Hispanic cheeses add texture, flavor to new products.

Typically, when American consumers think about Hispanic food, certain familiar things come to mind. For some it could be tacos from a favorite fast food joint. For others perhaps it’s nachos at a local ballpark, or maybe margaritas with salsa and chips at a restaurant. But, food industry experts say, consumers are beginning to see a new side of Hispanic cuisine.

“When Mexican food was first introduced to the American palette, the desire was for familiar tastes and flavors. So, the basics became an immediate success - beans, cheese, chicken and beef,” says Ruiz Foods President and Co-CEO Bryce Ruiz. “As consumers became more familiar with Mexican food, then the experimentation began. People were willing to try different textures and flavors.”

There are several reasons this is true - consumers are exposed to ethnic cuisine through travel, television and the internet, making it more familiar. Research shows that baby-boomers have a predilection for spicier foods and, perhaps most significantly, the U.S. Hispanic population has grown by nearly 30 percent since the year 2000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

To meet this increasing demand, food processors, including Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz, have responded with new and unexpected Hispanic food flavors and products.

“While the traditional flavors remain popular, consumers are excited about our newer flavor profiles … all offering just the right flavor and spice and all encouraging trial,” Ruiz says.

Innovative Ingredients

This idea - that consumers are craving more exotic, less familiar flavors - is supported by Chicago’s Mintel International Group. A recent Mintel report states, “As Americans develop a more sophisticated Mexican food palate, some of the more commonplace or well-established Americanized Mexican products are losing favor.

In response, manufacturers are launching new products that touch on a number of overarching themes including natural, organic, low-fat and whole grain. At the same time, they are expanding the flavor horizon for the typical tortilla chips, salsa and other Mexican foods.”

Rick Bayless, Chicago-based celebrity chef and owner of two upscale Mexican restaurants and Frontera Foods retail brand, knows a thing or two about sophisticated Hispanic flavors.

“Fire-roasted ingredients continue to be popular - especially fire-roasted fruits,” he says. “We are working on some frozen entrees with fire-roasted ingredients such as apples and sweet potatoes.”

Bayless also notes that consumers are showing more interest in single chile flavors - as opposed to chile blends.

“Customers are beginning to distinguish the flavor of a guajillo from a mild New Mexico chile - our line of cooking sauces will feature the flavors of chiles prominently,” he adds.

Ruiz says some of his company’s newest El Monterey products feature more innovative flavors as well. Both a Firecracker Chicken Tornado and a Cheesy Pepper Jack Tornado combine ingredients such as roasted red bell peppers, jalapenos and hot sauce with cheeses.

And while cheese sometimes is overlooked as a simple accompaniment to other spicier ingredients in Latin cuisine, recently, Hispanic cheese has garnered some attention of its own.

Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a Rosemont, Ill.-based non-profit dairy association, has identified more than 60 types of Hispanic cheeses. DMI’s Hispanic Cheese Reference Guideincludes Mexican, Caribbean, Central American and South American cheeses including best-selling varieties - Queso Fresco, Queso Blanco, Cotija, Queso Quesadilla and Panela.

Dean Sommer is a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the DMI-sponsored National Dairy Foods Research Center program.

“Unlike any other cheese group, you have such a wide variety of functionalities, from the many fresh, crumbling, non-melting, frying cheese, to the very nice melting cheese like Queso Quesadilla to the hard grating cheese like Cotija,” he said in an interview withFoodnavigator-usa.com.

“What Hispanic cheeses bring to the table for food processors is an amazing array of functional and textural characteristics to choose from to use in advantageous ways in food formulations,” he added.

Ruiz’s successful c-store product moves into the freezercase.

New products spread horizons

Processors - including Bayless’ Frontera Foods and Ruiz - already are taking advantage of Hispanic ingredients’ functionality and versatility with new product offerings.

Frontera launched three all-natural thin and crispy frozen pizzas last November. Each variety features Mexican herbs, chiles and cheeses.

Bayless explains, “Frontera pizzas were conceived when I lived above a pizzeria in Mexico. Years later, at home, I started tinkering with using salsa as the sauce. Today, we use the flavors of salsa - fresh chiles, smoked chipotles, cilantro - in our pizzas sauces. Then we top the pizzas with even more Mexican inspiration - poblano chiles, grilled red onions and smoky cheese.”

The pizzas are sold at natural and specialty grocery stores nationwide and come in the following varieties: Roasted Tomato, Four Cheese & Cilantro with Mexican Herbs; Roasted Vegetable, Monterey Jack & Poblano with Red and Yellow Peppers; and Chicken Chipotle & Red Onion with Smoked Gouda.

The thin and crispy pizzas join Frontera’s frozen food line, which includes four varieties of stone-fired pizzas (the company also offers shelf-stable salsas, sauces, mixes and soups).

And Bayless says the company isn’t done expanding its retail offerings.

“We are working on a line of hand-held snacks and entrees that offer plenty of flavor,” he adds. “We are also working on convenient frozen entrees made with Frontera sauces … for an authentic Mexican experience.”

Also expanding its retail offerings is Ruiz, which began selling El Monterey brand Tornados in freezercases in December. The handheld snacks have become such a popular foodservice item - they are sold at convenience stores as roller grill items - that Ruiz says adding them as a retail product made sense.

“Listening to constant consumer requests, we have decided to offer some of our popular flavors to the retail shopper,” he says. “Our retail Tornados will be perfect for a wide variety of eating occasions from after school snacks, to family gathering and parties, quick lunches or dinners.”

Another recent Ruiz introduction is the El Monterey Family meal. These heat-and-serve entrees come in five varieties: Spicy Beef Enchiladas, Cheese Enchiladas, Chicken Enchiladas, Traditional Beef and Bean Burritos and Chicken Mexicana Pasta.“Consumers are returning to ‘basics’ and by that I mean the desire to eat at home with the family,” Ruiz says. “At the same time, they don’t want to take the time preparing in the kitchen. They want quality time with the family, yet their food flavorful and innovative with little preparation time.”

With the Hispanic population expected to account for nearly one-third of the entire U.S. population by 2050 and with consumers showing an increased interest in eating at home more often for the first time in years, it’s unlikely that this is going to change anytime soon.

Ruiz sums it up well, “As the consumer continues to enjoy Mexican food, they want more Mexican food but they also want new flavor profiles and innovation in products. We truly believe we have just scratched the surface of the frozen Mexican food products we will be offering our consumers - in all channels - in the years ahead.”