Taking a walk on the semi-wild side

by Keith Nunes
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"Different but familiar" is how Hal Carper, senior vice-president of research and development for Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., describes emerging meat and poultry flavor trends. "I know that sounds crazy, but that is what we are seeing in the marketplace," he said.

The "flavor motivation" consumers have is around new and different ideas, but ideas that are not so extreme as to be unknown.

"Take Asian, for example," he said. "It’s not just about Chinese anymore. It’s about Thai and other regional flavors. Consumers are familiar with the flavors associated with Chinese (cuisine), but are willing to try other flavors that may be familiar, but different."

Mr. Carper said two drivers prompting consumers to try new flavors is the emerging popularity of cooking shows on television and the evolution of dining as a form of entertainment.

"Consumers don’t want to go out and eat anymore," Mr. Carper said. "They want to be entertained. Entertainment can take the form of a restaurant format, or theme, it can be driven by what is on the menu, or it can be both. Restaurants are also responding to their customers. Many consumers are watching the cooking shows, seeing interesting flavors or flavor combinations, and wanting to try them. Many have no intention of ever making a meal, but they want to try it."

Mr. Carper relates the experiences of his two sons who are in their 20s.

"Both of them like to cook and watch the cooking shows for new ideas," he said. "But they have friends who are just as interested in the shows, but don’t have an idea how to cook. I think it is one reason why we (Tyson Foods) find people in focus groups are much more educated about food than they were 10 years ago."

A survey conducted for the National Restaurant Association, Washington, this past fall also identified television cooking shows as a driver for new menu ideas.

"As Americans’ interest in celebrity chefs, television cooking shows, and popular restaurants continues to grow, foods and beverages seen on restaurant menus become the hottest new culinary trends," said Steven C. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the N.R.A. "Chefs are tuning into diners’ tastes and desires, and find new and innovative ways to incorporate them into their menus."

The association surveyed 1,146 chefs who are members of the American Culinary Federation, to have them rate items as "hot," or "cool/passé." The survey revealed some of the hottest menu trends for the coming year are specialty sandwiches, Asian appetizers and Mediterranean cuisine. Additional items rated as hot include pan-seared items, Latin American cuisine, grilled items, salts, grass-fed meat, pomegranate and aged meat.

The survey also showed the most significant influences on food trends are seasonality/availability, the growing diversity of the population and ethnic cuisines, adding new twists on tradition, and nutritional and dietary needs/preferences.

The N.R.A.’s research on food trends "provides a perfect mirror of what’s hot today," said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, which analyzes restaurant-industry trends.

Ms. Kruse said the hot items all address key consumer demands: ethnic foods (Asian, Pan-Asian, Mediterranean, Latin), products perceived to have a healthful benefit (locally grown, organic, grass-fed and free-range, pomegranates), flavorful foods (fresh herbs, salt, pan searing and grilling), and convenience (specialty sandwiches).

"These are all long-term trends, not fads, and will impact menu research and development well into the future," she said.

Adam Schreier, corporate chef for Mastertaste, Inc., Teterboro, N.J., sees a shift taking place in the American palate.

"Before Sept. 11, Americans were aggressive in their food and cuisine choices," he said. "Afterward it was more about comfort food. Now the country seems to be coming into that more aggressive palate trend again. The palate is open again; it may not be as adventurous, but people want to try new things."

Mr. Schreier said Moroccan and Peruvian cuisines are "huge" right now.

"They are both mild, not robust; they are not overpowering," he said. "I think that if you create something Americans can visually understand and add a little twist to it, it will do well in the market."

Other meat flavors Mr. Schreier sees emerging are passion fruit and mango, wild berry, and a smoked Veracruz-style flavor.

"Fruit is another trend," said Dan Emery, vice-president of marketing for Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the world’s largest poultry processor. "Couscous, and things like it, are coming in. There are some real interesting kinds of things happening, because people have to find a way to make their (menus) unique and sexy."

Mr. Emery also noted consumers are going bolder and bolder with their flavor profiles.

"Mexican and Italian flavor profiles are both very good," he said. "With that being said, Jamaican and Caribbean are coming on. You also have two styles of Mediterranean that are hot, plus fusions and Southwestern flavors."

Hot and spicy foods were a focal point for meat and poultry processors a few years ago, especially those developing flavor profiles to be used in appetizer-type products like buffalo wings.

"Spicy foods are still popular," Mr. Emery said. "(But) to be spicy a product does not need to be hot. American taste profiles differ by region. In the Midwest and Chicago, they may have a blander taste profile than Texas or California. Bold flavors are a trend that is not all that new; it is just continuing."

Mr. Carper sees the trend toward hot and spicy foods evolving.

"It is still growing, but not at the same rate," he said. "I think what has occurred is a trend toward sophistication. The trend started with something that was not that sophisticated — heat for heat’s sake. But now people want to know what else can be done and that is why we have seen heat being combined with tequila citrus and other flavors.

"I would say there is still demand for straight heat, but it is waning. People want complexity, greater differentiation through new types of fusion flavors."

Mr. Carper also noted the emergence of "layered" flavors will continue.

"Take a raspberry chipotle flavor, for example," he said. "The initial flavor a person gets is the subtle flavor of raspberry, then there is the heat, and then the late blooming from the chipotle flavor. It’s a lot like tasting wines. The more complex wines are going to be the ones that have the layered flavors that can be differentiated. As consumers look for new foods to try, we are going to see more of these layered flavors developed."

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