Greater access to information about regional cuisines and different ingredients has challenged meat and poultry product developers. As companies seek to develop differentiating prod-uct offerings they must become much more aware of regional flavors, ingredients and trends.

“Ethnic was a key driver in 2013, specifically Asian and Hispanic,” said Christopher Hansen, corporate executive chef for the OSI Group, Chicago. “From there you need to break that down into what kind of meats are represented: pork, beef or chicken.”

The OSI Group is a global processor of a wide range of products, including breakfast sausage, cooked beef and pork, whole and processed chicken, fresh, frozen and cooked beef patties as well as kettle and smoked products.

“Chicken seems to be the dominating protein and continues to capture market share,” Hansen said. “Mainly it’s because of cost and perceived health and wellness benefits. Plus, it’s very functional. We see a lot of different renditions of chicken, whether it’s in the whole bird or what products we can offer from there. It is also important to consider what unique items or possibilities we can create during further processing.”

But R&D teams were presented with challenges beyond just researching trendy flavors in 2013.

“We saw an increase in requests for natural products and removal of potentially bioengineered ingredients,” said Dawn M. Canon, a food scientist with the Burke Corp., Nevada, Iowa. “While spices are not bioengineered, processing aids and flavor components can be. This past year there was also an increase in demand of products with a less-manufactured appearance and texture. This resulted in the development of several coarse ground products with a natural, hand-pinched size.”

The Burke Corp. is a manufacturer of pre-cooked meats for the prepared food and food service industries. The company’s product line ranges from Italian-style meats, Mexican-style meats, organic and natural offerings, and custom formulations.

“The trend of natural products and clean labels is here to stay,” Canon said. “Our research efforts to source such ingredients and even work with suppliers to develop new ingredients are active. Functional ingredients that could result in lower yields or run speeds are the most difficult. Cost is always a factor. Flavor development can be accomplished resulting in clean labels, but there is often a cost increase involved.”

Looking ahead, Hansen sees further development in flavors from specific regions of Asia and the Middle East.

“We use and apply traditional ingredients and techniques in our recipe development,” he said. “This approach allows us to capture the local flavor, texture, and aroma of the dish, getting us even closer to the gold standard dish we originally experienced or want the guests to experience.

“Take Thai curry for example. Several ideas come to mind. It all depends on your experience. It’s our job to create a common dialogue around what the customer is looking for in Thai curry. As an example, do we use whole or ground spice blend for the seasoning/aromatics portion of the curry? Or do we use a raw or cooked paste for the seasoning/aromatics? Both are great ideas. But which one gets to gold standard? Most important we must be able to recreate that dish utilizing our tool kit (ingredients and equipment that replicates the cooking technique) to meet the expectations of the recipe and cooking instructions.

“Additionally, the cycle of heat keeps growing. Consumers want more complexity, more flavor and even a lingering flavor.”

Canon sees the emergence of several combinations of flavors as the product development team at Burke works on new items.

“We have seen requests for apple cinnamon sausage, rum and Tabasco sausage, and sun dried tomato basil with Parmesan cheese meatballs at Burke,” she said. “I think that the turkey sausage market will continue to grow in the health and nutrition sector. Low fat and low sodium is always an area for improvement.”

Peppers will remain a staple of flavor development in the meat sector, Hansen said.

“People still talk about chipotle but also ancho and guajillo – things that have a different notation of spice,” he said. “Now you get into different regions and it’s not just about heat. It is about adding depth, richness and robustness. The ancho, for example, has ‘raisiny’ notes and adds earthiness to a dish.”

Such specificity transcends ingredients and includes regional cuisines.

“When you travel throughout the US you can see the foods that are popular in other areas,” Hansen said. “Here in Chicago, it may not make as much sense to menu a particular regional item as it would be in the south or out west. ‘Regionality’ is something we balance quite well. We take that information from our customer and we need to educate ourselves about it. We need to be up to speed on it.”

Alison Kovaleski, director of communications and marketing for the OSI Group, said, “This applies to marketing as well. It’s not just a St. Louis-style or Kansas City-style barbecue rib. It has a lot to do with how a customer wants to market an item, to give it its own unique identity. We are seeing that a lot in other ethnic dishes, too. We are talking about the different types of Chinese food, whether it is Mandarin or Szechuan, for instance.”

Canon said specific flavor trends likely will follow the sweet and savory category with far stretched combinations, but also include comfort food with a twist.

“The addition of heat was a trend in the past few years,” she said. “This trend will carry over, but consumers want a balance of heat with flavor in place of simply the intense ‘burn’.”

The emergence of such upscale burger chains as Five Guys and Umami Burger, has led to an increased interest in unique burger concepts. But Hansen said the foundation is a key for the best tasting burgers.

“The best burger has to do with the method of preparation,” he said. “What is the meat block they are using? I see a lot of people out there using specific cuts and specific grind sizes. What is going to be the method of preparation: Are they going to be freshly ground, seared on a grill? Or are you going to use sous vide and then apply a finish to the product? It all starts with the raw material.

“We have done a lot of work on that internally and have seen a lot of combinations of meat blocks. To me less is more: Focus on the preparation and let the condiments take it to the next level. It is all about understanding the foundation.”