Hot Flavors and Clean Labels
Asian foods are increasingly popular as consumers look for authentic taste adventure
Asian foods are the second largest ethnic category in the United States after Hispanic foods, and are relatively long established, although the market has seen considerable change and development over the years.
Chinese foods were the first from Asia to arrive in the United States and they appeared as long ago as the mid-19th century, although at that time they were largely confined to Chinese communities. It was after World War II when U.S. consumers started dining at Chinese restaurants—followed by other Asian cuisines including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean. Indian foods also are sometimes included under a South Asian category. Asian fusion has also emerged, combining various modes of Asian cooking with Western ones.
Awareness of ethnic cuisines was raised initially through immigrant populations, later aided by higher levels of foreign travel. The cuisines then moved from the restaurant sector and into the retail market initially via the greater availability of ingredients, components and accompaniments through mainstream channels, which allowed consumers to recreate meals at home. As the demand for convenience meal solutions rose, more prepared Asian products started to be produced, including ready meals, appetizers, soups, etc., in ambient, frozen and more recently, chilled formats.
Asian flavors now permeate most sectors of the food market, with a huge range of products varying from specialist authentic ethnic brands, many of which have now passed into the ownership of multinational companies; Asian options included in standard mainstream food ranges; and the increasing use of Asian-style flavors across virtually the whole food and drinks market. This makes the overall market difficult to define and quantify.
The U.S. $8 billion-plus frozen ready meals market has long focused on developing ethnic recipes and this now is a key focus for new product development in the light of the relatively weak performance of the meals and entrees sector in recent years and the resulting need to find new impetus. Convenient, refrigerated or frozen prepared side dishes and entrees now let consumers to try a wide range of Asian foods at home—without having to figure out kits or prepare ingredients or entrees from scratch.
While there are a large number of ethnic specialty brands, the frozen meal category’s market leaders all have ethnic lines within their ranges; either as separate brands, sub-brands or flavor varieties alongside more traditional options.
ConAgra has been particularly active in this area, including the use of a well-known Asian restaurant brand for a retail range. The PF Chang’s Home Menu range has been developed from PJ Chang’s China Bistro, the Asian-themed casual dining restaurant chain. It consists of a range of restaurant-style frozen appetizers, meals and noodle meals and was extended at the end of 2013 with two new skillet meals in Szechuan Style Shrimp and Mongolian Style Chicken varieties. ConAgra bought the rights to the PF Chang’s brand from Unilever in mid-2012 in the same deal that bought it the Italian Bertolli brand, giving it two key players in the ethnic-style frozen multi-serve meals market.
ConAgra also has Asian-style products elsewhere in its portfolio, including its Healthy Choice sub-brand, where it has an Asian Potstickers line in its all-natural Café Steamers range, introduced in 2013, as well as a number of Asian-inspired recipes in its complete meals range. Outside the frozen market, it also has its La Choy range of ambient Asian sauces, accompaniments and complete meals.
Frozen meals rival Nestlé Prepared Foods also has a number of Asian-inspired products under its Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine brands. Stouffer’s Asian lines include boxed complete meals, bagged meals and variants under its Sautés for Two pouched meals range. The Asian lines are marketed as “Familiar favorites with exotic flavors like ginger, soy sauce and sesame.” Nestlé’s Lean Cuisine healthy range also encompasses a number of Asian recipes, particularly in its Culinary Collection of chef-inspired recipes, but also in its Honestly Good all-natural line-up and in its newer Additions ranges.
Salad Additions, launched in early 2013, is made up of frozen entrees packed in steam-cook pouches containing dressing, vegetables and grilled chicken meat, designed to be added to lettuce by the consumer, while Wrap Additions arrived at the beginning of 2014 with a similar concept but requiring the addition of a tortilla rather than salad. Both lines have Asian-inspired variations, including Asian-Style Chicken Salad in Salad Additions and Chicken Teriyaki in Wrap Additions.
Retail private label brands also are developing their offerings, with Asian-style pot stickers proving particularly popular among launches during the first half of 2014, according to Innova Market Insights. Recent introductions have included Safeway’s Eating Right for Healthy Living Chicken & Vegetable Potstickers, Trader Joe’s Mushroom Moshi Potsticker Dumplings and Whole Foods Market’s Pot Stickers & Vegetables.
Specialized Asian brands also are gaining ground and appealing to growing demand for authenticity. Many also have tended to focus on a natural and/or gourmet positioning. Meanwhile, growing interest in healthy and natural products—evident across the wider food and drinks market—benefits Asian cuisine, which emphasizes fresh, natural ingredients and minimal processing.
Ethnic Gourmet, for example, started life as Taj Gourmet Foods to provide premium-quality restaurant-style Indian foods to the US market. Now it is owned by natural foods specialist Hain Celestial and has extended out of purely Indian products into other Asian cuisines, including Thai and Malaysian.
Other Asian specialists include all-natural processor Annie Chun’s, owned by Korea’s CJ Foods; and Saffron Road, the packaged foods brand of American Halal company. Saffron Road focuses on quality, all-natural offerings that also are halal. It started with Indian meals, but now offers a range of meals, ingredients and accompaniments with a various Asian recipes and claims its Chana Saag with Cumin Rice, launched in 2013, was the first U.S. frozen entree to be non-GMO verified.
For that matter, Asian food companies also appear to be more actively interested in the US ethnic foods market. Indeed, they perceive further growth potential in helping to supply a market interested in authenticity. One of those businesses is Japan’s Ajinomoto, which represents one of country’s best recognized food brands. Operating in the US as Ajinomoto Frozen Foods, the business offers a range of authentic Asian ingredients and prepared appetizers, snacks and entrees, including the meals marketed under the Simmering Samurai sub-brand.
Another Japanese company, Nichirei Foods, bought into the US Asian foods market in 2012 with a majority share purchase in InnovAsian Cuisine. Founded in 1999, the business (now in Tukwilla, Wash.) first marketed a range of family-style Asian recipes primarily with a Chinese theme. At the time, Nichirei stated that the US food industry presented greater long-term growth opportunities. Since then, it has helped InnovAsian develop its product range and market position.
Case in point. InnovAsian recently moved into the Southeast Asian market with its 2014 launch of a Lemon Grass Kitchen collection, developed in association with chef and restaurant owner Mai Pham, who is regarded to be one of America’s leading experts on cuisine from the region. The line of restaurant quality meals includes Chicken and Shrimp Pad Thai, Beef & Broccoli Noodles, Lemongrass Chicken Stir Fry, Red Curry Sauce with Chicken and Thai-Style Chicken Fried Rice.
Officials say the Lemon Grass Kitchen line was inspired by Mai Pham’s Thai and Vietnamese recipes served in her restaurants and featured in her books. Likewise, the new products reflect an ongoing interest to move these cuisines into the retail market from their roots in the foodservice sector.
Vietnamese products for in-home preparation and/or consumption are a relatively new and underdeveloped sector of the mainstream Asian foods market, but interest is starting to grow. More companies are taking products out of the specialized ingredients sector and developing them into more mainstream prepared and convenience lines. This is reflected in some unusual launches in recent months, including Vietnamese soft drinks under the Phancy Authentic Soda Chanh name, featuring the sparkling limeade drink more often found in Vietnamese restaurants. Also available: a Limeade, Strawberry & Lychee variety.
This is in addition to an increasing availability of Vietnamese lines such as Pho noodles and seasonings featuring Vietnamese spices, particularly cinnamon. Thai and Vietnamese foods are closely related and thus many dishes can incorporate elements of both. Trader Joe’s own-brand Sai Tung Green Curry with Red Gaba Rice, for example, was launched in early 2014 featuring characteristic Thai elements such as green curry, but also incorporating typical Vietnamese flavors such as banana flowers.
Vietnamese flavors are even starting to appear in the snacks market, with recent launches including Popsalot Gourmet Popcorn’s Saigon Sunrise ready-to-eat popcorn variant, featuring all-natural “Crisp & salt-kissed kettle corn swirled with Vietnamese cinnamon.” This joined the growing range of Thai-flavor snacks launches of all kinds, including nuts such as Trader Joe’s Thai Lime & Chilli Almonds, wraps such as Ready Pac’s Bistro Bowl Thai Peanut Crunch wrap kit and meat snacks such as Oberto’s Spicy Thai Style Chicken Breast Strips.
Asian flavors in meat snacks are relatively well-established but to date have tended to focus on Teriyaki flavors, probably to the point where they are often regarded as mainstream rather than Japanese. Meat snacks market leader Jack Link’s has featured a Teriyaki variety in its jerky range for some time, but it since has been joined by several other companies and brands. Recent launches in the sector include Butterball Teriyaki Turkey with soy sauce, a Teriyaki variety from Perky Jerky and a co-branded offering from Duke’s Small Batch Smoked Meats. It features Kikkoman Soy Sauce.
Asian foods are now an integral part of the U.S. way of life and this seems poised to continue. Today’s increasingly sophisticated consumers are searching for new and different taste experiences and, in conjunction, their demand for authenticity has come to the forefront. Likewise, these consumers realize that eating habits and diets vary considerably within Asian countries. Not surprisingly, this fuels even greater demand for more specialized and regional cuisines.