American consumers are becoming more sophisticated with their culinary selections, according to Mintel's recent state of the industry report for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT).

Increasing numbers of consumer are using gourmet specialty foods to spice up everyday meals, rather than just using basic ingredients.

"Younger generations lack the culinary skills that older age groups have, and therefore use specialty foods to dress up meals that are easy to cook such as a plain sandwich, piece of meat or fish for dinner, or simple salad," Mintel said.

In addition, there is greater accessibility of higher quality and different ready meals, making it easier to sample specialty foods and to be introduced to a wider range of cuisines. 

Media influences such as gourmet food TV shows, specialty cooking magazines, and daily newspapers with sections on more involved food choices are also encouraging Americans to become more adventurous with their palates.

A number of factors have contributed to the growth in sales of specialty foods, Mintel said, including globalisation of the food industry, a greater interest in high-quality ingredients, and more disposable income devoted to non-discretionary food purchases. In addition, a better-travelled consumer base has begun to seek out international foods in the US, spurred by a general change in eating patterns that includes more away-from-home eating.

Overall, sales of specialty foods increased over 20% between 2001 and 2003 and the market is now valued at nearly US$23bn. Specialty foods can be found in diverse segments, from staples such as oil and baking ingredients, to less common items such as conserves, honey, and exotic seasonings.