Whether it is retail meal solutions for home cooks or short-cuts for the chef, center-of-the-plate protein formulators are wise to be creative with flavors – particularly ethnic flavors. This is because Americans have become more sophisticated and adventurous in their food choices as a result of exposure to new cuisines experienced during foreign travel and watching food-cooking shows.

“For many consumers, the longing for new and exciting flavors is complicated by the need or desire to eat more healthful fare,” says Mary Chapman, director-product innovation, Technomic Inc., Chicago. “Most consumers now believe that good-for-you items can be at least as tasty as indulgent ones, but product developers must remember that the quality and ‘oomph’ of the food, cooking style, herbs and spices become more important when they’re not masked by lots of fat, calories and salt.”

Bold, ethnic flavors can often compensate for fat and sodium reductions. For example, GNP Company, St. Cloud, Minn., just launched Gold’n Plump Parmesan Italian and Hot Italian Chicken Sausages. “Gold’n Plump consumers told us they were looking for healthier alternatives to pork and beef selections of sausages, but they didn’t want to sacrifice good flavor, variety and convenience,” says Sara Danforth, new product development manager. “Chicken is a natural fit for sausages because it has a neutral flavor base that easily absorbs seasonings, making for similar flavor to higher-fat varieties.”

Recognizing the trend in ethnic flavors, Boar’s Head Brand, Sarasota, Fla., is rolling out a line of globally inspired deli meats and cheeses appropriately branded Boar’s Head Bold.

The Jerk Turkey Breast gets its inspiration from Jamaica and features a sweet and spicy flavor derived from a robust blend of allspice, cinnamon, clove, habanero pepper, black pepper and onion. Influenced by Baja, Mexico, the other meat product in the line – Chipotle Chicken Breast – reveals a smoky, aromatic blend of chipotle peppers and habanero chili powder while releasing a mild heat.

“Our new Bold product line really delivers on authenticity of flavor and makes international tastes convenient and accessible,” says Michael Martella, president of Boar’s Head. And health-conscious consumers likely appreciate the kick that these flavors bring to such healthful cuts of meat.

On-trend ethnic flavors

Despite all the talk about filling proteins with ethnic flavor, research shows that American consumers still turn to their three longtime favorite foreign cuisines – Italian, Mexican and Chinese – when they seek out new flavors.

According to an online survey of 500 adults conducted by Technomic in May 2011, six out of 10 of those surveyed indicated they would be willing to order a new Italian-style item in a restaurant, and about half would order something new if it offered the typical flavors and ingredients of Chinese or Mexican cuisine.

“It appears that consumers are more willing to push beyond the boundaries of the familiar if they’re already comfortable with the cuisine in general,” Chapman says. “Below the ‘big three’ lurk some surprises. The cuisine best positioned as ready for trial appears to be Moroccan, with nearly four out of 10 consumers expressing interest in ordering an item with these flavors and ingredients. Japanese and Spanish cuisines are also getting noticed.

“Three out of 10 consumers are interested in the spicy-sweet flavors of Thai cuisine, and about the same proportion are willing to try items with the flavors of Mediterranean cuisine in general or its iterations, including French and Greek fare,” she adds. “Further, Americans also appear to have tropical islands on their minds: 28 percent expressed interest in Hawaiian fare, 27 percent in Caribbean foods, 22 percent in Jamaican cuisine and 19 percent in Cuban dishes.”

Simplify the process

This growing interest in ethnic-flavored entrées is supported by new product launch data from Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands. The market research firm reports that globally, half of all new cooking sauces introduced in 2011 had an ethnic flavor profile. Center-of-the-plate protein formulators can simplify ethnic cooking by adding flavors during production, eliminating the need for cooking sauces and extra herbs and spices.

There are numerous methods of adding ethnic flavors to protein products, with processes varying by product type. With encased meats, whole ingredients, such as spices, herbs, chilies and even cheeses, can be mixed in with the comminuted meat. Fontanini, McCook, Ill., a foodservice supplier that specializes in Italian products, now offers Brazilian linguiça sausage, which is strongly flavored with red chilies, peppercorns, turmeric and salt.

Luncheon meats can be injected with marinade and even encrusted or glazed with flavorful ingredients. Dietz & Watson Inc., Philadelphia, developed a sliceable deli version of Momma Dietz’ Chicken Parmigiana, which is coated and cooked in corn flour crumbs, aged parmesan cheese, Italian seasonings and topped with a tangy marinara sauce.

Formed proteins, such as meatballs and loaves, patties and nuggets, can also be blended with ethnic ingredients, while breaded products can be both injected with flavorful marinades and coated with breading that contains flavorful particulates.

Whole proteins can be injected or tumbled with industrial marinades designed to increase yield and tenderize the protein; they can also add ethnic flavor. Injected marinades should not contain particulates that could clog needles. Thus, if visual seasonings are desired, tumbling is the preferred process. Dry rubs can also be typically applied to whole proteins. In an industrial setting, they are sifted onto conveyed protein or applied by a gentle tumble, usually after a light adhesive coating such as an oil or hydrocolloid solution is applied.

In addition to the standard flavors associated with various cultures, there is a trend toward fusing ethnic cuisines…in other words, East meets West. Innovative formulators may want to combine elements from various culinary traditions to provide new flavor experiences at the dinner table.

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and owner of Dairy & Food Communications, specializing in writing, speaking and consulting projects in the dairy, beverage and food industries.