Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese – it’s hard to believe that cuisine we see as routine today was once considered exotic, ethnic food. Opportunities for tasting more adventurous flavors have emerged in today’s connected world.
Technomic’s 2018 Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report reveals that customers want authentic, ethnic food and 32% of them are willing to pay more for it.
The report was compiled from over 1,400 consumer responses, as well as industry and menu data. What’s obvious is that customer palates are developing and expanding, providing new opportunities and challenges for those in the food industry.
Authenticity, accessibility, and transparency
New, exciting ethnic foods are found on many menus today. Middle Eastern and Asian flavors are particularly popular. Consumers have already become very familiar with foods such as sushi, tahini, hummus, tortillas and much more.
They are ready to explore other intriguing options and more regional variations. For example, they may be interested in exploring Neapolitan or Tuscan specialties when it comes to eating Italian food.
Google searches show a trend towards Asian and Hispanic specialties. Some of the top Google searches are for ramen and empanadas.
The report also shows that consumers want to know more about the authenticity of ethnic options. Of course, what they regard as authentic may vary. It may include factors such as the boldness of the flavors, whether ingredients are imported and if native chefs cook the food.
As they explore ethnic menu items, customers need transparency. They must be made to feel that ethnic items are accessible to them. This is why Kelly Weikel, Director of Consumer Insights at Technomic, says it’s essential to inform consumers about ingredients and flavor profiles upfront.
Telling a ‘food story’ about the sourcing of the fresh ingredients will resonate with customers. Tell them about the brick ovens you imported from Italy to make your pizza the Italian way or the artisan German dish you made from a traditional recipe.
Providing this information means that customers aren’t disappointed when their orders arrive.
Defining ethnic food
Ethnic food is usually described as any food that doesn’t conform to food which is considered to be part of mainstream culture in the country. An ethnic minority group produces it with a common national or cultural tradition.
In the past, to call food ethnic may have been derogatory but today most people, particularly millennials, do not see it this way. To millennials, saying a food is ethnic conveys expectation and suggests authenticity.
Beyond the well-known Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisines, other popular ones today include Japanese, Middle Eastern, Thai, Greek, and Cajun. These cuisines have become mainstream, and consumers are now interested in exploring regional variations.
Analysts are predicting that the newest flavors may come from the Philippines, Korea or Afghanistan.
What’s behind the growing trend?
Consumers of all ages have become more knowledgeable about other cultures, creating an opening for authentic foods using specific ingredients from around the world. Globalization has sparked consumer curiosity.
- As demographics change, the purchasing power of millennials increases and they have a fascination with ethnic cuisine. When they travel, most of them will go out of their way to explore local food.
- Asian and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are continually growing, and it makes economic sense for companies to target them.
- Consumers may have less time to cook, but at the same time they travel more and are exposed to a rich diversity of food experiences. They want more authentic food experiences, but they also want them fast.
- With the plant-based trend going strong worldwide, consumers are looking for innovative foods for around the world to include in a plant-based diet.
Conagra acquired Frontera, a Mexican food company, and is going to great lengths to keep its products authentic. The company sources ingredients and flavors in Mexico to use in their packaged meals, snacks and sauces.
They are not trying to Americanize the flavors because they realize their Hispanic customers are looking for authenticity.
Food and meal preparation services offering authentic, ethnic food have become very popular for those who don’t have time to cook.
Ethnic food is seen as healthier and more flavorful
Many consumers today believe that ethnic foods are full of flavor and fresh ingredients which makes them healthier. They see ethnic food as being more unique, tasty and exciting because it falls outside of the range of foods they usually consume.
Millennials say they learn about ethnic foods via social media, traveling and visiting restaurants. They also visit food websites. Some of those living in the U.S. learn more about ethnic foods from visiting food trucks.
Food truck and the street fare are gaining in popularity, offering hand-held flavor fusions.
This presents an opportunity for brands to create awareness for their products through social media, influencers, and events. Consumers have more adventurous palates, and are open to new, rich experiences.
They want to ‘taste the world’ and brands can make new flavors accessible to them. Snack foods provide a low-risk way to allow consumers to experiment with new flavors.
New flavors growing in popularity
Some flavors to watch for in 2018 and beyond are:
- Rose water – to add a floral note to ice-cream, drinks, and cakes.
- Heirloom seed varieties – to add to salads, etc.
- Labneh – a rich, creamy strained yogurt
- Whey – a cheese by-product to add to smoothies etc. for more protein.
- Black garlic – caramelized umami flavor.
- Persimmon – tangy, sweet fruit.
- Ube – a natural color that comes from purple yarn.
- Kolsch – lighter beers.
- Pandan – Southeast Asian leaf with a sweet, grassy flavor.
Businesses in the food industry need to stay abreast of trends to capture opportunities and be successful. To do so, they need to offer authentic, healthy food, using fresh ingredients and bold, local flavors.
Brands can develop deeper connections with curious consumers by offering authentic, ethnic flavors. They also need to present their customers with new food experiences. Telling customers the story behind the food helps to make them feel that it’s more accessible and authentic.