A. Elizabeth Sloan

Historically, there have always been some categories that win in a down economy. And with in-home cooking fast approaching a 25-year high, according to the NPD Group, consumers continuing to cut back on restaurant visits, and an unprecedented demand to prepare restaurant style foods at home, spice blends, sauces, marinades, and seasonings might well top the list in the current recession.

In contrast to the two previous recessions when consumers turned to prepared meals and frozen entrees to economize, this time around, they are doing more home cooking. According to Information Resources Inc.’s recent Competing in a Transforming Economy webinar, 53% of consumers are now cooking from scratch more frequently, sending sales of basic ingredients—including sauces and seasonings—soaring.

IRI data show that sales of spaghetti sauce in food, drug, and mass retailers (excluding Wal-Mart) for the six months ending March 22, 2009, totaled $783.5 million—up 9.3% vs the same six-month period a year earlier.

In an effort to sample the world of foodservice flavors at home and build maximum flavor flexibility into their family meal routines, consumers are redefining convenience food, looking for products that assist with flavors, e.g., marinating sauces or rubs, the Hartman Group’s 2008 Reimagining Convenience Food report notes.

According to Mintel’s Cooking Sauces and Marinades—U.S., an April 2008 report, eight in 10 households use cooking sauces and 40% use gravy or spice mixes. In 2008, according to a webinar sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade and Mintel, 38% of consumers bought specialty/ gourmet barbecue sauce, 31% pasta sauce, and 30% cooking sauces/marinades/Asian sauces.

U.S. consumers are most likely to look for American regional flavors in their sauces and marinades. Roper GfK reports that 66% of Americans really enjoy Tex-Mex flavors, 45% enjoy Southern, and 21% Cajun/Creole. Expect sauces coupled to international regional cuisines such as Brazilian churrasco sauces and Argentinean chimichurri sauces to be the next wave.

With 80% of consumers making an effort to eat healthier in 2008, it’s not surprising that sauces lower in “negative” ingredients like sodium and sugar are the fastest-growing sauce segment. One-third (31%) of the high-spending 60– and 70-somethings, who are currently the heaviest users of homemade marinades, are interested in buying better-for-you sauces and marinades, according to Mintel.

Kosher led the top 10 list of claims on new cooking-sauce product launches, followed by all-natural, convenient, no additives/preservatives, organic, premium, microwaveable, gluten-free, low/no/reduced-allergen and low/no/reduced-fat, according to Mintel.

With half (50%) of adults grilling at least three times a month during barbecue season and 39% grilling year-round in 2008, according to Harris Interactive, the demand for creative, grill-specific marinades, sauces, and rubs is at an all-time high. While steak tops the list of Americans’ favorite foods prepared on the grill, followed by burgers, it is appetizers, potatoes, and skewered meats/fish à la rodizio-style prepared on the grill that are the hot new trends and might benefit from the addition of bold, saucy companions.

As consumers turn to one-dish meals, casseroles, woks, and crock pots to stretch less-expensive cuts of proteins, look for sauces and seasoning mixes tailored to specific preparation methods and appliances. McCormick’s One Dish Casserole Seasoning Mix in contemporary flavors such as Salsa and Rice is right on target.

Mintel’s Cooking Enthusiasts—U.S., a June 2008 report, described 53% of Americans as “casual cooking enthusiasts” and 16% as “serious cooking enthusiasts.” So look for finishing, hot drizzling, and high-end dessert and spirit/wine–based sauces to get more attention.

Bread dipping sauces other than oils, appetizer sauces, especially for fish/shellfish, and healthier versions of classic continental sauces such as Bordelaise are other emerging opportunities. Stonewall Kitchen’s Tequila Lime Cocktail Sauce is well positioned.

Local artisan and varietal sauces such as Lucini Italia’s Tuscan Tomato Basil sauce, made from a crop of special tomatoes grown in a specific region during a specific time of year, also have high appeal as do sauces designed by celebrity chefs or high-end restaurants. Soup marketers could take advantage of this trend to increase the appeal of soups traditionally used for cooking; standard cream of mushroom soup might be upgraded to a chanterelle or porcini mushroom cooking sauce, for example.

A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends Inc., Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]