Wish-Bone’s Light! Vinaigrette boasts half the fat and a third of the calories of regular dressings, while the brand’s Salad Spritzers allow consumers to get just the right amount of dressing or calories, with each “spritz” worth only one calorie.

The perennial tug-of-war in the food industry between “good-for-you” and “good-tasting” continued in 2006. Nowhere was the struggle played out so glaringly as in the salad dressings and packaged salads product categories, where product developers clearly tried to straddle the line between new and exciting flavors and “responsible” formulations that could at least claim the appearance of being healthy.

This was no small trick, especially in the dressings category, where products often are viewed as the savior of the bland mix of greens that so many consumers feel compelled to eat as waistlines grow and doctors counsel better eating habits.

Of course, the sodium- and sugar-laden dressings that still dominate the category can quickly render these more healthful choices moot. At the very least, they do offer health-conscious consumers a more palatable path to better-for-you foods.

As challenging as the task can be, dressing and salad product designers continued to use all the formulation tools at their disposal to bring tasty, yet healthy products to market. At the same time, they kept pulling rabbits out of their hats in the form of new formulations that bring together myriad and often disparate flavors, textures and ingredients.

Newman’s Own continued its push into healthful territory with a Light Honey Mustard variety and also made its way into the organic sector with three new offerings: Light Balsamic, Creamy Caesar and Tuscan Italian.

A Year in Review

A broad look at the new product roster for salad dressings in 2006 reveals that developers drew a bead on hot-button qualities, claims and increasingly complex flavors. Although data suggest that 2006 was not a banner year in terms of the sheer number of new product rollouts in the category, what was lacking in quantity may have been offset by improved quality and imaginative formulations.

As for the numbers, both Mintel and Datamonitor indicate new dressing introductions were down in 2006. The Mintel New Global Products Database (GNPD) catalogued 198 new salad dressings for the year, down just slightly from 202 in 2005. Datamonitor data put the number of new dressings in the U.S. market at 159, down more substantially from 215 in 2005, and the lowest new product count going all the way back to 2000, when 236 were introduced.

According to Tom Vierhile, director of Datamonitor’s Productscan Online, the new product roster reveals some new directions in the way companies are formulating and positioning the category. Health claims, for instance, continue to evolve. As more marketers see the value in putting a prettier face on a product viewed as tasty but health-challenged, descriptors that emphasize something positive are being used.

Accentuating the Positive

“The ‘natural claim’ was number one for 2006 for new salad dressings launched in the U.S., moving up one spot from 2005,” Vierhile says. “Another claim that showed big changes in rankings was organic—up three spots in 2006. Of the top 10 health claims made by salad dressings, ‘low fat’ showed the biggest decline in the rankings, dropping four spots to a tie at the ninth position with ‘no gluten’ and ‘pure.’”

Mintel’s data also showed definite changes in health claims, but was at odds with Datamonitor’s on some accounts. New dressings with an “all-natural” claim fell to 14 from 34 in 2005. Those with reduced or no carbs plunged to 12 from 40, and those with no additives/preservatives fell from 43 to 16. Rising through the ranks, though, were introductions pegged as organic and low or reduced fat, calorie, cholesterol, trans fat and sodium.

New introductions were made that specifically addressed their healthy properties vis-à-vis the standard formulations. For instance, Aldi’s Fit & Active Light Poppyseed dressing claims no cholesterol, 60% less fat and 45% fewer calories than the regular poppyseed.

Wish Bone’s new Light! Vinaigrette entry touts a third of the calories and half the fat of regular dressings. It comes in Balsamic & Basil, Raspberry Walnut and Sesame & Ginger flavors. Kraft also weighed in with a new entry in its South Beach Diet line. The new Balsamic with Extra Virgin Olive Oil dressing has 50 calories per serving.

Meanwhile, organic dressings continue to detail more specifics about the particulars of the organic claim. It is becoming more commonplace to note that the products conform to the USDA-certified organic guidelines. Similarly, many are making more than just organic claims and instead are incorporating vegan claims, which are stricter in terms of ingredient limitations and purity.

Spectrum Naturals weighed in with a new dressing boasting a range of qualities. Its new Organic Vegan Caesar Omega-3 Salad Dressing is described as having organic cold-pressed flax oil, soy and spice. It also carries a claim of no hydrogenated fat or corn syrup. The lineup includes other cutting-edge flavors such as Pomegranate Chipotle, Lemon Sesame and Asian Ginger.

A private label entry from Lunds & Byerly's is described as a vegan dressing containing no trans fat. It is available in Organic Cranberry Citrus Orange, Golden Honey Dijon and Italian Olive Oil flavors.

2006 also saw one of the category powerhouses, Newman's Own, finally step into the organic fray. Three organic salad dressings, Light Balsamic, Creamy Caesar and Tuscan Italian, have 50% less fat and calories than non-organic entries.

Can You Do Me a Flavor

Easily lost in the “claims” war can be the subtle trends that play out over the course of several years in terms of flavor and ingredients. In 2006, new dressings revealed growing interest in more exotic flavor combinations as well as the firming of interest in trendy base ingredients that address both taste and health.

“We are seeing more cases where ‘good for you’ fruits like high-antioxidant ‘superfruits’ are showing up in new launches,” Vierhile says. “Pomegranate, for instance, is beginning to appear with more frequency.”

A new vinaigrette lineup from Litehouse includes several flavors that incorporate such fruits. In addition to Harvest Cranberry and Raspberry Walnut, a Pomegranate Blueberry with POM Wonderful® is touted as being packed with antioxidants.

Wild Thymes Farm Inc., introduced a new Wild Thymes Salad Refresher in a multitude of flavors made with fresh fruits. The line includes Morello Cherry, Mango, Pomegranate, Meyer Lemon and Key Lime.

More robust flavors also continued to show up in new dressings in 2006, as formulators looked to capitalize on growing consumer interest in exotic food products, cooking styles and edgy combinations. Vierhile says vinaigrette dressings continued to hold the top spot in terms of broad type while balsamic, another perennial favorite, lost a little ground. More new entries, though, were in the ranch category, testifying to its staying power. Dropping a bit were garlic, ginger and Caesar style dressings.

Terra Sol Foods Inc. introduced a new ancho orange Tarragon Vinaigrette and a Chipotle Pecan Vinaigrette. Olde Cape Cod Food Products Inc. unveiled a Cabernet Sauvignon Tomato Basil and a Chardonnay Ginger Sesame dressing. Maple Groves of Vermont came out with Strawberry Balsamic, Maple Fig, Sesame Ginger and Asiago & Garlic.

“Salad dressing makers seem to be getting more creative with various flavor blends,” Vierhile says. “Even the mass market brands are getting more ethnic and gourmet.”

What Lies Beneath

The same thing appears to be happening in a category closely aligned with dressings: ready-to-eat salads. Take just one—the fresh-cut bagged salad category. Though torrid growth has stabilized in that area, marketers in 2006 continued to dangle new blends—and in some cases new dressing accompaniments—in front of consumers.

By Datamonitor’s count, of the 80 new salads and salad kit products brought to market in 2006, many incorporated a wider variety of greens, vegetables, nuts and cheeses. A few examples: Dole’s Veggie Pasta Salad Kit combines cut vegetables, different ready-to-boil pastas and proprietary dressings; Dole’s Fall Harvest Salad Kit with romaine, endive, carrots, radicchio, cranberries, toasted almond and apple-cider Dijon dressing; Fresh Express’ Sweet Baby Greens Mix, consisting of different combinations of baby green lettuce and red oak, red butter, red leaf and green butter romaine lettuces; and Dole’s Taco Toss Salad Kit, which brings together lettuce, romaine, red cabbage, carrots, radishes, tortilla strips, shredded cheddar and salsa ranch dressing.

“There is definitely a trend toward more ‘value-added’ salad-type products,” Vierhile says. “And there’s also a trend toward more seasonal salad mixes, such as a Dole Winter Medley that goes way beyond a typical bagged salad mix to include walnuts, pecans and cranberry vinaigrette dressing, in addition to a variety of greens and vegetables.”

Vierhile adds the new product lineup appears to be geared to adding more cheeses. He cites Dole’s Say Cheese launch as noteworthy because it combines shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack. “I could easily see a number of other cheese combinations launched for added variety,” he says. “Asiago cheese, for instance, has become quite popular.”

With both dressings and ready-to-eat salads, it is clear from the class of 2006 that imagination and innovation continue to drive category growth. With sales of all types of salad dressings down almost 3% for 2006, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data, and fresh-cut salads sales off about 1%, product developers are likely to continue turning to new products to keep both categories dynamic and appealing to consumers.