More than just salt of the earth

Spices and seasonings infuse foods with flavor and retailers with profits.

By Craig Levitt

There is no question that Americans’ palates are be­coming more advanced and many shoppers are making adventurous food and flavor choices. But some consumers are not quite ready to try completely new cuisine. For those that want to stick with the foods that they are comfortable with, experimentation with different herbs, spices and blends can put a new twist on an old favorite.

Industry observers report that spice consumption is at an all-time high, with usage topping one billion pounds per year. Perhaps more importantly, they say the growth in volume is matched by the growing variety of spices consumers are using. Ob­serv­ers estimate that the average Ame­r­ican’s pantry consists of about 40 spices, compared to fewer than 10 in the 1950s.

“It is an exciting time for flavor,” says Randy Sullins, vice president of trade relations for Hunt Valley, Md.-based McCormick & Co. “The spice category has experienced an 11% growth rate over the past five years.”

According to the Chicago-based Sym­pho­nyIRI Group, spices and seasonings accounted for nearly $2 billion in sales at food, drug and mass outlets (excluding Walmart) for the 52-week period ended Dec. 26, up almost 2%. Dollar sales for spices and seasonings aside from salt and pepper were up 3.2% (accounting for 66.6% of the category) while unit sales were up more than 4.0%.

For retailers, increased spice usage can mean more than just increased spice sales. Shopper research suggests that when center plate protein items such as chicken, beef or pork are combined with a flavor option such as a spice or seasoning blend, shopper basket spend increases by 32%.

Forecast calls for flavor
To help facilitate growth, each year for the past 11 years, McCormick draws upon the expertise of its sensory analysts, chefs, test kitchens, trend experts, consumer research, marketing and food technologist to releases the McCormick Flavor Forecast report. Sullins says the report’s purpose is to identify emerging tastes and trends that shape the way Americans eat.

“The Flavor Forecast report serves as a catalyst for innovation and new product development and has helped move once edgy flavors into everyday foods,” says Sullins. “For example, chipotle chili pepper was a top flavor pick in Flavor Forecast 2003, when most people didn’t know how to pronounce it or what it tasted like. Now look at how prevalent this flavor is across the grocery store.”

New products introduced in conjunction with Flavor Forecast 2011 include McCor­mick’s Recipe Inspirations World Flavors collection which features seasoning flavors such as chicken tikka masala, Caribbean grilled steak and Tuscan chicken stew and Grill Mates Fiery 5 Pepper Blend consisting of ground ancho, chipotle, cayenne, black peppers and roasted chili peppers.

Also contributing to the growing popularity of the spice category is Americans’ desire to eat healthier, without sacrificing taste. Observers are quick to point out that adding spices to food is a great way to increase flavor without adding fat. As the health and wellness trends continue, there are companies that are developing healthier options. For example, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends is introducing a series of no salt and no sugar blends. The products are also all-natural, have no preservatives, no MSG and are gluten-free.

“No salt and no sugar [products] are not just a fad,” says John McBride, vice president of sales and marketing for the New Orleans-based company. “It is an established trend as people continue to look for bold flavors without the salt and sugar. In general, seasonings and spices are on an upward trend. People are eating less fatty foods and by taking salt and sugar away there needs to be flavor [coming from somewhere]. If people are eating bland food they have to do something with it. That bodes well [for the category].”

McBride also says that while new products help keep the brand alive, that does not mean retailers should take long-standing favorites for granted. He says Magic Seasoning Blends’ core products include Poultry Magic, Vegetable Magic, Seafood Magic and Meat Magic.

“We essentially started the blends category in the early ‘80s and now everybody has their own version,” says McBride. “The key is we have always been all-natural from the beginning, that’s what people are looking for. They don’t want chemicals, additives or fillers. They don’t want junk.”

While blends are pretty self-explanatory when it comes to usage, individual spices can be a bit more complicated. Everybody knows what salt and pepper are, how to use them and how much to use. However, what about spices such as paprika, cilantro or saffron? Most people have heard of them but many have no idea what they taste like or what dishes for which they are best suited.

Spice up your knowledge
In an effort to educate consumers and retailers, every three months the Norway, Iowa-based Frontier Natural Products Co-Op distributes a pamphlet to retailers that focuses on a particular herb or spice and how it can be best utilized in different recipes. Ellen Bouchard, Frontier’s category manager for bulk herbs and spices, says along with the pamphlet, the company conducts spice training webinars to help retailers better assist their customers.

“Spices are really an inexpensive way to flavor up food,” Bouchard says. “However, the misuse of spices can really turn somebody off to a particular spice, that why the education is so important.”

Observers add that the great thing about spices is that there does not seem to be any specific consumer demographic. Many credit the various food programs on television with getting people excited and comfortable with being in the kitchen and cooking with spices.

“The curiosity of blending spices and flavors has consumers looking for creative pairings,” says Kenia Delgado, category manager for Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods. “Awareness has increased and that has introduced new users.”

The latest addition to Goya’s spice line is Sazonador Total, which Delgado says is a complete seasoning with a blend of spices that enhances the natural flavor of food. She adds that Sazonador Total can be used both before and after cooking, unlike some other available blends.

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