Thirsty For Ethnic

The days when an ice-cold cola was enough to quench America’s collective thirst are over. Functional beverages, energy drinks and specialty tea, coffee and alcoholic beverages have influenced the market in a major way, and many of them are now hanging their hats on ethnic flavors and ingredients. The tropical fruits in your smoothie, the guaraná in your energy drink and the dulce de leche iced coffee in your grocer’s cooler are all evidence that ethnic flavors are being integrated, quite seamlessly, into the U.S. beverage market.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the minority population in the country now tops 100 million, or roughly 30 percent of residents. Combine this with a steady increase in international travel and heavy exposure to other cultures and it’s no wonder that Americans are keener to ethnic flavors than ever before.

Beverage companies are intent on tapping into the wallets of these highly valuable ethnic populations; they also want to market these exotic new flavors to the average American consumer, who is more cultured and fickle than ever. What’s more, much of the current experimentation with ethnic beverages crosses into established market trends. This means that when beverage manufacturers discover ways to infuse ethnic tastes into domestic trends like health and wellness, they will meet a wider range of consumer demands. All of these elements are brewing to create the perfect storm for the ethnic beverage market in the United States.

Appealing to the Minority
(Soon to be the Majority?)

Some flavor trends establish themselves through mass marketing, which drives awareness and acceptance. With an ethnic beverage trend, adoption by mainstream America typically occurs after its popularity is established within its respective ethnic sub-culture. The Hispanic population—the largest minority population in the United States—has a clear influence on all facets of American culture, beverage consumption included. Traditional Hispanic flavors continue to intrigue beverage companies intent on catering to this exploding population and capturing sales from non-Hispanics who have become smitten with flavors like mango, guava, pineapple and coconut.

While tropical fruit flavors from Mexico and Latin America have long been popular in the United States, the Hispanic flavor trend is far from exhausted. Just one example of a Hispanic beverage that has yet to stake its claim in the United States is agua fresca, a drink popular in Mexico, Central America and parts of the Caribbean. Aguas frescas, usually combinations of fruits or seeds mixed with sugar and water, are becoming increasingly popular, especially in the form of Horchata (an agua fresca made with rice) and Tamarindo (made from the seeds of tamarind trees). As this beverage gains popularity in America, we will begin to see traditional agua fresca flavors appearing in energy drinks, bottled teas, and dairy- and soy-based beverages.It’s a Health Thing

In addition to relying on ethnic populations to propel new flavors into the mainstream, beverage companies are discovering that many ethnic flavors and ingredients lend themselves to existing consumer trends. In October, Coca-Cola announced the opening of the Coca-Cola Research Center for Chinese Medicine in Beijing, a move the company called “an important step in strengthening our innovation pipeline for beverages that contribute to well-being.” This announcement is part of the larger trend of companies looking beyond American borders to foster healthy/functional beverage innovation in the United States. Today, the most well-known manifestations of this trend are energy drinks, bottled teas and juices, several of which have borrowed a page from the book of ancient herbal medicine, incorporating ingredients like ginseng and guaraná.

It seems the road to health may be paved with ethnic fruits, vegetables and plant extracts. The functional properties of these ingredients are taking center stage in terms of health and wellness, and many of them work extremely well in beverage formulation. The often-touted benefits of antioxidant-rich “superfruits” like açai and goji berry include lower cholesterol and increased energy. Phytochemicals and sterols, naturally occurring chemical compounds in fruits and vegetables, are the latest ingredients to be thrust into the spotlight. Tea, a beverage high in phytochemicals, has grown in popularity in the United States largely based on increased awareness of its health benefits. While tea has been popular in Asia and parts of Europe for centuries, the market has just recently established itself in America, growing from a $1.8 billion industry in 1990 to $6.5 billion in 2006.

The latest health and wellness trend gaining steam also has foreign origins. Ayurveda, an ancient system of healthcare rooted largely in herbal medicine and native to India, has begun to take hold in the United States. In Western culture, Ayurveda has recently inspired personal care items such as lotions, soaps and balms. American beverage companies, however, are anxious to capitalize on the health attributes of the herbs, fruits and vegetables common in the Ayurvedic lifestyle and are exploring this trend.

Java From Jamaica and Tempranillo
With My Tapas, Please…

Another established market trend propelling the growth of the ethnic beverage market is the demand for authenticity. While authentic products give ethnic populations a sense of comfort, non-ethnic consumers may seek authenticity because it gives the feeling of sophistication. Perhaps tied to increased exposure to new experiences and cultures, evidence of this trend can be seen in several areas. Coffee and coffee-flavored beverages, for example, are being touted not only for their origin, but for ethnic-inspired flavors like dulce de leche, canela (Mexican cinnamon) and spiced chocolate. Recently, these types of indulgent, often creamy coffee beverages have been making their way from the barista to the grocer and are appealing to non-ethnic consumers who equate exotic, imported ingredients with quality and elegance.

The same marketing principle applies to alcoholic beverages of the ethnic variety. While many of the ethnic beverage trends mentioned stand alone, for others, their popularity depends on a pairing with the appropriate ethnic cuisine. The rise of sake, a Japanese liquor made from rice, has been in step with the rise in popularity of Japanese food. The mojito, on the other hand, is going the way of the margarita; once a cocktail whose popularity relied on that of Hispanic cuisine, it is now a mainstream drink often enjoyed apart from its traditional fare. The variety of international wines now available to the consumer is another element perpetuating the trend of ethnic food and beverage pairings.

By making it easier for consumers to pair a cocktail with a certain ethnic cuisine, or encouraging them to associate their favorite coffee with the region of the bean, beverage marketers make the consumer feel cultured and sophisticated and meet the demand for an authentic product. Endurance of Ethnic

The profile of the average American taste bud is not what it used to be. The palate demands something healthy, yet authentic and flavorful; something sophisticated, yet comfortable and satisfying. Ethnic-inspired beverages are thriving because they meet these demands while sating the common desire for new, exciting and stimulating experiences. As Americans become more accustomed to various ethnic influences in their diets, beverage companies must continue to seek out more innovative flavor combinations. Beverage makers have an invaluable opportunity to combine elements from established trends like health and wellness with the appeal of ethnic flavor to reach several different markets. The largely untapped potential of the ethnic beverage market and the promise of emerging ingredients, from dragon fruit to fejioa, mean the next great ethnic beverage formulation may be closer than you think.

Markus Eckert is vice president of technical at Mastertaste, a global division of Kerry Group that develops and manufactures flavors and flavor and fragrance bases. Paul Riker is manager of beverage applications at Mastertaste. Both work at Mastertaste’s Flavor Division Headquarters in Teterboro, NJ.