One day while sitting in an MBA class, Jorge Goldsmit and his friends remarked that it was strange no one was manufacturing authentic Mexican beverages in the U.S. Goldsmit, a native of Mexico, quickly realized there was a business opportunity for authentic hibiscus and tamarind beverages for the growing number of U.S. Hispanics who craved food products from “South of the border.” Goldsmit decided to explore the opportunities for marketing authentic Mexican beverages in the U.S.

The growth of the Hispanic market is big news. It is hard to ignore the facts: annual buying power of $450 billion, a population that represents 15% of the U.S. population and has grown 58% between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). The Hispanic market is becoming one of the most sought after consumer groups for U.S. businesses. While food companies are starting to take notice, challenges exist. For example, there is no single Hispanic market. Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans all have distinctive tastes and preferences.

In one of Goldsmit's MBA courses the class was required to write a business plan. Goldsmit saw this as an opportunity to explore the possibility of marketing aguas frescas (fresh waters). Although U.S. companies were producing Mexican beverages, the products were not authentic products that Mexicans living in the U.S. would be willing to purchase.

Authentic beverages make a stronger emotional connection, he theorized. They would offer not only thirst-quenching qualities but serve as a reminder of Mexico's rich culture, tradition, and history.

Hurdles in the development of such products include understanding cultural concepts, sourcing ingredients, texture issues, and developing the appropriate sweetness, flavors and aromas. Sensory testing, manufacturing and processing also are challenges that need to be addressed. Goldsmit went to the University of Nebraska-Food Processing Center (Lincoln, Neb.) to seek assistance in developing his beverages.

In order to mass produce an ethnic product, formulators must turn to commercially available ingredients, such as flavorings, in order to match the original prototype.

Understanding Cultural Concepts

“When developing a product targeting an ethnic group, an understanding of what that ethnic group expects is vital,” says Ed O'Neill, associate director of the UNL Food Processing Center. That is hard to do unless you have something solid and physical to use as a reference.

Traveling to the country to taste the local beverages and food products helps one understand how ethnic products are made. Another approach is to find good-quality existing products that demonstrate the characteristics of the produce. The client also can make the product “just like grandma used to make” so the food scientists have a standard to help them understand the product's desired sensory characteristics.

Even knowing the desired color is important. The client may find an off-the-shelf product that helps demonstrate the exact color of the beverage he or she is seeking even if it is a non-food product. In some situations, it also may be helpful to have a product that demonstrates undesirable colors.

Sourcing Ingredients

One of a food scientist's first challenges is to understand the influence of the growing region and the seasonality of the selection of raw materials from which the food product is traditionally made. Critical functional differences are found in the same raw material sourced from different countries or regions at different times of the year. For example, hibiscus can be found in four different growing regions around the world, and each one has a different flavor, color, acidity, and tartness.

Other challenges when sourcing ingredients include inconsistent product quality due to different processing methods among suppliers, lack of sufficient quality control and no product standardizations across the industry. During the development of Goldsmit's beverages at the Food Processing Center, significant variability was found in tamarind depending upon the time of year it was purchased, the source, and the method of preservation (frozen, dried, etc.).

When using imported ingredients, communication with suppliers represents a unique challenge. Language barriers, time zone differences, lack of direct access to the growers and cultural differences may exist. Additionally, scientists may work through a foreign consulate that is unfamiliar with product development and/or the food industry.

Locating suppliers or distributors who can provide high-quality products in the quantity and desired time frame on a consistent basis also must be addressed. Due to limited availability of ethnic ingredients, a supplier may not be able to provide the quantity needed to meet large-scale production requirements. At the other end of the scale, when only a very small quantity is needed, it may not be economically feasible to purchase the required minimum due to shelflife limitations.

Texture

Ingredient integrity and non-traditional textures lead to differences in expectations between the ethnic and non-ethnic market segments.

“Getting the right mouthfeel was a key factor in developing Goldsmit's Mexican beverages,” says Bethany Jackson, a food scientist at the Food Processing Center.

For example, a genuine tamarind beverage has a texture that contains pulp and particulates; this was found to be unacceptable by many informal sensory participants. However, these characteristics were very acceptable for the Hispanic target audience. The texture assures consumers that the product is natural and made with authentic ingredients, not just colored or flavored water.

Sweeteners, Flavor, and Aroma

Different ethnic populations desire different levels and combinations of sweetness, flavor and aroma. To obtain the optimal sweetness level, sugar was utilized rather than high fructose corn syrup or other sweetener alternatives. It was imperative to get the right level of sugar while—at the same time—getting the hibiscus flavor and aroma to come through.

A strong aroma and flavor combination was desired in Goldsmit's beverages. However, many ingredients contributed either aroma or flavor and merely combining individual ingredients did not always result in the desired profile. The ingredients tended to interact in a non-linear manner. Buffering agents and/or acidifiers that could help balance a flavor profile were not used because these ingredients are not found in the traditional home-style Mexican beverages.

Sensory Analysis

Rather than relying on individual taste preferences, it is crucial to select the appropriate ethnic panel when conducting consumer and sensory testing. This is true especially when a product primarily is made at home and the individual family recipes vary.

Manufacturing and Processing

During the development process, it became apparent that the processing parameters were significantly different than those for typical beverages. As a result, the selection of co-packers required a more in-depth search. The tamarind's extra pulp and texture led to concerns about equipment clogging, reaching required temperatures and the availability of continuous agitation. Foaming also became an issue because anti-foaming agents did not yield results normally achieved with other products.

With the Center's assistance, Goldsmit, president of Eat Inc. (Chapel Hill, N.C.), overcame the challenges of developing his Hispanic beverages and now has two beverages in the marketplace, Agua de Jamaica and Agua Tamarindo, both sold under the Cañita™ brand.

The UNL Food Processing Center continues to assist Goldsmit with marketing and technical assistance and sampled Agua de Jamaica at the July 2003 IFT Food Expo in Chicago.

Website Resources

www.canita.com — Cañita home page http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/030616/dcm030_1.html — Age, race and gender influences on beverage choices