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Published July 15, 2013, 11:01 AM

Changing tastes

While the effect of changing demographics has been seen in voting patterns and employment trends, the growing influence on America’s palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been more subtle, even as grocery shelves increasingly display products containing ingredients like lemon grass and sriracha peppers.

By: Stephanie Strom, New York Times News Service

NEW BERN, N.C. — If chicken producers could breed a bird with three legs, they would.

These days, they can hardly keep up with the demand for thighs and other pieces of dark meat that had once been among the least desirable parts of a chicken.

“Demographics are changing,” says Bill Lovette, chief executive of Pilgrim’s Pride, a division of JBS S.A. “There is a growing population that prefers dark meat.”

While the effect of changing demographics has been seen in voting patterns and employment trends, the growing influence on America’s palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been more subtle, even as grocery shelves increasingly display products containing ingredients like lemon grass and sriracha peppers.

For years, multinational food companies have been experimenting with ingredients, often being unable to find appeal broad enough to start or sustain a new brand. But as the buying power of Latino and Asian consumers expands, fruit flavors, hotter spices, different textures and grains, and even packaging innovations are becoming essential for big food manufacturers trying to appeal to diverse appetites, according to company executives.

From 2010 to 2012, sales of ethnic foods rose 4.5 percent, to $8.7 billion. The Mintel Group, a market research firm, estimates that from 2012 to 2017, sales of ethnic foods in grocery stores will grow more than 20 percent. Mintel predicts Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods will increase the most in that time in terms of dollar sales.

So a soup as mainstream as Campbell’s tomato now comes in a version spiked with coconut and lemon grass, and quinoa replaces noodles in a new chicken soup. Frito-Lay has turned up the heat in Doritos with its Flamas variety, which combines red chilies and lime, while McDonald’s asks “Zing! Can you handle it?” when advertising its new bacon habanero ranch quarter-pounder.

Consider the soaring popularity of Jarritos, the Mexican fruit-flavored soda in brilliant hues rarely found in nature, at a time when carbonated soda sales are declining overall.

“We knew we were strong among Hispanics,” says David Flynn, marketing director of Novamex, which makes and sells Jarritos outside Mexico. “But we were surprised to find that among non-Hispanics, people really loved certain things about the brand — the fruit flavors, the glass bottle, the natural sugar.”

Jarritos has entered the mainstream in California and will be in conventional groceries elsewhere in the next couple of years, Flynn says.

A staple in Hispanic kitchens with similar results is Abuelita, a chocolate product made by Nestle for cooking and making hot drinks. Based on its success, Nestle later this summer will introduce a new dulce de leche cheesecake kit that uses its La Lechera sweetened condensed milk.

“The acculturation of those communities into the mainstream has made American consumers generally more open to new tastes and textures,” says Carlos Velasco, president of the international brands division of Nestle USA.

“The good challenge for companies like Nestle is getting an understanding of those trends and then translating them for this market, because you cannot always use the exact recipes and language that is used in other markets.”

Food and beverage companies are investing heavily in transforming product lines to capture many of the same things. Two years ago, for example, the Campbell Soup Co. purchased Bolthouse Farms, a farming company that produces fruits and vegetables, in part to have greater access to the foods that are more attractive to the new American palate, for instance salad dressings like Miso Ginger Vinaigrette.

New products

A couple of years ago, Mondelez introduced the U.S. to belVita, a whole-grain biscuit for breakfast. It was a gamble. American biscuits are soft, flaky and usually soaked in butter, but belVita is flat, crispy and more like a cracker or snack bar. But demographics convinced Mondelez that the product would succeed here.

“We look a lot at census data and other internal and external information to understand how demographic shifts might affect our products,” says Amelia Strobel, senior director of the consumer insights group at Mondelez.

“Currently, the country is overwhelmingly white, but when you look at younger ages of residents, where the long-term growth in the U.S. will come from for manufacturers like us, you’re looking at 56 percent under 12 who are not white.”

BelVita has proved a major success, named the top new cracker and snack bar of 2012 by Nielsen. The company recommends pairing the crackers with yogurt, another item exploding in popularity because of the population shifts.

Demographics also are driving “grazing” by consumers, increasing the number of times they eat throughout the day, while decreasing the amount eaten.

“The lines are blurring between meals and snacks,” says Pam Forbus, vice president for insights at Frito-Lay, the snacks division of PepsiCo. “People are looking for the kinds of foods they’d have at a tailgate party, but eating them as a meal.”

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