(Food in Canada, September 2010 Issue)
BY ROSIE LOMBARDI
The Canadian palate is growing as diverse as its population. As a result, spices and flavourings blended for food processors cater to their increasingly sophisticated knowledge about ethnic foods. But manufacturers are also scrambling to respond to consumer demand for healthier processed foods made with natural ingredients and less salt.
A major trend is the regionalization of ethnic food flavourings, which drill down to feature the distinct flavours of various countries or regions within a blanket label. Familiar stalwarts such as Asian, Indian and Italian are now sub-divided into different categories. “We’re getting more specific as consumers are more exposed to ethnic foods. What used to be called Chinese is now Thai, Vietnamese, and so on,” says Elaine Wells, Toronto-based marketing manager at seasoning company Griffiths Laboratories.
Fruit flavours and exotic spices, often in combination, are also popular this year. Roasted ginger and rhubarb, and Thai basil and watermelon are the top two flavour pairings in the 2010 flavour forecast prepared by global spice company McCormick.
“We received great feedback from Costco for a blueberry maple breakfast sausage we developed,” says Doris Valade, president of Burlington, Ont.-based Malabar Super Spice, which supplies flavourings for meat and poultry. Another growing trend among food processors is using natural ingredients so retailers can get complicated chemical ingredients off the label, says Valade. “Costco and Lilydale are pushing back, telling spice companies to use ingredients that consumers might find in their kitchen cupboards.”
To tackle this, Malabar is developing spice extracts that are actually more economical than their sources, says Valade. “Piperine oil is what gives black pepper its flavour and can be extracted, but it’s 100 times stronger so you can use much less in products. And you can label it as a ‘spice extract,’ which is true as it hasn’t been adulterated, and this satisfies consumers.” A related trend, adds Valade, is growing consumer concern about allergens in processed foods. While most spices are allergen-free, mustard is in the spotlight. “Mustard seed is about to be declared Canada’s newest allergen by Health Canada,” she says. “Food producers will need to label it soon on their products so people who are allergic can avoid it.”
People want more ethnic flavourings in their spices in general, and generic flavourings won’t do anymore. “What used to be ‘steak spice’ is now Tandoori, Jerk and Mediterranean,” says Sujay Shah, president of Toronto-based exotic spice house Shashi Foods.
New ethnic flavourings that Canadians haven’t been exposed to in the past are on the rise. For instance, North African flavours such as Moroccan and Turkish are growing popular, says Valade. “These have a bit of heat which can allow for less salt. Cumin and coriander are really taking off.” Wells is also working on new products in this category. “We introduced a Moroccan chutney that has some brown spices, which are blended from cinnamon, allspice and cloves,” she says.
Hispanic and Latino influences are also growing in Canada. Chimichurri, a blend of oil, garlic, and peppers from Argentina, is catching on, says Valade, adding, “We’re working on a formulation that would work in any sausage.” Piri-piri, a spicy Portuguese flavouring, is also gaining a foothold, says Merrick Frieberg, president of the Toronto-based Sexy Gourmet Food Company. “When we demo piri-piri chicken wings, people go wild,” he says, adding that he’s in discussions with several food processors interested in using the blend. In addition, Shah notes that fiery Latino peppers are also on the rise. “Last year, we introduced a new line of these in the U.S., but it’s a bit slower in Canada, where Asian and Indian flavourings are more popular.”
But these American influences eventually make their way northwards, says Wells. Chipotle is a hugely popular Latino flavouring that has transferred well into Canada, as has cilantro, which is used in both Latino and Thai cooking.
Although these new flavours are making their way through restaurants and gourmet shops, food processors tend to be conservative about adopting them, preferring to wait and see if they stick, says Valade. “New flavour combinations are sometimes faddish. Food processors tend to stick to tried, true and traditional flavours. Some companies offer seasonings that can be added by the end user, so they have more control over the amount and intensity.”
Health Canada’s push to reduce salt intake is a key issue for the food industry. And, adds Valade, “there’s also a huge push in the U.K. and the U.S., and all this makes low-sodium the real flavour of the year.”
Many processors are scrambling to reduce the amount of salt in their products, but there are many challenges in maintaining flavour. “If you reduce the salt you also lose flavour, so you must boost seasoning,” says Wells. “Unfortunately, a lot of salt alternatives are very costly. It ends up costing more money to get the same intensity of flavour.” Potassium chloride can serve as a salt substitute, but it’s not only more expensive, it also adds negative flavour notes, she adds. “It tastes metallic if it’s used at high levels, and a lot of customers don’t like it. Many processors don’t want to go that route.”
Yeast extracts can also be used as flavour enhancers in the absence of salt, but these too are expensive, and can alter the flavour. “Many processors are doing a cautious, staged reduction of salt instead, in the hope that consumers won’t notice as much as they would if salt substitutes were used,” says Wells.
According to Valade, Malabar is working to create a salt replacement based on potassium chloride that reduces the bitterness, and has had good results in recent tests. Even so, she says there are many foods where salt serves a functional purpose beyond flavouring, and it’s not feasible to do a staged reduction or use salt alternatives. “This is what consumers and government must realize,” she says. “For many meat, cheese and bread products salt is necessary. In meat, it works with the protein to give extra texture, and it also holds water, which makes the meat juicy. It also acts as an anti-microbial to preserve food and maintain shelf life.” She adds that more consumer education is needed, as there’s a lot of confusion. Sea salt, for example, is perceived as more natural and therefore healthier than ordinary table salt. “But it has no health benefits, and it actually has more impurities than table salt.”
Salt reduction is also affecting many spice blends, says Merrick. “We’re developing no-salt versions of our piri-piri. The original blend uses salt, so we’ve made one of equal intensity without it. We’re getting a lot of demand for no-salt versions from people who don’t want to eat bland foods, and we don’t want to use salt substitutes.” All the sound and fury about the perils of salt is also creating a niche market for salty forbidden foods, he adds. “We also do confectioneries, and a big trend is sprinkling high-end sea salt on chocolate. It’s not a new trend, as chocolate pretzels have been around awhile, but that salty sweet combination is getting more popular.”
For the future, Valade predicts that sugar will be the next target for government crackdowns. “Salt has been hit hard,” she says, “and sugar will probably be next.”