When I was growing up in Georgia, we had access to the usual “ethnic” food choices: Mexican taco seasonings, Chinese takeout, and pizzas (both freshly made and frozen).

Now fast forward to this year. Innova Market Insights’ coverage of Natural Products Expo West demonstrated just how much the approach to authentic ethnic cuisine has changed in the United States. For example, we spotted one trend we are calling “DiversificAsian,” which describes the rapidly-expanding cultural differentiation, authenticity, and availability of cuisines from across Asia. The movement is led by frozen and ready-to-heat Korean dishes and also includes broader availability of Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan fare, to name a few.

We observed a related trend toward a cultural “takeback” of various dishes, particularly those from Mexico. Foods that used to be interpreted for years in the US by non-natives are now being reimagined to capture regional differences. Cultural pride is abundant in the US food and beverage marketplace.

Craving Cultural Experience

Each year, Innova checks the pulse of consumers around the world—including the US and Canada—to learn about their attitudes, behaviors, and priorities. We’re interested to learn how these factors both affect food choices and drive food and beverage innovation trends. We see increasing demand for flavor variety as consumers are exposed to global cuisines through social media, travel and shifting populations. There’s also less fear with low-risk experimentation through food, and restaurants, along with expanding food and beverage choices in the retail marketplace. In fact, one-third of consumers we recently surveyed say they are intrigued by new, unique and different flavors; and one-quarter feel drawn to interesting and exotic flavor combinations.

The trend toward global culinary exploration is driven by younger generations. Among those participating in our annual surveys, Millennials and Generation Z globally are somewhat more likely to express interest in more unusual, adventurous and exotic flavors, while Boomers tend to prefer traditional, familiar and comforting tastes. Of course today’s Boomers are not like older generations of the past in that they grew up with greater ability to travel and broader exposure to cuisines and foods from around the world.

Plant-based Goes Global

For the last several years, plant-based products have expanded across all food categories (well beyond just meat and dairy alternatives) and we have monitored what consumers might expect regarding global flavor options here as well.  In fact, the expansion of plant-based options is highlighted as one of Innova’s Top 10 Trends 2024.  

Variety continues to grow in plant-based options in retail settings, and more than half of all consumers globally want to see even more choice. Again, Millennials and Gen Z are driving trends, with close to three-quarters saying that they prepare plant-based versions of international dishes at least some of the time.

Nearly half of US consumers surveyed say that they most want to try plant-based versions of Mexican dishes. In contrast, plant-based Chinese cuisine is likely to capture the interest of Asian consumers looking for plant-based options while European consumers find plant-based Italian dishes to be the most appealing. Many consumers also are attracted to less-established cuisines such as Balkan and Vietnamese. With meat substitutes in the lead in plant-based, we are monitoring entries into the marketplace of ethnically inspired dishes such as Mexican “faux’jitas.”

Safe at Home Plate

Another one of Innova’s Top 10 Trends 2024 highlights changes in consumer attitudes toward home cooking. Following the COVID 19 pandemic, consumers continue to embrace home life as an alternative venue for socializing in a way that also is budget-conscious. Home cooking exploded during the pandemic out of necessity. It remains popular today and has become a primary setting for low-risk exploration of global flavors, with a five-percentage-point jump in consumers saying they are most likely to experiment with flavors when preparing food at home.

Consumers are highly open to exploring new global cuisines and say that they regularly incorporate foods and flavors from travel into their cooking at home. This is made possible by the explosion of ethnic choices in sauces, spices, frozen foods, packaged foods, and other food and beverage categories. Of course, meal opportunities away from home—including those at work, food trucks, and restaurant delivery services—also are important for learning about and trying new flavors. Half the consumers we survey say that even when they’re eating in, they’re trying to replicate restaurant flavors.

Umami Enhances Experience

Ethnic flavors in sauces, soups, and ready meals encourage exploration of cultural cuisines in a low-risk way. These categories in particular are compatible with more complex umami flavor profiles. Formulators have a wide range of options to choose from including monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate (IMP) and disodium guanylate (I+G), yeast extract, miso, mushrooms, or other ingredients. Interestingly, discussion about umami is expanding beyond its traditional presence in Asian foods into diverse categories such as confectionery, beverages and bakery.

We continuously monitor food and beverage launches from all global cuisines, including umami-rich Asian dishes. East Asian flavors are doing well, with launches of Chinese and Japanese food and beverages continuing to grow at a steady pace. Global new product launches of Korean foods are up a robust 21% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2019 and 2023.

Popular Asian flavors in new product launches around the world include Chinese sweet and sour, Szechuan, and hot and sour; Japanese teriyaki, miso, and katsu; and Korean kimchi and barbecue. Indeed, Innova’s trendspotters at Expo West were awed by the variety and authenticity of Korean options in ready meals, side dishes, snacks, and sauces. In contrast, Indian flavors are at a more mature stage of trend development.

Wave the Flag: Italian and Mexican Dishes Strong Here

Italian cuisine is among the primary ethnic categories in the US, so it’s no surprise that the US is a highly active marketplace for Italian food and beverage launches. Soups, sauces, and ready meals are well-established, as are classic Italian flavors. In fact, many Italian launches in the US do not include a flavor designation or description since US consumers are highly familiar with Italian seasonings such as tomato, basil, and garlic.

We are monitoring movement in value-added features such as region-specific dishes – a way to strengthen cultural authenticity – and healthier and plant-based versions of familiar dishes.

The US leads the global marketplace in Latin American launches. Among Latin American cuisines, Mexican continues to be the dominant ethnic flavor in the US.  New product launches have declined over the past five years but we expect increased activity with the expansion of more authentic regional cuisines and flavors. Many existing and new launches of Mexican products are identified with the generic ‘Mexican’ because US consumers expect certain ingredients in and flavors from Mexican foods. Taco and enchilada flavors are particularly popular. Chimichurri is growing as a regional ethnic flavor, as are Latin flavors from the Caribbean.

American Flavors: Taste the Red, White and Blue

American flavors remain very much on-trend. Global launches with American flavors rose at a robust compound annual growth rate of +13% during the past five years. While US consumers take American flavors for granted, American flavors are extremely popular in the UK and other European countries.

It’s interesting that some of the leading American flavors in Europe are chili con carne and Tex-Mex. Meanwhile, in the US, those same flavors are being replaced by even more authentic, regional flavors. Meanwhile, some generic American descriptors such as “ranch” continue to add value to sauces, dressings and other categories.

Passport to Adventure: Prepared Foods

Innovations and expansion in prepared foods and beverages bring increased variety to consumers by extending their enjoyment of authentic ethnic foods and drinks. Street foods, restaurant-quality dishes, and regional specialties previously available only through travel now are as close as the nearest supermarket. In coming years, we expect an explosion of convenient, affordable, and ethnically authentic foods and beverages to serve as a gateway for global culinary exploration in an easy, convenient, and low-risk way.

Lu Ann Williams is Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights, provider of market research services including the Innova Database. With more than 25 years’ experience in the food industry, Lu Ann is a trend expert and frequent public speaker at events worldwide. She leads a team of analysts and works with global clients. Contact her at luann.williams@innovami.com.