Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Tapping into Trends

The recognizable crunch and flavor of almonds make them an appealing and intriguing component in handhelds like these Asian chicken roll-ups. Photo courtesy of almond board of california. Commodity boards provide research and support for today’s superfoods, sourcing and stealth health trends

By Karen Weisberg

Consumers are a fickle bunch. When it comes to their food, people want to know where it comes from, what its nutritional content is, plus they want it to taste good — and maybe even make them smarter. At the same time, they don’t necessarily want to think about nutrition while dining out — the appeal somehow drops when they’re too aware that something’s good for them. The trick is to take into account these psychological avenues while navigating today’s food trends, and commodity boards are helping operators do just that.

Chefs have found that when they promote healthful dishes, it doesn’t always translate to better sales. The fuzzy psychology behind this is that consumers want to eat food that’s good for them, and yet they somehow associate the label “healthy” with “lacking in flavor.” As a result, some market research interpreters figure that the solution is to be “deliciously sneaky.”

Rick O’Fallon, director of marketing for the California Raisin Marketing Board, agrees with that line of reasoning. “The big deal in regard to health and nutrition is that every chain is looking to ‘stealth health,’” he says. “So the items aren’t labeled as ‘healthy’ on the menu — that’s definitely a trend.”

Based on a substantial amount of research that California Raisins conducts with various restaurant groups, it’s clear that operators want to — or are mandated to — decrease the amount of sugar and added salt in items they menu. “Raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate are two key items that can be added to sauces without adding sugar or salt, because of the high Brix content of raisins, plus its savory content,” O’Fallon points out.

Food manufacturers have been incorporating raisin juice concentrate in their formulations for some years now. A.1. Steak Sauce, for example, owes its “high gloss and great flavor profile” to the concentrate, O’Fallon says. In addition, Birds Eye Foods has been able to achieve an impressive sodium reduction of 27 percent for one of its Asian sauces while retaining on-par flavor. “Now, I have chefs, many from chains, who want sodium reduction or want to reduce added sugars, and they can do it just as Birds Eye did. And various Asian restaurant chains can be using raisin paste or raisin juice in their sauces,” he says. “Certain meat products — primarily ground beef and ground lamb, the two we’ve worked with so far — can have paste mixed in with the meat block. That adds flavor while reducing sodium content. The health benefits of raisins have application in restaurants beyond sprinkling them on a salad,” But it can be “deliciously” below the customer’s radar.

Sneaking in healthy ingredients under a different name can be a successful technique, according to Harbinder Maan, manager of ingredient and category marketing for the Almond Board of California. Like O’Fallon, Maan also hears from operators that the word “healthy” sometimes fails to appeal to customers. “So, our ‘stealth health’ approach is to try using words like ‘natural’ or ‘wholesome’ versus ‘healthy.’”

Raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate are two items that provide a menu-development solution to the challenges of reducing sodium and added sugars. Here, the concentrate brings savory sweetness to a sauce for a skirt steak entrée. Photo courtesy of california raisin marketing board. BACK TO THE SOURCE
While customers may not want full disclosure about how healthy a dish is, research shows that they do indeed care where their food comes from. Transparency of operation and the traceability of product — be it farm-to-table or fishing boat-to-table — counts for a lot. Patrons care about the source, which makes chefs care. But beyond that, a competitive environment makes chefs care all the more about quality and differentiation — which means ensuring that food comes from the right sources.

“There are so many great restaurants here [in New Orleans] now; there were about 800 before Hurricane Katrina and now there are around 1,200, so the skill level is elevated each year,” explains Ewell Smith, executive director of Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “These chefs want to know the source of each item and I think that trend will continue,” he adds. “By the fall, we’ll have ready our first certification of Authentic Louisiana Seafood, signifying it’s caught by Louisiana fishermen, landed in Louisiana and was processed and packaged in Louisiana.”

In conjunction with developing the certification program, the Board is currently working on developing a QR code to include on menus, so that customers can scan with a mobile device and gain more information on a menu item. “The consumer can click on it and know where the seafood comes from — I foresee that trend will only grow,” Smith says.

Referring to product safety concerns resulting from the Gulf oil spill two years ago, he asserts that “product from Louisiana is the most tested in the country” and supply is improving with each passing year. In fact, local specialties have taken on a cachet lately. Based on research conducted by The Food Group in New York City, the Board notes “a trendy feel” surrounding alligator meat and wild catfish, in part due to television shows like Swamp People, says Smith. “A great chef can do amazing things with alligator.”

Hand-in-glove with the trend of consumers’ desire to know the origins of their food goes an interest in wellness. Despite a knee-jerk reaction against dishes labeled as “healthy,” more consumers are making efforts to eat healthfully. Louisiana Seafood’s research has proven to Smith that “consumers are looking for heart-healthy things to eat, and if we can educate consumers as to what their options are then they can make an educated decision.”

Toward this aim, the Board launched www.seafoodfitness.com, presenting menu suggestions and recipes that start after Mardi Gras and carry through Lent. “We got the attention of BlueCross/BlueShield,” Smith says. “One of the elements of the health insurer’s Getting Fit program will be our seafood,” he adds. In addition, one of the three luncheon specials menued daily at New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace is labeled as an “Ochsner [Medical Center in New Orleans] Good and Hearty” item. Created by chef Tory McPhail, it recently featured Black Drum, one of the restaurant’s bestsellers. “We’re now going to elevate our level of effort to provide specific healthy recipes just for restaurants,” Smith says.

The good-for-you factor helps propel the popularity of almonds as well. The Almond Board’s Maan is pleased to note the recent award of The Heart Check to almonds from the American Heart Association. “There’s more than 15 years of research to back up a heart-healthy claim,” she contends. Research shows that consumers readily perceive almonds as “healthier” and as having “better crunch.” Since almonds have a positive menu appeal to many consumers, more operators are taking advantage of their higher perceived value.

The Almond Board also finds that current flavor trends bode well for increased use of almonds on U.S. foodservice menus. “There’s a trend to very strong ethnic flavors, especially in sauces and most notably in romesco.” Romesco sauce, originally from Spain, often combines smoked almonds, pine nuts and/or hazelnuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, and dried ancho chile or piquillo peppers.  Fueled in part by the influential Spanish tapas movement, romesco is making its way onto menus with a more mainstream profile. Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta tops a Chorizo Burger with it, and at Vintner Grill in Las Vegas, chef Matt Silverman features romesco on a wood-fired flatbread along with smoked mozzarella, portabello mushrooms and micro basil.

The Almond Board also learned from consulting firm Deloitte that snacking and foodservice applications are currently the two big opportunities for almond sales. “Consumers believe almonds are the most popular nut in breakfast, and breakfast itself is a growing category in full-service venues,” Maan reports. “We see raisins come up in our research as a complement to almonds, and we try to incorporate raisins in recipes that we develop, especially since they’re also from California.”

Maan and the Board also look to chef John Csukor, president and CEO of KOR Food Innovation, to keep them apprised of trends. Csukor notes a “strengthening of almond flour use in gluten-free menu items in the past year.” He also cites the inclusion of almonds in sauces such as romesco and in fortified butter sauces, “where they are used non-traditionally as an emulsifier and thickener.”

Almonds are also increasingly featured on small-plate menus, Csukor points out. “My hypothesis is that it is due largely to almonds’ recognizable form, ability to carry flavors and its significant crunch and texture.” He points to Stone’s Cove in Herndon, Va., where almonds figure prominently in the chicken salad lettuce wraps, as well as the blue crab lettuce wraps tossed with avocado, mango, red onion, almonds and agave-lime dressing. He also sees almonds incorporated as a protein stand-in in vegetarian applications and, most recently, in the So Delicious brand of dairy-free Almond Ice Cream from Turtle Mountain appearing on more dessert menus.

A dish of cornmeal-dusted wild Des Allemands catfish, red bean and crawfish succotash, braised collards and housemade tartar sauce earned chef Keith Frentz of Lola in Covington, La., the title of “King of Louisiana Seafood,” presented by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Photo courtesy of louisiana seafood promotion and marketing board. BRAIN POWER
Menu trend research for the California Walnut Commission is, to a great degree, in the capable hands of chef Alex Stratta. Formerly head of his namesake restaurant, Alex, in Wynn Las Vegas, Stratta is currently consulting chef at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. “I’m focusing on coming up with menus specifically high in antioxidants, with lots of fruits and green, leafy vegetables, and some ingredients are nuts, specifically walnuts that have the right kind of fat,” he says.

A diet for brain health or to stave off Alzheimer’s “is very similar to an anti-cancer diet,” says Stratta, himself a colon cancer survivor. “You want to pack in as many antioxidants as possible. I see a trend to ‘brain health.’ Minute Maid, for example, is marketing functional ingredients for promoting brain health.”

Stratta began assisting Dr. Michael Roizen (internist, award-winning author and the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic) about a year and a half ago, conducting research and putting together menus especially to address Alzheimer’s symptoms. Today, he’s focusing on high-antioxidant recipes suitable for foodservice, including a walnut-crusted salmon with stewed chickpeas and kale.

Cherries are another antioxidant power player primed to burst onto the foodservice scene. Sure, there’s always been cherry pie, but cherries are ready for a higher profile presence. According to Ewa Hudson, head of health and wellness research for Euromonitor International, “high-antioxidant content makes cherries and cherry products instant candidates for several health-and-wellness positioning platforms, including cardiovascular health, brain health, memory and anti-aging.”

In “The Red Hot Report: Why Tart Cherries Are On Trend,”  Elizabeth Sloan writes for The Cherry Marketing Institute, saying: “While sweet is still a preferred flavor, tart and sour flavor profiles are also in demand. With a unique sweet-tart flavor, tart cherries can provide a winning taste to any product or dish.”

On balance, not only are dark cherries a fit with both the “stealth health” and “brain health” trends, they’re also a quintessentially American fruit that dovetails with the ever-growing interest in local, farm-to-table sourcing. From salads and sauces to desserts and beverages, look for more culinary innovation for tart cherry-based items.

With the many complexities of consumer preferences and trends, commodity boards and trade associations are a handy source of support for menu developers looking to stay ahead of competition.


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