Emerging ethnic foods include cuisines from such locales as North Africa and the Caribbean, but the Asian influences dominate at the present time.
A number of options on the foodservice front—which initially started as ethnic foods—are now considered mainstream. Examples of this include certain Mexican, Italian and Chinese fare. However, there are new ethnic cuisines on the horizon that also are attracting consumers.

These foods are at the center of a report titled “The U.S. Emerging Ethnic Foods Market,” Mintel International Group, Chicago, which estimates the emerging ethnic foods market at $800 million. That estimate does not include foods strictly defined as Chinese, Mexican or Italian. Mintel focuses, instead, upon foods from a number of backgrounds, including Japanese, Korean, Thai and select other Asian cuisines, as well as those of India and the Middle East/North Africa.

While the impact of exposure to these foods (either through travel, the media or restaurant menus offering varying ethnic temptations) cannot be overstated, manufacturers have taken such concepts into the supermarket with a number of easy-to-prepare ethnic food items. These prepared products have driven the emerging ethnic foods market to grow 41% between 1996 and 2001, led by frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable appetizers, snacks and entrees.

The proliferation of ethnic restaurants across the U.S. has increased awareness of the variety of ethnic foods that can be enjoyed. This also has a price, however, as Mintel's exclusive consumer research found that more than 60% of consumers regard packaged ethnic foods from the supermarket as inferior to restaurant versions.

Manufacturers of emerging ethnic foods vary almost as much as the foods they produce. No single manufacturer is found across all the sectors covered in Mintel's report, which breaks down the emerging ethnic market into five categories-ramen noodles, sauces, oils, chutney and others. However, each of these has dominant players, who produce products which may not be a strict interpretation of their original incarnations.

Middle Men

More success is likely for products which gravitate toward the middle, with “primarily ethnic ingredients, like chutney and ethnic sauces, that appeal to wider American consumer tastes and mainstream foods with ethnic-influenced flavors becoming more authentic to also appeal to those who are familiar with traditional ethnic foods,” according to Mintel.

This middle-of-the-road philosophy has clearly been an impetus to the success of a breakout performer in the “other emerging ethnic foods” sector. This sub-category experienced its greatest period of growth in 1999 and 2000, when Uncle Ben's, Houston, debuted its line of bowls. These ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat entrees are found in a number of flavors, including Asian rice and noodle bowls. Attracting the time-pressured consumer, these products also benefited from their Asian-inspired flavor profiles (Thai, Vietnamese), long-touted by restaurants and manufacturers as “the next big thing.”

The growth of Asian cooking oils is a boon for consumers who like to experiment when cooking.
The “other” segment is not limited to bowl meals, however. Offerings include a wide variety of products, from frozen meals and appetizers to shelf-stable side dishes—all of which propelled this segment to 47% growth between 1999 and 2001. Mintel expects this segment to continue a strong performance, as consumers seek convenience and various flavor profiles.

Major manufacturers might be well-served to follow the lead of many smaller players, who have launched a number of different dishes with untapped Asian influences, including Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. The time could be right to target consumers willing to experiment with frozen, heat-and-eat Asian pot stickers, Vietnamese spring rolls and other such food items.

Adding ethnic flavors to existing product lines has proven an effective way to reach consumers, a move which is both cost-effective and offers less risk in terms of consumer acceptance. Uncle Ben's line of bowls serves as a shining example of this approach, but others have also ventured into this territory, including a line of shelf-stable dishes from Near East Food Products, Chicago.

Mintel believes the key for manufacturers is to determine exactly what is driving the success of these products—the convenience or their ethnic flavor profiles.

If the latter truly is driving consumers to these products, a variety of opportunities exist for major and smaller manufacturers. Bowl entrees with Caribbean, Thai, Indian and other profiles are possibilities for manufacturers able to capitalize on the flavor and convenience factors.

Bowls, however, are not the only route to riches, as a number of small companies have seen interest in meal kits, sauces and snacks. One such example is Epicurean Specialty, Sebastopol, Calif., whose Thai Kitchen products are available in make-at-home kits (containing noodles and sauce). A smaller company could well provide the impetus for the “next big flavor” that garners consumer (and, therefore, manufacturer) interest.

The “other” emerging ethnic foods encompass a wide variety of products, and Mintel admits some difficulty in projecting the future of this segment. However, with busy consumers looking for convenient foods (i.e., refrigerated, frozen and shelf-stable entrees) with new flavors, Mintel expects this sector to see continued growth.

Ramen Speed

Convenience has been a strong factor in the success of another emerging ethnic food. Sales of ramen noodles lead this market, accounting for 46% of the total market and growing 6.9% between 1999 and 2001. Ramen noodles may be a victim of its own popularity, however, as the inexpensive noodles hold little promise for line extensions. In fact, Mintel believes consumers may “trade up” for other noodle-based options, such as the noodle-in-a-bowl meals introduced in 1999.

The ramen market did experience a notable increase in 2001, at least partially due to consumers looking for a substitute for rice or other starches. Manufacturers encouraged such expanded usage by publishing recipes for the quick-cooking noodles with other ingredients to make entrees or side dishes.

Ramen noodles may well be challenged for its sales crown by Uncle Ben's bowl entrees and similar offerings, but Mintel nonetheless believes ramen noodle sales will increase 10% between 2001 and 2006.

The future of another emerging ethnic foods sector is less bright. Once heralded as “the next big flavor profile,” Indian cuisine has yet to hit it big, and chutney, a condiment with limited usage possibilities, has suffered particularly. Used as either an accompaniment or ingredient, chutney sales increased 11.8% between 1996 and 2001, but converted to constant 2001 dollars, sales of the condiment actually dropped 0.9%.

As Asian foods continue their trek toward the mainstream, other cuisines emerge. One such example is the Caribbean influence, which may well be a source of growth in the emerging ethnic foods category.
Manufacturers have had minimal success promoting chutney's possibilities in other cuisines, but the biggest hope may lie in continued immigration from India and an increasing awareness of Indian cuisine. In any event, Mintel believes chutney sales will remain flat.

A more-promising future awaits Oriental cooking oils, believes Mintel. Boosted by the increasing popularity of more regional and complex Chinese flavors, these cooking oils include such products as sesame oils, hot oil and other flavored oils. This market is largely controlled by smaller companies, leading Mintel to speculate that a “vast array of brands” can be found from region to region.

The use of these oils likely is confined to consumers who have a sophisticated cooking style, an increasing segment of the population, as consumers become more aware of the different types of Chinese foods they can make at home. This increasing awareness is expected to boost sales of Oriental cooking oils by 20% at current prices, predicts Mintel.

A similar market, Asian sauces and marinades, enjoyed a 20% sales increase between 1996 and 2001. One factor helping this growth has been the growing numbers of ready-to-cook, bagged, frozen vegetables, sliced meats and other ingredients in supermarkets. Asian sauces and marinades pair well with these, says Mintel, and together, they provide time-starved consumers with a simple short-cut to a meal with an ethnic flair.

Kikkoman dominates in this market, accounting for 45% of sales. ConAgra, Omaha, Neb., is a distant second, and its 15% is fading fast, as it has been losing market share with both of its major lines (La Choy and Chun King). A number of other players have entered this market, including private-label products, which indicates a broad acceptance rate of these foodstuffs among consumers.

While Asian cuisine is far from the only emerging ethnic food hitting America's shelves, many manufacturers have focused their attention in that area. As such, risk-taking smaller players are apt to experiment in other areas, such as Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Caribbean cuisines.

For more information on the report, “The U.S. Emerging Ethnic Foods Market,” contact Mintel International Group Ltd.; 213 W. Institute Place, Suite 208; Chicago, IL 60610; phone: 312-932-0400.