Arguably, no segment has benefited as much from Americans' increasing fascination with authentic ethnic cuisines as sauces. Granted, as with the other segments, there was some degree of “following the crowd,” yet sauce introductions did expand somewhat beyond the tried-and-true Italian influences.

For example, San Angel Mole (Los Angeles) offered “Mexico's national dish” in a range of varieties. The mole sauces feature a blend of chilies, chocolate and nuts, according to the company, which offers red, black and cascabel varieties. A similar influence prompted Juanita's Foods (Wilmington, Calif.) to introduce enchilada sauces made with green chilies, onions and other ingredients. Red Enchilada, Green Enchilada, and Chile Colorado Red Chile varieties are available.

Italian sauces, meanwhile, may have been the tried-and-true, but they also had carbs--or some did until 2004. Hain-Celestial Group (Uniondale, N.Y.) launched Carb Fit, a line of all-natural pasta sauces with as few as 5g of net carbs per serving. The four varieties are: Portobello mushroom, vodka, tomato basil and Puttanesca.

Prime Health (Ventura, Calif.) also debuted four flavors of its Think Thin! Low Carb pasta sauces. The traditional marinara, spicy garlic marinara, Romano cheese and vodka cream varieties, geared to low-carb dieters, were joined by low-carb Think Thin! pasta later in the year. Even cheese sauce carbs were not spared, as Monterey Pasta (Salinas, Calif.) added four-cheese sauce to its Carb-Smart line. The four-carb product was made with “genuine” Gorgonzola, Asiago, Swiss and Fontina cheeses.

Carb concerns may have ruled as the chief health concern for many consumers through the course of 2004, but one company eschews that issue when promoting its seafood pastas. Laguna Tuna (San Francisco) boasts of the heart-healthful lycopene and cancer-fighting omega-3 content of its Laguna clam sauce, Laguna shrimp sauce and Laguna tuna sauce. In addition, all three bear the American Heart Association's (Dallas) Heart Check mark.

Even the powerful Ragu brand has found its way into the low-carb lifestyle, as Unilever Bestfoods (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.) further expanded its Carb Options line. Alfredo and double cheddar varieties of Ragu Carb Options are made with real cheese, the former with 2g of net carbs per serving. In addition, a garden-style variety of Carb Options launched, with 5g of carbohydrates. Lastly, Ragu Carb Options Hearty Italian-Style Sauce with Sausage has 5g of net carbs, as well as USDA-inspected meat.

USDA-inspected meat also was a featured aspect of a new meat sauce from Campbell Soup Company (Camden, N.J.). The Prego Hearty Meat line added authentic Italian sausage and three-meat supreme varieties, the latter including Italian sausage, ground beef and pepperoni.

Going Authentic

Consumers seeking an authentic Italian sauce had a number of options this year, including one that brought a degree of complexity to the preparation. Barilla America Inc. (Bannockburn, Ill.) introduced Restaurant Creations, featuring such ingredients as olive oil, herbs, basil and nuts. The recipient of the 2004 Spirit of Innovation Award--Retail incorporated a dual-jar concept which helped maintain the freshness and taste of the “chef's recipe.” The three varieties reflect the ingredients and cuisine of a particular region of Italy: sugo alla Romana from Rome, sugo alla Genovese from Genova, and sugo alla Napoletana from the Campania region.

Similarly, authentic Italian cuisine was the guiding force behind the Freschetta (Schwan's Consumer Brands, Marshall, Minn.) Culinary Council. Classic pizza toppings and Old World, fire-baked crusts combine in the company's Brick Oven pizzas. The square crusts suggest time-tested, rustic fire baking, and 2004 saw the line add several new varieties. While the crust may have been an Old World inspiration, the new varieties explore a range of cuisines.

Roasted Potato, Bacon and Cheese combined baby red potatoes with pepperjack cheese sauce, roasted garlic, yellow onions, Fontina and cheddar cheeses, and rosemary. The Brick Oven BBQ style chicken has grilled white meat chicken combined with a smoky barbecue sauce, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, red bell peppers and onions. Soy, sesame, garlic and peanut combine in the Thai-style chicken Brick Oven pizza, which also boasts julienne carrots and green onions.

While microwave ovens may not be the most ancient of pizza-preparing means (for that matter, Italians have yet to completely embrace the microwave, as discussed in this article's “Going Global” sidebar), Americans have welcomed the tools as a means of quick meal preparation. Handheld foods long have been microwaveable, but Kraft Foods (Northfield, Ill.) sought to make the most of the microwave with DiGiorno Microwave Rising Crust Pizza. Claiming to be the first and only pizza that bakes golden brown in the microwave, the varieties include pepperoni, supreme, four cheese and three meat, each with a crust that rises and bakes like the brand's original line, according to the company. However, the 7-inch, two-serving pizzas are a bit smaller than their 8- and 10-inch, three- and six-serving, regular-oven counterparts.

Going Single

Consumers looking for a single-serving pizza were the targets for Stouffer Food's (Solon, Ohio) Lean Cuisine Café Classics line of deep-dish pizzas. The company assures that a unique formulation and a silver susceptor disk in the package ensure a crisp crust from the microwave. Varieties include a three-meat version with pepperoni, Italian sausage and seasoned ground beef; spinach and mushroom with a blend of mozzarella, Asiago, Parmesan and Romano cheeses, as well as a creamy Alfredo sauce; and margherita, a four-cheese blend with chunky tomatoes, garlic, basil and a tomato sauce with extra-virgin olive oil.

Microwaveable also was a selling point for Betty Crocker Complete Meals from General Mills (Minneapolis). The line has been around for a couple of years but has seen competition from Campbell Soup's Supper Bakes and Unilever's Lipton Sizzle & Stir. A 2004 reformulation meant a pair of Betty Crocker meals could be prepared in the microwave, and the products also leverage the company's Progresso brand.

Requiring 15 minutes in the microwave, the newly formulated chicken fettuccine Alfredo variety contains two cans of Progresso cream sauce & chicken, fettuccine pasta, Betty's seasoning blend, and Parmesan cheese topping bread. Microwaving the Betty Crocker Complete Meal version of Italian sausage marinara with penne pasta requires 20 minutes. Two cans of Progresso Italian sausage marinara sauce, penne pasta and a Parmesan cheese topping blend into a meal that serves five.

The year also saw complete meals introduced for another appliance besides the oven. A pair of introductions made use of a cooking apparatus that long had been overlooked by some--the slow cooker. ConAgra's (Omaha, Neb.) Crock-Pot Classics serve five and offer such varieties as chicken with redskin potatoes and vegetables, and herb chicken and rice. While the meals require five minutes of preparation, they also require eight to 10 hours of cooking time, although they can be prepared on the “high” setting in four hours.

Likewise, General Mills slowed Betty Crocker down for Slow Cooker Helper dinner kits, which also had a cooking time of eight to 10 hours. Varieties in the Slow Cooker Helper line included pot roast, beef stew, chicken & dumplings and beef stroganoff, with the first three leveraging another of the company's big brands--Green Giant vegetables.

Leveraging powerful brands emerged as a trend of its own among dinner kits in 2004. In addition to General Mills' usage of Progresso and Green Giant, Del Monte Foods (San Francisco) incorporated the StarKist brand into its Complete Tuna Noodle Casserole Meal Kit. Part of the company's Casserole Bakes line, the kit includes StarKist chunk light tuna in water in the flavor-fresh pouch, Del Monte sweet peas, a can of cream of mushroom soup, one bag of noodles and a pouch of seasoned bread crumb topping.

Vegetarians looking for a near-meat experience in a meal kit were the targets for the Simply Sauté line from Quorn (Riverside, Conn.). The kits combine rice or noodles, vegetables and exotic spices with the company's namesake meat-free, chicken-style tenders. Varieties include Thai, a “meat-free, peanut, satay-style meal”; Mexican; and Indian.

Ethnic-oriented vegetarian meals also were launched by Fantastic Foods (Petaluma, Calif.) under its Fast Naturals brand. The shelf-stable ready meal versions of pad Thai, Thai lemongrass, and Tuscan mushroom risotto debuted in 2003 but expanded to add low-carb varieties this year. The Carb' Tastic products include such varieties as creamy Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs, pesto primavera, chili mac, teriyaki with soy pasta and a sloppy Joe offering.

One of the largest selections of low-carb frozen meals was from ConAgra, whose Life Choice line included 14 varieties--three for breakfast, 11 for lunch or dinner, each selection averaging 15g of total carbohydrates and 35g of protein. Admittedly, the varieties do not offer much in the way of unusual or experimental flavors, but the company's goal simply is to offer an assortment of consumer favorites in a formulation that meets low-carb lifestyle demands.

For the more-adventurous palates in need of carb-reduced options, Don Miguel (Anaheim, Calif.) launched a new sub-brand, Don Miguel Carb Friendly. The line of meals includes chicken Colorado, southwestern chicken, steak chili and Buffalo-style chicken.

Considering the popularity of wraps and the consumer interest in low-carb dieting, researchers at the University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.) possibly have developed the perfect product. The “Flaquita,” made of protein extracted from chicken, is low in carbohydrates and high in protein, and is suitable for people with wheat allergies or wheat/gluten intolerances. At press time, the all-meat tortillas were not yet on the market, but university officials are seeking a partner to explore the commercial potential of the product.

Much of the information in this article was derived from Mintel International's Global New Products Database,, 312-932-0400.

Sidebar: Going Global

The convenient-lunch concept seems to have peaked in the U.S. but, elsewhere, companies continue to innovate. In Germany, Meica (Edewecht, Germany) introduced a prepared lunch meal of pea soup with sausage slices and crème fraîche. Würstchen Lunch Erbse also is microwaveable, as are other meals in the line: Würstchen Lunch Kartoffel, potato soup with sausage; Würstchen Lunch Linse, a lentil soup with Vienna sausage slices; Würstchen Lunch Gemüse, a vegetable soup with Vienna sausage slices; and Würstchen Lunch Nudel, pasta with slices of poultry sausages.

Speaking of sausage, in Japan, Nippon Meat Packers (Osaka, Japan) found an innovative means of imparting additional flavor to the meat mixture. The pork chipolatas contain gelatinized soup inside. Also, for a softer texture, the company has steamed the sausage skin rather than drying it.

While sausage is a staple on American pizza, other parts of the world are seeing a fusion of cuisines on their pies. In the U.K., for example, retailer Sainsbury's (London) has gone for an Iberian experience by topping its Spanish Tapas Pizza with smoky chorizo, serrano ham and roast paprika potatoes.

Also in the U.K., consumers continue to embrace Indian cuisine, to such an extent that retailers have begun to target children as well as adults. Asda's (Leeds, U.K.) More for Kids line offers a bag with one mild chicken korma meal, one “traffic light” rice dish (red, orange and green) and one mini naan bread. That latter feature also is found in a chicken Madras Balti dish with potatoes from Tesco (Cheshunt, U.K.). It includes a limited-edition balti bowl, for serving “just like in a real curry house,” and the ready-made meal is microwaveable.

The microwave is not a favorite in Italy, however, and Mintel (Chicago) reports that it seldom is used for actual cooking. In fact, stir-fry, frozen, ready-made meals are popular in Italy, where they are heated in a pan, and the dishes often are not much different from American fare. Montana Alimentari's (Gazoldo degli Ippoliti, Italy) Miniburger con Patate are mini hamburgers with oven-cooked potatoes and seasoned with rosemary sauce. While not microwaveable, the product takes a scant eight minutes to cook, and it offers what the company claims is “5 Times Italian”-guaranteed meat; that is, the meat was born, bred, butchered, cut and prepared in Italy.

Photos courtesy of Mintel International's GNPD