Western promise

By Freddie Dawson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Spice, Herb, Uk

Forget the ancient tradition of eastern spices, it's flavours from the west that are inspiring the UK's consumers.

Go West is what the football fans (and the Petshop Boys) sing. And west is where some food manufacturers are going for new herbs and spices. That is, if they can overcome their risk aversion first. Herbs and spices suppliers and processors say they have seen little in the way of new product development (NPD). However, increased interest from consumers is in new exotic flavours, especially those from the other side of the Atlantic.

Traditional English flavours and familiar eastern spices also remain popular with fusion between the cultural influences rapidly becoming mainstream. But how should businesses involved in the herbs and spices sector respond to the opportunities?

Swing and a miss?

Manufacturers can make much more effort to meet consumer needs, claims Nicola Gregory, senior NPD technologist at seasonings producer he Dalesman Group. Dalesman has only seen limited experimentation throughout the herbs and spices sector, with manufacturers not wanting to risk the costs associated with an NPD failure, she says.

Ironically, while some companies have become reluctant to experiment, customers are becoming more adventurous, says Peter Gordon, chef and restaurateur at London fusion restaurant, The Providores, and spice ambassador for Santa Maria, a spice and ingredient provider.

"Garlic and ginger have gone from being something people turn their noses up at to kitchen staples," he says. Ingredients such as lemongrass and lime leaves are common and Thai or Japanese spices can now be found in traditional farmers' markets, he adds. Consumers follow what they eat in restaurants and what they find in cookbooks, he says. As a result, they are becoming open to new ingredients.

A combination of confidence, TV food programmes and availability of non-allergenic products has led to a much more experimental market, agrees Stewart Niven, commercial director at Manchester Rusk Company a manufacturer of sauces, marinades and seasonings. More and more manufacturers will start to catch up, says Gordon. Consumer demand for new and interesting mixes of spices is there and someone will have to step up and take advantage, he explains.

The Americas

It is spices from the west that are now capturing consumers' attention. Caribbean jerk seasonings have become the flavour of the month both literally and figuratively surpassing piri-piri spices in popularity over the last 18 months, says Niven.

Jerking spices, along with Mexican spices, have seen the biggest rise in growth, agrees Gregory. But, it is important to get the spice blend right, or the flavour can become "a bit brutal", says Gordon.

Western influences extend beyond the Caribbean. Mexican spice mixtures such as mole sauces made from cacao and chillies are piquing consumer interests, says Gregory. People no longer think the combination is strange and there has also been a rise in interest in individual types of chilli, adds Gordon citing a new wrap being made for the foodservice sector by Santa Maria as evidence. Ingredients supplier Verstegen Spices & Sauces has started adding cacao to pepper, says general manager Peter van Cotthem.

Continuing Go West's football association, Gregory predicts the next big cuisine to influence UK consumers and manufacturers will be spice blends from the gaucho grills of Argentina as well as Brazil, hosts of the 2014 World Cup. Growing interest in barbecuing and the appearance of gaucho-style grill houses are possible indicators of this, she says.

But American influences on UK spice and herb consumption continue north of the border too. US barbecue flavours provide manufacturers with provenance and on-shelf differentiation for spices and sauce blends, says Gregory. They tap into the same interest in grilling that will lead to 'gaucho grill' spice mixtures becoming popular, he adds. Although the average consumer will not know the difference between Memphis and Kansas barbecue spicing, it provides a unique selling point that is not too innovative NPD without major risk, she says.

Interest in barbecue is part of a continually growing UK trend, agrees van Cotthem. The appearance of pecan and maple glazes, as well as dishes such as pulled pork that use spices as rubs to improve poorer cuts of meat, show how American barbecuing is influencing British culture, says Gordon.

As well as barbecuing, home-smoking is growing and smoked flavours have started to make an appearance in new products as a result, Gordon adds. Danish smoked salts have become popular for Verstegen, says van Cotthem.

'Twisted' garden

Although influence from the Americas is becoming big in herbs and spices, traditional flavours remain popular and have seen some twists of their own. The English herb garden has become an important influence, says Gregory. The use of unusual herbs more representative of garden than kitchen such as lavender will increase, she predicts. New methods of using herbs such as thick herb oils popular on the continent will also come into the UK, says van Cotthem.

Meanwhile, fusion of traditional herbs and spices into new combinations is an area of NPD that is ripe for exploitation, says Gregory. The combination of fruit and spice or hot and sour are big for instance mango and chilli is not a radically new combination but is different and selling well, she explains. Combining pepper with unusual ingredients such as fruit for instance to create sweet and savoury spice mixes is something that Verstegen is experimenting with as a wider part of its cacao and pepper efforts, adds van Cotthem.

Whether manufacturers are engaging in herb and spice NPD inspired by the Americas or staying closer to home and looking to do new things with more familiar ingredients, there is increasing pressure for them to remove monosodium glutamate and to source locally, says Niven. Van Cotthem agrees that suppliers had better be able to provide clean labels and both also say that provenance is becoming an important factor in herbs and spices.

So while the air may be clear in the west, according to the Petshop Boys, if a manufacturer were to look there for inspiration, it had best make sure it is the label that is clear. And if it can do that with local ingredients, then so much the better. FM

KEY CONTACTS

The Dalesman Group 01274 758000

Manchester Rusk Co 0161 945 3579

Santa Maria Spices 00 46 31 67 42 00

Verstegen Spices & Sauces 0800 011 3246

Dried herb contamination

A new machine can eliminate manufacturers' problems with salmonella in dried herbs and spices, according to a research body.

Microorganisms such as salmonella in low-water activity products tend to become more heat resistant. But, by injecting steam into the product stream, the machine lowers the microorganism's heat resistance, easing pasteurisation of the product, says Edyta Margas, process technologist at food research institute, Campden BRI.

The machine, made by French company Revtech, pasteurises, sterilises or roasts dried goods through a continuous process that combines product heating and steam injection, says Margas. Temperatures of up to 400°C can be used, depending on a variety of factors such as whether roasting, sterilisation or just pasteurisation is wanted, plus the quality of the product and what aroma and nutrient values are required.

Product is transported by vibration, leading to gentler handling of delicate materials and allowing steam to better cover all surfaces, Margas adds.

Although the technology has been around since 1998, it is only within the past 18 months that it has received attention due to salmonella contaminations in Chinese sesame seeds and American peanuts, says Christopher Holland, md of Holmach, Revtech's UK commercial representative.

The fact that dried fenugreek seeds were the probable cause of the recent fatal German and French E.coli outbreaks will bring retailer pressure on manufacturers to eliminate any risk of contamination in dried herbs or spices, adds Holland. Uncertainty about the source means retailers will want reassurance on all products, he says. "Trying to find the source has been like playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey."

Dried products particularly ground-grown produce sourced from non-mechanised production areas have a high risk of salmonella contamination, says Holland. If the product is milled and added as an ingredient, one bad seed can contaminate an entire batch.

The machine has an independent validation protocol developed by Campden. It uses a salmonella-equivalent bacteria strain to test whether temperature and time provides a high enough kill rate, he says.

Since the technology still has not been tried on all types of product, Campden has a pilot-scale continuous model available for test runs to optimise the process for different types of materials and decide which of the various systems on the market best fits the need, says Margas.

Revtech's machine can be custom-built in six months. The price depends on the specifications, says Martin Mitzkat, md of Revtech. The largest versions can process 1012t an hour (t/h) but, so far, the only commercial UK facility which started at the beginning of this year handles 2t/h, adds Holland.

Related topics: Fruit, vegetable, nut ingredients

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