around salt and sodium intake,” she explains. “Spicetec is at the forefront [of that issue] with Amplify salt flavor enhancement technology, which enables manufacturers to make full-flavored, great-tasting products with lower salt levels.”
Clark believes organic and all-natural seasonings have a place in the world of snack food, but as of now, it’s a limited spot.
“People who are looking for organics are a smaller subset,” he explains. “And there will be a group, because of their desire to have it, that will walk the extra mile, pay the extra buck and do whatever it takes [to get it], because it’s near and dear to their hearts. And although it may not be a huge part of the market, what part of it will be there will be a nice pie to take a piece out of.”
The biggest barrier that prevents organic and all-natural seasonings from hitting the mainstream is the fact that, according to Clark, the flavor isn’t up to snuff for mainstream consumption.
“You’re going to appeal to a certain group with a good seasoning, and a good seasoning may be all that you need,” he explains. “When you put it in your mouth, you want your mouth to explode with sensations, and to be honest with you, the natural and organic lack that. … Strides are being made, but I think there’s just huge room there for opportunity down the road.”
Clark adds that the general public does not view snacks the same way they it might have in the past, now looking for the biggest value across many aspects.
“People are eating smaller quantities, but what they eat, they want to be very indulgent, very different, so that they’re getting the biggest bang for their ‘calorie buck,’ so to speak,” he says. “We’re all becoming more health-conscious, so if I’m going to eat fat and calories, I want to make sure I’m tantalizing my taste buds to the ultimate.”
Higgins tends to agree, saying that, with snacks, it always comes down to the convenience, taste and health aspects of product.
“[Standard] snacks usually have the convenience down and everybody likes the taste, but the health area is where people are really trying to work hard at making snack foods that have a healthful [aspect] to them,” he explains.
If seasonings suppliers can help snack manufacturers close the triangle and nail that healthfulness point or make organic and all-natural seasonings zing, expect consumers to flock to snacks like never before.