Don’t have a travel passport on hand? That’s okay. There’s an ever-growing selection of foods and beverages—both at restaurants and on retail supermarket shelves—to offer bolder ethnic flavors and multi-sensory food experiences. 

“Discovery: The Adventurous Consumer” leads the list of Innova Market Insights’ Top 10 Trends for 2019 and perhaps nowhere is this more clearly reflected than with areas of ethnic ingredients, recipes and cuisines. Passport or not—it’s clear that food and flavor trends travel faster than ever in today’s connected world.

Consumer curiosity to discover new food and beverages is leading to more unusual and unexpected flavors and blends, surprise textures, a greater focus on visual appeal and increasing interest in multi-sensory dining experiences. Globalization has sparked this curiosity to discover new food and beverages, and seven out of 10 US consumers in an Innova Market Insights survey agreed that they love to discover new flavors. Meanwhile, Innova Market Insights’ data show that new product launches with ethnic flavors grew at a 15% CAGR globally from the 2013 to 2017 period.


World on a Plate

For the record, Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean flavors and cuisines continue to dominate new product activity. Nevertheless, it’s clear that consumers still search for something exotic or different and this is taking them to all corners of the globe. Influences can be regional, national or local and can involve specific ingredients combined into existing recipes, as well as new recipes or entire styles of different cuisines.


In its own 2019 trend predictions, Whole Foods Market highlighted flavor inspiration from the Pacific Rim (Asia, Oceania and the western coasts of North and South America). Whole Foods analysts note these items are emerging in grocery stores and restaurants as people continue to explore more of the world through their palates. Trend and taste experts suggest ingredients such as longganisa (a Filipino pork sausage), dried shrimp, cuttlefish and shrimp paste are appearing on menus across all dayparts.

In conjunction, Whole Foods also points to the arrival of vibrant tropical fruits such as guava, dragon fruit and passion fruit in colorful smoothie bowls and cocktails. Likewise, jackfruit is gaining popularity as ingredient in new alternative meat product and already is appearing in offerings such barbecue pulled pork. Quietly, too, monk fruit—an ultra-sweet-tasting fruit also known as luo han guo—can be used as a natural sweetener and replace other forms of added sugars.

African cuisine also is highlighted as a growth area. North African flavors—particularly Moroccan dishes such as harissa and recipes such as tahine—now are relatively well established. Looking at new product launch activity in the US during 2018, Innova Market Insights finds more Morrocan-style seasoning mixes and simmer sauces. There also are more recipe dishes and prepared meal kits, such as Nestlé USA’s Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen Bowls Moroccan Style Chicken or the Chef’s Menu Moroccan Chicken Meal Kit from Cal Chef Foods LLC, Modesto, Calif.

More recently emerging African flavor influences probably are led by berbere, which is popular in other Horn of Africa countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. The berbere blend contains an array of spices such as coriander, paprika, allspice, cardamom and ginger—all which combine to deliver a hot, sweet, citrus flavor. Berbere gained traction in the US in 2017 and even penetrated the private label market with offerings Kroger’s Private Selection Berbere Spice Blend. Last year saw Departure Snacks, a Chicago-based start-up, include Ethiopian Berbere Dry Roasted Almonds among several new snack mixes. 

Elsewhere, Innova Market Insights finds that more established cuisines—such as foods and beverages from Japan—are moving further into the mainstream. Japanese items already are well established in both the foodservice and retail markets, with products such as udon noodles, sushi, etc. Meanwhile, typical ingredients such as yuzu, wasabi, matcha tea and seaweed are being more widely incorporated as ingredients across many product categories, including fusion-style products. The traditionally healthy image of Japanese ingredients and recipes—and their natural and often minimally-processed formats—translates to high appeal among consumers looking for clean labels.

One interesting ingredient example involves yuzu (most commonly known as Japanese citrus, but also known in China and Korea). Looking back on 2018 new product launches, Innova Market Insights finds a range of ethnic-style products, such as O California Yuzu Rice Wine Vinegar from O Olive Oil & Vinegar, Petaluma, Calif.; and a Gluten-Free Citrus Miso Glaze with yuzu from Yamasa Corporation USA, Salem, Ore. 

There also are interesting fusion-style products including alcoholic beverages such as yuzu liqueurs from Marie Brizard Wine & Spirits, Paris; and Soh Spirits International, Los Angeles. Still more offerings include a Truly Spiked & Sparkling Lemon & Yuzu from Hard Seltzer Beverage Company; French Pampelonne Black Cherry Bicicletta wine cocktail (6% alcohol) with black cherry and yuzu; and Yuzu Jammer Gose Ale from Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Last but not least, Innova Market Insights finds yuzu popping up in still more areas. Wana Brands, Boulder, Colo., introduced Exotic Yuzu Gummies with both CBD and THC content. Elsewhere, Sencha Naturals, Los Angeles, introduced Green Tea Mints with Yuzu Ginger flavor. 


Let’s Go Bowling

Changing meal patterns—particularly the emergence of a “fourth meal”—also could be said to influence the popularity of ethnic cuisines. Innova Market Insights finds that the “fourth meal” is about adapting eating patterns to busy lifestyles, so concerns prevalent in the diet as a whole are likely to continue to be reflected in food choices.

Simply put, more people are trying to squeeze a small fourth meal into their day, often in the late evening to bridge the gap between dinner and breakfast. Research has shown that food cravings tend to build up through the day, with Innova Market Research data reporting that 27% of US consumers had the highest food cravings for an evening snack in 2017, rising to 29% in the UK.

This need for a mini meal or snack in the evenings once was more widely associated with the foodservice sector—particularly takeaways and ethnic options after a night out. These now are increasingly likely to be prepared and consumed at home to fulfill this eating requirement. 

Bowl meals are a good example of this. Popular in restaurants (particularly ethnic operations), bowl meals since have crossed over into retail options for the grocery trade. Consumers increasingly are embracing bowls as convenient, novel, healthy and highly customizable—where any flavor profile or cuisine may be incorporated. Examples include poke bowls, Buddha bowls, smoothie bowls, acai bowls, etc.  This trend created a wave of new products in the US retail market. New bowls often have featured ethnic recipes and focused on other trends of the moment (such as high-protein, vegan, etc.).

Conagra Brands, for example, developed a high protein Healthy Choice Power Bowls line with a variety of cuisine styles. They include traditional US-style Turkey, Sausage & Egg; as well as Unwrapped Burrito Scramble (Mexican); Roasted Red Pepper & Egg White Shakshuka (Middle Eastern); and Pesto & Egg White Scramble (Italian). Conagra also extended its Marie Callender’s frozen meal bowls with varieties such as Red Chili Grilled Chicken Burrito, Cheesy Chipotle Rice & Beans, Sweet Pineapple Chicken Teriyaki and Sweet & Savory Sesame Chicken.


Other recent launches include a line of bowls from Snapdragon Foods, San Leandro, Calif. These include Miso Rice Ramen, Mushroom Vietnamese Pho and Vegetable Vietnamese Pho bowls. Another interesting example involves Old El Paso Mini Flour Tortilla Bowl Dinner Kit from General Mills. Elsewhere, Walmart launched its own Marketside products including a Steak Burrito Bowl Kit with Rice, Beans & Guacamole; a Korean Style Bulgogi Steak Bowl Kit; and Steak & Tzatziki Bowl Kit.

Europe also has been bowled over. Nomad Foods, Feltham, U.K., introduced a Birds Eye frozen Veggie Bowls line that includes Thai Curry, Moroccan Tahini and Asian Sweet & Sour Noodles varieties (all targeting flexitarian eaters).  Meanwhile, over in Continental Europe, Germany’s established vegetarian brand Eden Bio, launched a range of organic Happy Bowl meal kits featuring Thai Style, Asia Sweet Chili Style, Mexican Style and Indian Style varieties.


Hand Held, Street Foods

Grocery new product launches also reflect the influence of “street foods,” which most often have a strong leaning toward more ethnic products. 

McCormick & Company’s 2018 “Flavor Forecast” featured a rise in fusion flavors and hand-held items—all led by street foods that can be purchased from carts and trucks and in food courts. McCormick’s examples included Asian egg crepes (jianbing in China, dan bing in Taiwan) that could be stuffed with regional American flavors; gyro-taco hybrids combining elements of  South American and Greek cuisine; and dessert options made with traditional Chinese Bao steamed buns. Izakaya, or Japanese tasting plates, also can offer bite-size snacks with flavored glazes, seaweed seasonings and tangy dipping sauces.

Other hand-held “fourth meal” options fall within the definition of “finger foods/hors d’oeuvres,” which, according to Innova Market Insights data, accounted for just 8.5% of global snacks launches in the 52 weeks to the end of June 2018. Interestingly, these types of products accounted for a higher 10.5% of all new products introduced in North America during the same time period. The subcategory is highly fragmented and reflects the wide range of different products within it—including  pastry products, coated snacks, spring rolls, egg rolls, dumplings, tacos, mini pizzas and hot dogs. No matter what, there’s a clear emphasis toward ethnic recipes—particularly Asian items associated with China, Thailand, Korea, Japan and India.

Understandably, new product examples here range broadly. Canada’s Les Plats du Chef ULC, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec, extended its Cuisine Adventures line with a Spanakopita and Franks in a Blanket variety. Yves Veggie Cuisine (part of Hain-Celestial Canada) introduced Kale & Quinoa Bites and Vegan Falafel Balls. Real Good Foods, Glendale, Calif., also launched Realgood Poppers in Uncured Pepperoni & Cheese, Artichoke & Cheese and Jalapeno & White Cheddar flavors. 

The food world has talked about ethnic flavors for a long time. However, the past few years truly have brought about a greater availability of global spices, ingredients and menu items.  Although still dominated by Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean influences, today’s ethnic foods market itself also is different. Rather than trying to “Americanize” dishes for perceived local tastes, more manufacturers are adopting and integrating cultural influences with more authentic ingredients, flavors and formats. With a changing definition of what is “ethnic,” consumers may simply come to expect more variety, more flavors and more combinations as part of their everyday diets.