Until just a few years ago, truly authentic ethnic foods in the organic and natural marketplace were hard to find. Although natural foods stores stocked some ethnic ingredients, the selection was sparse, and they focused on Americanized prepared ethnic foods like frozen burritos, pizzas and lasagnas.
Intrepid cooks or immigrants who wanted to prepare authentic ethnic foods had to turn to specialty stores or the Internet to hunt down ingredients, and if they were imported they often weren't organic.
But since 1990, ethnic purchasing power has more than doubled, said Thomas Tseng, principal at Los Angeles-based marketing research and consulting firm New American Dimensions. "The millennial generation is the most diverse in American history," with 40 percent of the under-18 population nonwhite, Tseng said. And according to Packaged Fact's recent report, "The U.S. Market for Emerging Ethnic Foods," younger consumers are leading the trend, with 45.8 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, 50.4 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 46.4 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds reporting that they enjoy authentic foreign foods.
Simultaneously, as natural and organic foods become big business in the United States, more authentic ethnic foods companies are adapting their products for natural foods consumers. Asian and Indian food sales have significantly increased, growing 15 percent in the three-year period between 2002 and 2004, according to Packaged Facts. Hispanic food and beverage retail sales also dramatically increased, growing 26.1 percent from 2002 to 2004. Ethnic foods are currently a $50 billion market, said Terry Soto, president and chief executive of About Marketing Solutions in Burbank, Calif. Only 35 percent of that is sold at retail, she said; the rest is foodservice, so there's considerable upside opportunity for retail.
Natural foods stores that are capitalizing on the trend are selling ingredients, packaged foods and frozen meals from a variety of world cuisines, including Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican and Thai. And Soto expects demand for ethnic foods will rise by 50 percent over the next decade.
Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst at Mintel Consumer Intelligence, said naturals consumers are very willing to experiment with foods of different cultures. "Organic and natural consumers tend to be well-educated and informed about food and food ways," she said. "It is likely that they are more interested in ethnic cuisines because they watch food TV, read food books or magazines, and generally are looking for new food experiences. The natural foods consumer who wants to make a nutritious, healthful and quick meal may find that the repertoire of the usual spaghetti, stir-fry or rice and beans gets dull. Authentic ethnic ingredients and meals offer more options for these consumers." And, said Soto, as demand for authenticity increases, so will product freshness.
The quality of ingredients, recipes and manufacturing processes are what make an ethnic food product authentic, according to Ana Baca, communications manager at Albuquerque, N.M.-based Bueno Foods, which manufactures a line of natural, authentic New Mexican packaged meals and frozen chiles. "Ultimately, the taste, texture and appearance will speak to the level of authenticity," Baca said.
Baca said that Bueno Foods, a family-owned business founded in 1951, preserves foods' culinary heritage during preparation because the old ways offer better nutritional value. "In general, the closer a product stays to its original form, the more nutrition it retains naturally," she explained.
"Authentic ethnic foods are first-generation products, not ones that have been recast to suit the mass market," said Mogelonsky. "But I would expect that not everyone will find authentic foods to their tastes—some would be happier with a more watered-down version. For example, much of the Indian food on the market today is first generation, with strong flavors, genuine ingredients and flavor profiles that are unusual. But Chinese food, on the other hand, tends to be very mainstream, with basic flavors like soy and ginger rather than more striking flavor profiles."
Soto said mainstream acceptance of ethnic flavors depends largely on the degree of exposure people have to a culture, be it through travel or interactions in their neighborhoods. Lifestyle factors such as convenience and healthfulness also play a role.
Steve Broad, president of Annie Chun's in San Francisco, a manufacturer of all-natural Asian noodle and sauce products, agrees that some authentic Asian food products still must be tempered to suit the American palate. "I believe Annie Chun's is viewed as a very authentic brand, and the flavor profiles are authentic," Broad said. "But overall we have made adaptations to the food and flavors that Asians eat in order to market products toward the target we seek, which is Western natural food consumers, or second- or third-generation Asians."
Broad said, for example, that when the company makes Korean food, it scales back the level of spiciness. "The flavor will still be authentic, just not an exact replica of what may be eaten in Korea," he said. Similarly, Annie Chun's products leave out MSG, a common additive in Asia, and also don't use fish extract, a common ingredient in Asian sauces. "Although most Japanese identify miso soup as having fish flavor in it, we preferred our product to be vegetarian and gain its flavor from a different blend of miso pastes," Broad explained.
Many of the companies producing authentic ethnic foods for the natural and organic market begin with family recipes. "My grandmother Filomena was a great cook, and many of our prepared food recipes are based on her recipes," Baca said. "We translate authentic New Mexican cuisine from home recipes into commercial production, and we've done this since the beginning. Many of our processes incorporate the ancient traditions of our ancestors."
Ethnic Gourmet manufactures a line of all-natural entrees, featuring foods from a variety of cultures, including Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban. "Our recipes are kept authentic by using minimally processed ingredients and mirroring the cooking steps used in home-style cooking," said Matt Cooper, general manager of the frozen food division at Hain Celestial, which owns Ethnic Gourmet.
"Annie Chun's products are rooted in Annie's personal experience and upbringing," Brand said. "She was born and raised in Seoul, [South] Korea. Her mom and sister are both excellent cooks and have helped with product recipes."
Often, the difficulty for these companies is in trying to adapt family favorites for large-scale production, as well as for the natural foods market. "Sometimes it's a challenge to find the proper ingredients that will give the right flavor profile for a product and the proper level of authenticity, yet also have all-natural ingredients," Brand said. "This can be especially challenging with a lot of Asian foods and ingredients since they often don't meet natural foods standards."
Ethnic Gourmet faced a similar dilemma. "One of the challenges we faced in adapting traditional ethnic recipes for the organic and natural foods market was learning how to adapt cumbersome processes for cooking in bulk quantities without compromising the taste," said Cooper. "What keeps our product authentic is that our preparation methods are more like a restaurant or large catering facility, rather than a typical big company 'factory' approach."
Baca said that as Bueno has developed more products, keeping the costs in line has become a challenge. "Often, because we want to preserve the traditional way of making certain products, such as flame-roasted chiles or stone-ground corn tortillas, it becomes more time-consuming, more labor-intensive and requires more infrastructure, so the process is more costly," she said. "We feel our choices result in a higher-quality, more authentic product, but there are costs to that authenticity."
Emerging ethnic cuisines
According to Packaged Fact's report, the next big authentic ethnic cuisines may be Greek, Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean. Soto said Central and South American cuisines will also grow, reflecting recent immigration trends. Mogelonsky said she's seen renewed interest in the Mediterranean diet and also expects increased sales of Indian and Thai foods, based on the growing interest in spicy foods. All the experts agree on one thing: Ethnic food sales will sizzle for some time to come. Said Soto, "Mainstream hunger for ethnic foods far outpaces ethnic consumer demand."
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2003). Additional reporting by Laurie Budgar.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 50-51