Ethnic food, often called world food, is one of the most exciting growth areas, particularly in sales to affluent western consumers. But the definition of ethnic food varies according to where and who you are. And people buy it for a lot of different reasons. Chris Lyddon looks at the latest research.

Western European countries have significant populations outside the mainstream ethnic or cultural origin and supplying ethnic food means satisfying their needs as well as giving the mainstream population an interesting alternative.

In the UK, ASDA Wal-Mart responds to store location. “The product offer needs to reflect communities they serve,” ASDA spokesman Ed Watson told “For example we offer Halal food in places like Luton, Bradford or Birmingham, where there are significant Muslim communities,” he said. “But it’s reflected also in rice and the ingredients you need to make Asian or Caribbean food.”

But while customers might buy ingredients to make the food they grew up with, convenience food enables people to eat what they can’t make themselves, without going to a restaurant. “People are travelling more and their palates are changing,” he said. “The convenience offer is there for all customers.”

With a team working on predicting new food trends, ASDA’s range of ready-made ethnic food was widening, for example from Indian curry or Chinese food into Thai curry. “We’re meeting the needs of the consumer trend in terms of the food they want to eat,” he said.

Watson drew an analogy between demand for food from a wider range of origins and the increasing demand for local food. “Local products are at the other end of the scale,” he said. “There is more and more demand for locally sourced products, everything from relish to cheeses. It’s a demand that goes hand in hand with more demand for exotic food.”

Ethnic populations a key driver

With a highly developed home market for ethnic food, British food companies are keen to take advantage of export opportunites, Chris Brockman, market analyst at Food From Britain, told “Having ethnic populations in the markets you’re entering is one of the key drivers,” he said. FFB North America has fed back data on the potential for Indian style food there. “In the US there are two million people of Indian ethnic descent who provide the core base,” he said . But there was also a need for a core of middle class people ready to explore new tastes. “In the US our results indicate that the number of these mainstream adopters would be upwards of 45 million.” He put the value of the ethnic food market in US retail outlets at US$29bn, with a further $68bn in foodservice.

Mexican or Chinese food was not considered “ethnic,” in a US market already well familiar with it. But Indian food was new and exciting.

In many European markets Italian food was not considered ethnic for similar reasons and the same went for Chinese food in Japan.

Colonial past

In the UK, the Netherlands, France or Spain, the growth of ethnic food had been conditioned by a colonial past. While Indian food has become almost mainstream in Britain, the Dutch were familiar with Indonesian food and links with Algeria had set the tone for the growth of ethnic food in parts of France. The younger population dominate demand for ethnic food in France, with 85% of ethnic food customers living in the Paris area.

“Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have quite a high level of openness to different cuisines, with large ethnic populations of their own,” he said. “France has large Moroccan and Turkish populations.” But there were more problems with ethnic food in Germany. Even though Germany had 7.3 million foreign or guest workers out of a population of 82 million, FFB Germany reported that foreign travel and restaurant meals were the main trend setting factors driving demand for ethnic food. The “ethnic” population of Germany had shown a reluctance to buy food in supermarkets. There are more people of Turkish than of Italian origin in Germany, but while Italian food has become almost mainstream, Turkish food has failed to have a big effect on German food culture.

Growth in ethnic food sales does not have to be built on a colonial past, or a sizable ethnic populations, FFB’s research shows. Poland has neither. Interest in new styles of food is limited by spending power, but 42% of Polish households purchase ethnic food or go to ethnic restaurants at least once a month. Where the lack of an ethnic tradition does make a difference is that three-quarters of ethnic food is eaten by consumers under 40 years old.

The structure and development of the food chain also had an effect. “Things like ready meals are strongly linked to the development of the chilled sector,” he said. “The UK has the most advanced chilled sector. In Belgium and the Netherlands you have similar retailers ready to handle the chilled supply chain.” But in Germany chilled food was a much less developed part of the supermarket offer, leaving less opportunity for the chilled ready meals which make up much of the ethnic offer in the UK.
A further important element in the ethnic sector is ready made snacks, which do tend to appeal to customers from ethnic populations. “If you’re brought up in that environment you tend to buy snacks like samosas, or appetisers,” he said. “You’d buy the ingredients for making the products, but you wouldn’t buy the ready meals.”

UK advantages

The UK’s multicultural nature gave it a strong advantage in maintaining the authenticity of ethnic dishes. And a sharp increase in travel to non-western countries, up 40% in four years, had stimulated home market demand for more ethnic dishes. Retailers keen to widen the scope of their private label offer gave support and encouragement to the production of a wider range of ethnic meals.

France, as the most visited country in the world, also has advantages in exporting its style of food. FFB points out that catering for millions of tourists strengthens the ethnic element of France’s foodservice sector. The same is true in London restaurants.