Global cuisines add spice, variety to U.S. diets

Americans have an insatiable appetite for global cuisine. For some time retailers have watched sales of foods with a “south of the border” heritage take off. Information Resources Inc. estimates the U.S. ethnic food market at $75 billion in annual sales—equivalent to $1 of every $7 spent on total groceries.

Just as the influx of Latino immigrants has contributed to the popularity of Mexican cuisine in the United States, waves of immigration from other countries are continuing to influence the American palate and spark interest in new flavors.

A recent report from market research firm The Hartman Group said that diverse consumer groups share a strong desire for new ‘flavors and tastes.’

“Americans, especially young Americans, have become completely comfortable, if not enchanted with the foods, cuisines, and menus of foreign lands,” said a spokesperson for Hartman.

Young consumers in particular are actively seeking out new flavors from many different cultures. These consumers have a growing interest in the regional, local and authentic foods of international communities.

Those trends translate into solid growth, particularly in Asian foods—one of the fastest-growing segments of multicultural foods. “Asian cuisines are diverse, and we’re seeing a more sophisticated breakdown of Asian foods,” said Bill Greer, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute. “American consumers are sophisticated enough to know whether they want Indian, Thai or Vietnamese.”

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in value Japanese foods, like teriyaki noodle bowls and conveyor belt sushi bars,” said Larry Wu, vice president and consumer strategist at Iconoculture, a market research firm.

Wu credits the Simply Asia brand with widening the appeal of quick and easy Asian meals. Epicurean International imports Simply Asia and Thai Kitchen branded shelf-stable products including easy-to-prepare noodle and sauce dishes, stir-fry meal kits and noodle soup bowls.

“Simply Asia has been a transforming brand because the technology leapfrogged the consumer’s need to understand the product,” he said. “They have really hit a home run with their meals because they are convenient, healthier and authentic-tasting.”

Shelf-stable multi-cultural food products are an area worth exploring. “Walgreens and some other drug chains carry the less expensive noodles, but these products taste better and are easier to prepare, even if they retail for $3,” Wu said.

Consumers may be willing to trade up. “Anything that’s convenient to prepare is popular. When you combine that with ethnic food flavors that are becoming more popular with consumers, you really have a winning combination,” said Bill Greer, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute.

Snacks with Asian flavors also are showing up. Sahale Snacks, for example, manufactures fruit and nut mixes in such varieties as Ksar (pistachios flavored with figs, honey and Moroccan harissa) and Sing Buri (cashews flavored with lemongrass and Chinese chili) in 2-ounce and 5-ounce resealable bags.

Indian cuisine is another area that’s growing in popularity. “Indian is like the new Thai,” said Iconoculture’s Wu. “Young people looking for a vegan diet are driving growth here since there’s a whole culture of Indian food around the vegan diet.”

Kitchens of India produces ready-to-eat imported Indian dishes and curry pastes. These products are shelf-stable and provide convenient meal-solution options. Samosas, vegetarian snacks, also could be a good addition to a retailer’s frozen section.

Research from Mintel suggested that while curry flavors are more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, acceptance is growing. There’s also emerging talk of the health benefits of tumeric, a key ingredient in curry.

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines also are gaining ground. “Mediter-ranean is back with sun-dried tomatoes and basil flavors and flatbreads,” said Diane Toops, food and trends editor at Food Processing.

Flatbreads and pita bread get the nod from Wu as important products—especially when cross-merchandised with hummas. “Hummas is the new salsa,” Wu said.

BY THE NUMBERS

$ 75 Bil.Estimated sales of ethnic foods in the United States.

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