The Universal Appeal of Italian Food (Pizza and Pasta are Back)

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Worldwide, consumers want Italian food with authentic flavour and the nutrition of the Mediterranean diet

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Despite a recent minor dip in sales, Italian food—which some consider to be the world’s most popular cuisine—is  experiencing growth.
  • Consumers enjoy authentic Italian flavours and ingredients as well as the positive association with the Mediterranean diet, which is said to bring about health benefits.
  • Hallmarks of Italian food include simplicity, balance, easy to recognize flavours and the use of ingredients produced in Italy.
  • Front- and back-of-package callouts that speak to product freshness, authenticity and nutrition can increase consumer appeal.
KerryDigest Full Scoop:

Around the world, consumers are engaged in an unofficial war against carbohydrates, thanks to diets such as keto, which encourage limiting bread and grain consumption. But Italian food is an outlier to this carb-cutting trend. After a few shaky years, worldwide pasta sales have trended upwards since 2016 with Google searches for “pasta” climbing since 2015. Pizza is trending too, with a CAGR of 1.6% through 2020 in Europe and an estimated 1 in 8 Americans eating pizza each day. Other Italian foods, such as olive oil, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes, never lost their appeal, with the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, Italian flavours and the amusement-style FICO Eataly World park providing testament to that.

We asked members of our nutrition, sensory science, flavour, culinary and sales teams to explain why Italian flavours and foods continue to trend, even with today’s increasingly fickle consumer base, and how to craft Mediterranean diet-inspired products that will appeal to these ever-choosy shoppers and diners.

Our Experts:
  • Aisling Aherne, Nutrition Manager, Kerry Europe
  • Anna Bertolini, RD&A Senior Technologist, Kerry Europe
  • Eric Claveau, Chef, Technical Business Development Prepared Meals, Soups, Sauces and Dressings, Kerry Europe
  • Michele Vezzoli, Sales Account Manager, Kerry Italy
  • Nikos Pagidas, Sensory Manager, Kerry Europe
The Enduring Popularity of Italian Food

The Mediterranean diet as we know it originated in the Roman empire over 2,000 years ago. Italian flavours and foods are thought to have spread and evolved after the empire’s fall, when each region began to experiment with unique ways of cooking. Following centuries of specialisation, the cuisines of these various regions are now lumped into the category commonly recognized as Italian food.

Strong gastronomic traditions prevail in Italy, due in part to nostalgia and local pride. But the appeal of Italian food doesn’t end at Italy’s borders. “Italian” is the most popular cuisine consumed in all of Europe, with 44.3% of European consumers saying they regularly eat Italian food outside of Italy, according to Globaldata. Earlier this decade, pasta was rated the most popular dish in the world, with residents of Venezuela, Tunisia, Chile and Peru showing a strong preference for it. The recent book “How Italian Food Conquered the World” showcases how, over the last two decades, Italian food has risen to become what some consider the most popular cuisine in the world.

A few basic tenets contribute to this: although developed millennia ago, the simplicity of traditional Italian food and Italian flavours jives today with the back-to-basics leaning of clean label consumers, the universal craving for the taste of nostalgic and home-cooked meals and the growing demand for good-for-you foods such as Mediterranean diet staples including whole grains, lean proteins and vegetables.

Put simply, the popularity of Italian food comes down to taste and nutrition.

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Creating Authentic Italian Flavour

Historically, the ingredients nature provides in abundance are the ones worked into a region’s signature dishes. Italy, which benefits from the Mediterranean climate, has a bounty of olives, tomatoes, citrus fruits, herbs and grains, among other seasonal produce, and its people have perfected the art of crafting animal-derived products such as cured meats and cheeses.

Estimates suggest Italy is the originator of more than 400 cheeses, 200 cured meat products and countless local specialties. Every 50 kilometres products and tastes change, with the below cities and regions still considered hubs for the following Italian foods:

Rome: pasta

Piedmont: white truffles

Genoa: pesto

Milan: marrow and risotto

Northern Italy: ragu
Veneto: olive oil

Bologna: Praga ham, tortellini and Parmesan

Tuscany: sun-dried tomato and braised beef

The Marches: black olives

Umbria: black truffles
Naples: pizza and salami

Puglia: ricotta

Southern Italy: mozzarella and citrus fruits

Sicily: pesta alla Siciliana

Sardinia: seafood

Though good on their own, it’s the way these ingredients are combined that really sets Italian food apart. “Balanced”, “light”, “fresh” and “simple” are all commonly used to describe Italian cuisine. Ingredients and preparation methods are minimal, time-tested and designed to showcase natural flavours. A salad could be comprised of just mozzarella, raw tomatoes and basil and balsamic vinegar. A sauce could come together by slowly simmering fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs. In each preparation, the flavours enhance without overpowering.

Whether cooking Italian food at home or ordering off a menu, consumers like that they can easily recognize exactly what they’re eating. Manufacturers of Italian cuisine can appeal to this desire for simple foods by shortening ingredient lists and cleaning up labels, including through the use of clean label preservation. This may include the addition of top-quality ingredients produced in Italy—something that could earn a front- or back-of-pack callout—as well as the use of natural flavours to produce an authentic savoury taste.

Italian Food with Mediterranean Diet Appeal

The returned growth of pasta and pizza sales suggests that consumers have intuited that such dishes can be part of a healthy diet. One way people are doing so is by eating a range of Italian cuisine—from seafood and full-fat cheeses to olive oil, whole grain pasta and sun-ripened produce. This, of course, falls squarely in the formula for the “Mediterranean diet”, the shorthand name for the natural eating habits of Italians and their neighbours. Although people have been attracted to the taste of Italian cuisine for centuries, they’re now recognizing it for its health benefits, too.

Ingredients that supply good taste to Italian cuisine are often packed with vitamins and nutrients. Olive oil was perhaps the first healthy fat recognized by consumers, and the large quantities of fresh produce that go into sauces and spreads can make even indulgent items healthy. Aligning with the consumer trend of “eating the rainbow” as a way of guaranteeing good nutrition, many Italian dishes are multicolored, owing to the range of fresh, minimally processed ingredients.

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The Mediterranean diet has been touted as having positive health benefits for more than a decade, with a recent study released in February 2018 from the UK's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) showing that “adherence to a Mediterranean dietary pattern may be associated with reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia”. Although a 2013 study on the effects of the diet recently made headlines when it was retracted, it was then reanalyzed using more scientifically sound methods and returned similar results. While researchers and nutritionists were left scratching their heads, consumers will likely be unfazed and will continue to seek out such Mediterranean ingredients and meals in the name of good health.

Barring any backlash, manufacturers can play to the brand recognition of the Mediterranean diet by adding positive claims on front of pack that include either the name “Mediterranean diet”; ingredients positively related to health, such as olive oil; or any positive health claims approved by local regulations, such as those regarding ageing.

If consumers decide to move on from the Mediterranean diet, attributes such as "simple", "fresh" and "natural" can be emphasized to showcase the nutrition of the diet. There may be increased consumer appeal in products that are formulated or reformulated to include fewer ingredients viewed as unhealthy and more ingredients perceived as being more healthy, such as organic and non-GMO offerings. To reduce sugar, salt and fat in products, manufacturers may want to incorporate taste modulators.

 

Creating eating experiences that capture the true taste and authentic nutrition of Italian cooking, at scale, can be complex. By leveraging Kerry’s food heritage, culinary expertise and over 80 years’ experience manufacturing flavours in Italy, our flavourists have developed a unique range of products that are inspired by Italian cuisine and made in Mozzo, Italy.

Our Italian Collection, which is part of our AuthenticSavoury™ portfolio, was created to enrich foods with the natural, delicious character of traditional Italian recipes and ingredients. This collection allows manufacturers to create dishes and products that deliver all the depth, heritage and deliciousness of Italian cooking, whether it’s an innovative recipe or a traditional consumer favourite. To learn more about Kerry products that can help create Italian foods full of flavour and nutritionally optimised, contact us.

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