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Mainstreaming Authentic Hispanic Flavors

April 22, 2009

13 Min Read
Mainstreaming Authentic Hispanic Flavors

Products from Goya Foods, Inc., Secaucus, NJ, such as black beans, pink beans or chickpeas, demonstrate the migration of foods across aisles and into mainstream grocery baskets. You probably wouldnt have seen a Goya product in any abundance several years ago, says Anton Angelich, group vice president marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. You may have seen it in an ethnic aisle. You may have seen it in a specialty store. If you walk into any supermarket just about anywhere in the United States today youre going to find Goya products in a pretty prominent position with a lot of facings on the shelf space. You see observationally, or if you do any market research, people who are shopping in the Goya aisle are not necessarily Hispanic. A lot of people have accepted those products. Its a very high-quality product that appeals to everybody.

Beans have widespread appeal because they are economical and nutritious. Beans are a typical daily part of Hispanic/Latino cuisine, says Víctor Lobo DiPalma, technical manager, Latin America, ADM, Decatur, IL. While the United States has come to know restaurant refried beans as a salty, fat-added side dish hidden under lettuce shreds, Hispanic/Latino cuisine in America is getting back to its more-traditional fresh-food roots, making the dishes leaner and less-sodium-laden, with beans coming back to the center of the plate. North Americans have, in many instances, been accustomed to potatoes and meat at most meals. While chicken and beef will not leave this position, smaller portions of animal proteins over a bean and rice mixture will be more economical without lowering the amount of protein or the customers expectations in the full dish, with a benefit of added fiber and nutrients and lower cholesterol.

True Latin American bean dishes are commonly prepared with very simple, fresh ingredientslots of onion, some garlic and finely chopped celery sprinkled with oregano, continues DiPalma. While beans themselves are fairly bland, they are great flavor carriers. They can be cooked and added whole to a sauce or mashed into a paste combined with diced, sautéed vegetables, then whipped for a mashed potato everyone will love.

Mainstreaming flavor

The heightened spiciness of Hispanic dishes is a common misconception. Many people think of chiles when they think of Latin cuisine, says Amy Marr, vice president of marketing, Gilroy Foods and Flavors, Omaha, NE. The American palate loves heat, but with the wide variety of chiles used in Latin cooking, its becoming more about the flavors found in those chiles. For instance, habanero chiles pack a fierce punch, but also have a fruity undertone. According to USDA figures, Americans are eating 38% more chile peppers than they were in 1996, and theyre branching out beyond the jalapeño in their exploration of chile varietals.

Marr also notes that citrus flavors, such as lime, play an important role. Herbs like cilantro and oregano, and spices like cumin and annatto, are combined into pastes and rubs for meat and fish.

However, heat is still a draw for some consumers. At McClancy Seasoning Co., Fort Mill, SC, Reid Wilkerson, president, is seeing an increase in imports of red hot peppers. Im grinding hotter red pepper than we ever have, 60,000, 80,000 SHU, he says. Americans are eating hotter and spicier foods.

Wilkerson finds that many manufacturers are not reducing the heat to accommodate American consumers. People are looking to create products that are more authentic and more true to the actual recipes and things that theyre seeing. Thats even spilling over into the prepared-food segment, he says.

At times, less-fiery chiles do the trick. Poblano, Santa Fe, Coronado and some ancho chile peppers can be used to deliver minimal, if any, heat to the palate, suggests Zack Sanders, technical services and business development manager, Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN.

Roasting chiles for meat sautés, soups and stews is a technique offered by Chris Keegan, R&D chef, Cargill Flavor Systems, Cincinnati. To widen appeal, he believes its not a question of modifying the flavors so much as expanding the use to jazz-up American dishes. He suggests creating a green chile sauce to top omelets, or adding chipotle to soups, stews and creamy dips.

No doubt, the most-popular flavors are chipotle, cilantro, chiles, masa, cumin and lime, says Keegan. He predicts increased use of spices like cinnamon and clove, as well as increased use of an herb called epazote. During the next few years, I expect the next big push in a couple of years will be the Oaxaca moles. The flavors are so complex and unique, they are bound to create consumer interest.

Guaijillo chile is a typical Hispanic flavor, as are coffee, chocolate, lard or fried flavors, notes Justin Young, executive chef, Kraft Food Ingredients; and lard flavor or fried corn chip flavor can help manufacturers develop authentic tastes in moles, sauces and marinades while minimizing ingredients and processing steps. Other robust flavors can serve as a foundation for developing the regional applications which are very much on-trend, such as Oaxacan-style or Monterrey-style dishes, he says.

Grilled flavors can replicate notes obtained by grilling or slow roasting over a wood fire. High-heat searing and grilling is also common for dishes such as arrachera (flank steak), says Sanders, and can be achieved with seared beef flavors and/or charbroiled flavor.

Soy sauce may seem an unlikely flavor in Hispanic dishes, but Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, foodservice & industrial, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco, explains: In Peru, the Japanese influence is historically strong, thanks to immigration patterns, and youll find soy sauce in dishes like ceviche and lomo saltado, a stir-fry of beef, peppers and potatoes. In addition, many Latin dishes fit right into the growing demand for healthy or vegetarian foods. That means that product developers are looking for ways to create the rich, deep umami flavors typically associated with meatwithout using meat products. She recommends soy sauce for marinades and rubs, meat jerky, powdered soup mixes and snack coatings and to give a meaty flavor to vegetarian refried beans, to add umami to meat or meatless chili, and to deepen and round out the flavors of chile sauces like moles.

Consider queso

Cheese can add mainstream appeal to most any dish. Traditional Hispanic cheeses have a mild, easy flavor, unlike French-style cheeses with big, bold flavors, says Young. These mild, fresh cheeses are able to blend well with spicy and/or hot flavor profiles, as well as to incorporate other subtle flavor nuances that are traditionally Hispanic in origin and are found in simple, homey peasant foods.

Conventional Hispanic cheeses, such as queso fresco, queso blanco, queso asadero and queso Oaxaca, are becoming increasingly available in the United States. However, many Americans equate Monterey Jack cheese with the cuisine.

Monterey Jacks mild profile blends very well with other distinctive flavors, says Pamela Schoenster, associate principal scientist, Kraft Food Ingredients. The ability to make the Monterey Jack cheese flavor profile available in several different melt modifications allows for its use in a broad range of applications.

Schoenster recommends using high-melt Monterey Jack with jalapeño for fillings or appetizers that need melt restriction. This cheese can be shredded or diced, which makes it very easy to blend with other ingredients, she says. Also available is a restricted-melt Monterey Jack cheese sauce with jalapeño peppers. This cheese sauce can be pumped or dispensed at refrigerated temperatures, which is great for incorporating into taquitos and other wrap-type applications.

The Monterey Jack profile is also available in a restricted-melt cheese-sauce powder. That allows the end user to determine how it is rehydrated and used. It can be used in fillings containing IQF vegetables. These types of vegetables often give up excess water which, if allowed for in the rehydration ratio, will be picked up by this sauce, says Schoenster.

Young also suggests other restricted-melt cheeses with mild flavor profiles that exhibit similar qualities to fresh queso in meltability, form and function in particular dishes and applications.

Fruits galore

Wilkerson observes many convenience stores are now stocking Hispanic foods. Youre seeing a lot of bottled juices and soft drinks imported from Mexico, he says. Youre also seeing cross-shopping on that. The juice blends are interesting.

Lime is key to many Hispanic beverages. While the mojito flavor is associated with an alcoholic drink, Angelich notes that flavor is finding its way into all kinds of beverages, such as energy drinks, teas and vitamin waters. Some of it is labeled as such. Some is influenced. Youll see the growth of lime that may or may not be attributed to mojito on a label or in marketing, he says.

Angelich suggests care when formulating for an ethnic audience, because theres great variation among flavors. For instance, theres something like 2,600 cultivars of mango, he says. The mangos that are in South Asia and India are very different than the ones in Mexico vs. the Dominican Republic. They all have different tastes and flavor notes.

Angelich also believes that well probably see more things coming out of Mexico, things like pineapple soda, coconut soda. As more Hispanics become more dispersed all over the country, youll find those kinds of products showing up in a lot of places where they and other people shop.

Because of this influence, Angelich sees tropical fruit flavors such as pineapple, lemon, lime and some mandarin oranges continuing to expand. However, he cautions, something that you find in a Mexican market taste-wise is very different from something that originated here. It may be flavors that are of the same kind, but with a different kind of taste and skewed to them.

Its important to consider perception when formulating with flavors Americans are familiar with. To non-Hispanic Americans, cinnamon is associated with a much more narrow taste base, says Angelich. It goes with apple pie. It goes with certain pastries. People in the mainstream are not used to putting cinnamon in red tea or in pineapple or into something else. If youre trying to capitalize on something like a cinnamon taste that appeals to Hispanics, youd have to put it at levels where it doesnt seem incongruous. If you put cinnamon at high levels, it may taste like apple pie. But as a subtle background note, its pleasant. The quality and character of the cinnamon is equally important. The cinnamon flavor associated with a farm-fresh apple pie is very different from a Red Hots® candy.

Fruits in the Hispanic market are also influenced by the health-and-wellness trend. A lot of Hispanic people are starting to get very interested in nutrition and health from diet, finds Angelich. In the research weve done, weve found pretty high levels of interest in superfruits and interest in trying things they havent tried before in that area, like pomegranate and açaí. The media is reaching these people. These products are advertised and show up in a lot of places. You may end up with some fusion, maybe a pineapple-açaí or a pineapple-pomegranate.

To successfully launch new products, Angelich cautions that you link that to a chord of familiarity. Some of them may not like an açaí or a pomegranate. It may not be as pleasant-tasting as strawberry, vanilla or chocolate, but if you blend it, you get the perception of health benefits and couple it with something thats familiar. Weve done some interesting research with drink flavors for tea. We found high levels of interest in Hispanic consumers wanting to try pomegranate, blueberry, lime, lychee, which, except for lime, are things that are not traditionally associated with Hispanic heritage flavors. Other ones they wanted to try in tea and hadnt are more classic things like cinnamon, tangerine, mango, papaya and pineapple.

Crossing over

As the burgeoning Hispanic demographic becomes more enmeshed in America, the influences become more pronounced. Wilkerson sees keen interest in Spanish rice products and Cuban-beef-style seasonings. Youre starting to see some of the staples of Latin cuisine starting to be fused with other things, he says.

Authentic Latin American foods are as healthful as the black bean and corn salsa that is commonly showing up on restaurant menus. These dishes are flavored with fresh ingredients like lime and cilantro, rather than fat.

According to Marr, the cultures street food fits in with Americas on-the-go lifestyle. In Latin America, hand-held, portable food of every description, from grilled corn slathered with mayonnaise to spears of pineapple, mango and cucumber sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder, are available on every corner, she says. Latin cuisine offers a wealth of ideas in food, format and flavor.

The key to developing products with true crossover appeal largely comes down to credibility of the product if it has a Hispanic name or bilingual information on the package. One of the things thats very important in positioning anything that has a Hispanic connection to it, says Angelich, is to ask: Is it just a taste that you deliver? Is it a Hispanic message you deliver? Does it go with the package, or does it work against the marketing effort? Somebody may say its foreign. Its too distant. Its not meant for me. Or does it have some magical appeal? This has to be tested against your target audience. In looking at products that you want to market for the mainstream population that has Hispanic elements to it, you have to see how wide you can be and still have some credibility.

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected].

A Powerful Market

Hispanic purchasing power totaled more than $980 billion in 2008, according to The Hispanic (Latino) Market in the U.S.: A Generational View, a report from Packaged Facts, New York. Packaged Facts predicts the buying power of Hispanics will continue to grow at a relatively rapid pace, growing to reach $1.3 billion by 2013.

The total Hispanic food market is considerably larger, because purchasing within this ethnic group is only one of the market drivers. As Americans become more exposed to Hispanic food through restaurants, travel, cooking shows and trips down their own grocery aisles, consumption of these foods will only continue to grow.

The Refreshing Flavors of Pan-Latino

A new wave of authentic Latin American foods emphasizes pure ingredients, vivid flavors and lighter recipes, according to Latino Foods: The Next Wave, a recent Culinary Trend Mapping Report from the Center for Culinary Development, San Francisco, and Packaged Facts, New York.

Just as Pan-Asian foods have brought new flavor and ingredient excitement to the American plate and palate, now its time to make way for Pan-Latin, says Kimberly Egan, CEO, Center for Culinary Development.

Regionally authentic ingredients like the Mexican herb epazote, Yucatecan sour Seville oranges and mild Peruvian aji amarillo chiles are driving growth in foodservice and retail. Authentic, healthier foods, like ultra-fresh tableside guacamole, lime-accented rotisserie chicken and olive-oil-based Puerto Rican sofrito, also exemplify this growth.

The Latino population in the United States has increased to 15% and is projected to rise to 25% by 2050.

The Editors

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