How Consumer Demand Is Evolving the Ethnic Aisle

adisa/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
adisa/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Walk into nearly any American supermarket and you’re likely to find yucca sitting near the potatoes in the produce section, Asian dumplings in the frozen-food case or wasabi-ginger dressing shelved next to ranch dressing.

It’s a noticeable change from grocery stores’ not-too-distant past, when buying tahini — a key ingredient in the now-ubiquitous Mediterranean hummus — required a trip to a specialty market, if it could be found at all.

Changing demographics and increasingly food-savvy customers are driving an evolution inside grocery stores from coast to coast. “We’ve seen an increase in customers looking to try new and exciting foods and ingredients, whether it’s a bold new spice or exotic new fruit, including yucca, jicama, pomelo and papaya,” says Elisabeth D’Alto, RD, LDN, a ShopRite retail dietitian in Timonium, Md.

“Even if customers are raised on steak and potatoes, they’re coming into the store asking, ‘How do I make my own sushi or hot pot at home?'” says Kristen Caponera, MS, RD, CDN, retail dietitian at ShopRite in Slingerlands, N.Y.

Soaring Sales

The trend shows no signs of slowing. According to global market research firm Mintel, sales in the ethnic food sector have climbed steadily since 2004, reaching $2.2 billion in 2009 and growing to $8.7 billion in 2012. Analysts predict another growth of more than 20 percent from 2012 to 2017.

Ethnic flavors also had a strong showing on McCormick’s 2015 Flavor Forecast, which foresees the ingredients and flavors that will be trendy in the coming year. The list is compiled by chefs, culinary professionals, trend trackers and food technologists at McCormick & Company. The company has issued the report annually since 2000, and the list is regarded in the industry as a strong indicator of what will be hot in the market for the coming years.

The projected trends include an uptick in global seasoning blends, such as Japanese seven-spice and shawarma spice blends. Also predicted: Middle Eastern mezze, robust herb-forward dips and spreads, and a continued interest in umami vegetables and sour and salty flavor combinations.

“Many early trending flavors in past reports have become favorites of today. Take chipotle chile, for instance,” says McCormick executive chef Kevan Vetter. “When we first identified this chile pepper as a flavor to watch in 2003, many people couldn’t pronounce it. Today, it’s a household name.”

Food Preferences in Evolving Communities

As shoppers become more adventurous in the kitchen, grocery stores and food manufacturers have responded by offering more ethnic seasonings and seasoning blends, ready-to-use sauces and packaged meals and kits, says Karen Buch, RDN, LDN, owner and retail dietitian consultant at Pennsylvania-based Nutrition Connections, LLC.

Mexican and Hispanic foods account for the largest segment of the market, representing about two-thirds of ethnic food sales, according to Buch. But other types of ethnic foods are gaining ground, from Asian to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern to Indian.

While some foods and cuisines are universal favorites, preferences and inventory often vary from store to store based on experiences and backgrounds of customers — such as whether they travel to major metropolitan areas where restaurants offer more varied cuisines; if they’ve visited a country; if they have been transferred from another country to work in the U.S. or if they were born or raised in another country.

What’s offered in a local store also can tell a complex story about the evolving ethnic makeup of a community, says Jane Andrews, RD, nutrition and product labeling manager at the regional supermarket Wegmans, based in the Rochester, N.Y. area. “Some of our stores in college towns might have a highly international base of graduate students,” she says. “Other stores might need more of a Puerto Rican selection of products. We have some stores where our people speak 50 different languages.”

Keeping Things Spicy

Leah McGrath, RD, LDN, corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets in North Carolina, attributes some of the interest in ethnic products to TV cooking shows and food magazines that expose customers to these ingredients. One example is Sriracha, the Thai hot sauce made of hot chile paste, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. “For years, we didn’t carry Sriracha sauce,” says McGrath. “I used to have to go to a specialty Thai store to get it and now we carry three different kinds.”

At Sprouts Farmers Markets, a nationwide chain with more than 150 stores, customers have been showing increased interest in Indian-flavored frozen meals, spicy gourmet Korean barbecue chips and Sriracha-flavored popcorn that offer new flavor experiences in some of their standard grocery list items, according to Janet Little, MPA, director of nutrition. “We are also seeing a surge in demand for raw ingredients, such as Szechuan spice, teriyaki glaze, Thai chili sauce and wasabi powder,” says Little.

Maren Trocki, grocery category manager at the Fresh Market gourmet grocery store chain in Greensboro, N.C., has noticed similar interests among her customers, who ask for falafel chips, hummus salad dressing, red curry potato chips, chai tea and cardamom ice cream. “Products with that extra hit of spice have been really popular among our shoppers.”

Rachel Quinlivan West
Rachel Quinlivan West, RD, is an illustrator, writer, editor and dietitian living in Alabama.