Trending toward the exotic

by David Phillips
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Ethnic cuisines have had a major impact on American food trends both at food service and retail. In the dairy segment this influence has been evidenced recently in ice cream, which is driven by new and emerging flavors. Today’s ice cream flavor trends continue to reflect ethnic influences that may be found in the full spectrum of global cuisines.

“In a broad sense, even vanilla and chocolate are ethnic flavors,” said Scott Rankin, Ph.D., chair of the food science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Those ingredients come from places like Mexico, Madagascar and Indonesia.”

Tropical fruit flavors have influenced traditional ice cream flavors as well, and Latin flavors, sometimes based on traditional Latin desserts, have become a mainstay.

“Dulce de Leche has been with us for at least 10 years, and that has become a big part of ice cream,” Dr. Rankin said.

Indeed, Dulce de Leche is a regular flavor in the Häagen-Dazs portfolio, a product line of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., Oakland, Calif., and a business unit of Nestle S.A.

Before a flavor like curry ice cream or beer ice cream reach the level of mainstream consumer acceptance, it is often vetted in the arena of specialty retail, said Tom Schufreider, vice-president of marketing and business development for Synergy Flavors, Waucanda, Ill.

“Right now there is quite a boom in pushing the envelope in flavors and flavor combinations,” he said. “There are highly-skilled, well-trained chefs experimenting with flavors and spices and inclusions. They are doing the same things with the ice cream platform, in the same ways that they would with center-of-the-plate items or pastry items in restaurants.”

He points to “gelaterias,” like Black Dog Gelato in Chicago, where ethnic flavors help form a flavor mix that includes offerings like goat cashew caramel, espresso and orange with toasted coconut, Mexican hot chocolate, and Nutella with pretzels. From such niche outlets a flavor trend may get into a restaurant chain.

Dr. Rankin said food science departments at many universities continue to experiment with flavors as well, and ethnic cuisines play a role there, too.

“Several years ago we made an ice cream with habanero and mango,” he said. “Habanero is very high in capsaicin, which is where the burn comes from. That habanero burn comes on late, so when you put it in your mouth you have the sweet, creamy mango flavor and then the burn comes in, so it’s a very interesting taste experience.”

While Latin flavors are often rich and fiery, Asian flavors may lean more toward the subtle, and yet both can work well in ice cream.

“Asia has had an impact on flavor trends,” Dr. Rankin said. “Different types of teas are showing up, and some offer nutritional functions as well as flavor. Some of those flavors, like various melon flavors, can be pretty delicate.”

The understated flavor of a base ice cream is suited handle the spicy or the sublime, Mr. Schufreider said, which is part of the reason why ice cream is a dessert with universal appeal.

“Ice cream has all the things a consumer is looking for — it’s refreshing, sweet, offers a real visceral sensation,” he said. “It’s got fat, which provides a good richness, and that sweet, creaminess works synergistically with so many fruit flavors and spicy flavors, that ice cream is really a wonderful platform to work from.”

Of course it is not just ethnic cuisines that influence the evolution of ice cream flavors, but concepts like salty-sweet juxtapositions are found in, or blended with ethnic flavor trends.

Dr. Rankin and Mr. Schufreider both said sea salt and salty-caramel flavors have done well in confectionery foods and are now showing up in ice cream.

Ice cream makers and suppliers have faced technical challenges as they have expanded the dessert’s vocabulary, both experts said.

“In the last 5 to 10 years we have seen more and more additions of baked inclusions, including things like graham cracker pieces, or dark chocolate wafers, in a cookies and cream flavor,” Mr. Schufreider said. “Bakeries have needed to come up with low-moisture products that do not become hydroscopic (moisture attractive) in ice cream.”

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