Monday, April 18, 2011

Impact of Cross-Culturalism on American Food

In “Sin City, USA” one can easily partake in several of the Seven Deadly Sins. Probably the most accessible to the denizens and tourists of Las Vegas is gluttony. All-you-can-eat  buffet advertisements dominate the billboarded landscape. Casinos promote specialty buffet items as loss-leaders intended to drive traffic, and the messaging somehow promotes the idea that eating beef and shrimp in the middle of a barren desert is a good idea.

The buffet at the Bellagio in Las Vegas rests at the pinnacle of comparable buffets in the casino world. “Guests may choose from the best of Italian, Japanese, Chinese, seafood and American cuisines, offered daily…” A person can get anything from waffles to sushi, all on the same plate. The buffet is a microcosm of the American food landscape. As choices continue to grow, the complexity of measuring and quantifying this diversification becomes more and more challenging.

Cinnamon, in contrast to the buffet choices at the Bellagio, is a constant within American cuisine. The spice is not only an American staple, but can be traced back to biblical times as an offering Israelites would bring to temple. Within American cuisine, it is best described as a banal staple of most kitchens.

Americans have evolved to think of cinnamon more as the name of an exotic dancer than the name of an exotic spice. What most Americans probably don’t know is that 90% of cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka and 100% of cinnamon is imported. From 1989-2009, the United States imported over $542 million dollars worth of cinnamon. The import dollar  valued topped out at $37 million in 1989 and bottomed out at $16 million in 2001 with a range of $21 million. Within the realm of food imports and exports this is a relatively  consistent product. To put cinnamon in perspective – coffee, tea and sugar over the same period varied by $2.6 billion, $197 million and $815 million, respectively. 

By comparing cinnamon’s unvarying role within American cuisine to other imported products, profiles can be created for those products that is automatically adjusted for inflation, currency fluctuations and  population growth.    An examination of this data over time eliminates any type of seasonality. This index, dubbed the “Cinnamindex”, illustrates the shifting palates of Americans as imported ingredients essential to foreign cuisines impact their appetites.

The first food to analyze through the Cinnamindex is avocadoes. Although some avocadoes are grown in California; the majority is imported from Mexico, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Their popularity can be tied to both the rapid growth of the Latin American population within the United States, and the culinary ripples that this culture has caused. Guacamole has become a household favorite and chains that present “Mexican Style” food in a quick-service format, such as Chipotle, have become wildly successful.

Another imported food that scored well on the Cinnamindex is the chickpea. Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, have gone from $8 million a year in imports to over $20 million a year in a 20-year span. Much like avocadoes, the growth can be attributed to both a rise in  immigrant populations where chickpeas are a staple food, as well as the inclusion of  hummus as a snack food staple in American cuisine. To think about the differences between today’s American’s Super Bowl spread and the spread 20 years ago, the standard chips and ranch dip are now accompanied and sometimes even replaced by guacamole and hummus spreads.

While the first two foods have an immigration wave associated with the shift in cuisine,  ginger’s exponential-style growth in America can be attributed more to a culinary shift. “New” Asian cuisines such as Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Pan-Asian styles have fueled the proliferation of Asian flavor inspirations in the American culinary  spectrum. Most relevant to ginger has been the mainstream acceptance of sushi across all walks of life. Supermarkets and cafeterias now serve this once exotic Japanese cuisine as daily fare. Ginger in turn has shifted from an annual import value of $5 million to  $38 million per year. 

Other imported goods that showed large increases on the Cinnamindex include dates, cardamom, cumin, anise, lentils, turmeric, saffron, cassava and mangoes. As American culture changes, its tastes continue to evolve requiring new ingredients. Fortunately, in a culture that rewards freedom of choice, the buffet at the Bellagio has room to expand to accommodate the emergence of a new American appetite. In contrast to the growth of these cross-cultural items are foods such as pistachios and poppy seeds that presented negative Cinnamindex scores over the past 20 years. As foods come in and out of vogue, however, cinnamon remains the flavorful, reliable staple against which culturally influenced foods can be measured.

As a marketer it is essential to understand changing tastes within culture. Marketers must balance the adherence to classic offerings and the exploration of new brand extensions and product genres. By examining the data available, risks can be mitigated and trends can be understood. 

Ultimately, data is recursive so taking calculative risks and measuring the results leads to an understanding of the implications. In the realm of food one can always measure themselves on the Cinnamindex to gain an understanding of shifting tastes in American culture and the impact of cross-culturalism.

(Special recognition and thanks to Jason Methner for his research and writing prowess!)