After years of reduced international travel during the pandemic, it’s no surprise that consumers have turned to global cuisine as a source of excitement and adventure. Even after easing travel restrictions and a return to overseas vacations, consumers still look toward globally-inspired dishes as a convenient, low-cost way to spice up life. CPG food companies and foodservice brands are responding to this shift in demand with boldly flavored new products and menu items that tap into consumers’ desire for global cuisine. In fact, according to Mintel research, 36 percent of U.S. consumers would like to see more authentic international flavors in the grocery store. While mainstream favorites like Chinese, Mexican and Italian food still dominate the global flavors category, U.S. consumers are beginning to look toward more exotic cuisines from the Mediterranean and Middle East. While many of these cuisines initially gained a following in foodservice, flavors like hummus, baklava and falafel have become staples at grocery stores across North America, and the trend shows no signs of stopping.
Authentic Middle Eastern flavors are also being introduced to American consumers through fusion foods on restaurant menus. These create exciting new combinations that blend unexpected international flavors with familiar dishes. In many cases, consumers are introduced to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors via fusion dishes based on a traditional American entrée with a bold sauce or condiment featuring international flavors. According to a 2022 Mintel report, there was a 16 percent increase in Greek tzatziki sauce on menus between 2018 and 2021, as operators add this richly flavored sauce to bowls, burgers, salads and other entrées. This same approach is rapidly growing for Middle Eastern flavors such as za’atar, baharat, Ras el hanout, sumac, harissa and others, though interest in these flavors outpace trial, according to Mintel. The Middle East offers a broad range of rich flavors of cuisine from Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Armenia, and consumers are highly interested in these foods, along with North African cuisines from Morocco, Algeria and Egypt.
Tapping into the Gen Z Appeal of International Cuisine
Interest in international flavors is being boosted by younger Millennial and Gen Z consumers, who seek diversity in their food choices and index higher in all international flavor consumption, including Middle Eastern foods. According to Mintel, today’s younger generations are the most diverse in U.S. history and were raised with broader palates. More than 38 percent of Gen Z consumers eat Middle Eastern cuisine at restaurants and these consumers are more likely than any previous generation to find inspiration in their food choices from social media. Mintel research indicates that 62 percent of Gen Z adults cook international cuisines at home, compared to 46 percent of Millennials and 23 percent of Gen X. Clearly, there is a major opportunity for food brands to capitalize on the immense interest in Middle Eastern flavors with younger consumers, offering a broader range of seasonings and ingredients that tap into the appeal of this cuisine.
Leveraging the Health Perceptions of Middle Eastern Cuisine
One of the greatest strengths of Middle Eastern cuisine is the implied “health halo” that these foods deliver. Rich in aromatic ingredients, herbs and spices like tahini, cumin and za’atar, Middle Eastern foods pack a burst of flavor. They also represent a surprising number of vegetarian and vegan dishes like cauliflower shawarma, tabbouleh, fatteh, shakshuka and hummus. This is a key attribute that is growing the profile for Middle Eastern foods in the U.S., and consumers are looking for plant-based foods. Vegetarian or “flexitarian” diets are on the rise, both for health and environmental reasons, with over 46 percent of U.S. adults aged 18-34 in a recent Mintel survey citing that they are trying to add more plant-based foods to their diets. Many Middle Eastern cuisines feature plant-based ingredients like crushed wheat, chickpeas and lentils that offer a satisfying alternative to animal proteins, when coupled with aromatic Middle Eastern spices. Vegetarian based dishes like falafel are making the transition from foodservice menus to grocery store aisles, as they become more familiar to consumers and infused with American dishes.
The health attributes of Middle Eastern flavors represent a double opportunity for food companies and restaurants who can leverage not only the growing popularity of international foods, but also the immense demand for healthier options and plant-based or flexitarian diets.
Improving Ancient Cuisine with Modern Flavor Technology
The growth of Middle East food and beverage flavors in the U.S. is also being fueled by advancements in flavor technology. California-based flavor manufacturer T. Hasegawa USA recently introduced several new technologies aimed at improving the flavor and taste experience of Middle Eastern dishes. As the U.S. subsidiary of one of the world’s top 10 flavor companies, T. Hasegawa USA is uniquely in-tune with the latest trends in global flavors. The company’s team of flavorists have expanded on traditional ingredients and processes for Middle Eastern food and beverage flavors with new processes and technology that reinvent the category and broaden the appeal of this cuisine to the U.S. market.
“The importance of aroma in foods and beverages cannot be understated, and that’s especially true of Middle Eastern cuisine," explained Jeanene Martinez, Director of Applications Technology at T. Hasegawa USA. “Our technology focuses on amplifying the allium aromatic compounds common in Middle Eastern foods, such as onions and garlic, along with fresh flavor notes such as cucumber, tomatoes, olive oil, orange blossom and rose. It’s the combination of these fragrant aromas that give Middle Eastern cuisine its distinctive flavor profile.”
In addition to extensive work with flavor compounds, many of the T. Hasegawa’s innovations, such as Boostract, focus not only on producing a complex flavor profile, but also delivering the ultimate taste experience, including kokumi (Japanese for “Rich Taste”), which gives foods and beverages a full-bodied mouthfeel.
“Much of what we identify as the ‘flavor’ of foods and beverages is actually represented by the aroma and taste experience,” explained Martinez. “Using natural processes, our team is able to amplify the characteristics we expect in specific foods and beverages, to ensure a satisfying richness and full kokumi mouthfeel.”
The Future of Middle Eastern Flavors
While Middle Eastern cuisine has ancient origins and these robust dishes have been served for millennia, the category has a lot of room for growth in the U.S. market, and it is catching on quickly. As we apply new technology to old recipes, the result is compelling, unique flavors that help expand the appeal of Middle Eastern food throughout North America. As the bold international flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine gains mainstream acceptance in the U.S. and consumers simultaneously look for great-tasting products that deliver on consumer interest in healthier lifestyles, the role of Middle Eastern flavors will continue to grow in new product development and foodservice menus.
To learn more about the many ways that flavor technology can unlock the potential of Middle Eastern foods and beverages, visit T. Hasegawa USA at www.thasegawa.com.