Soups are in the position to address many health concerns. They are generally filling, relatively low in calories and good sources of certain nutrients. A serving of Campbell’s Select Creamy Tomato Parmesan offers 16% of the Daily Value of dietary fiber, for example.

Overall, the U.S. market for side dishes has seen limited growth over the past few years. The category is undergoing a transition of sorts, as some of the historically smaller sub-categories are experiencing growth, while the larger ones are either remaining stagnant or declining. This has resulted in tepid sales growth for the side dish category, up 2.9% from 2005-2006, to just over $4.1 billion. However, when taking into account inflation, sales actually decreased by 0.6% in 2006.

This decrease in sales is reflected in new product introductions, as well. Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) accounted for only 619 new products launched in the U.S. in 2007--a 15% decrease from the 724 new products launched two years prior in 2005. Two of the historically larger side dish sub-categories (pasta and rice) experienced declines in new product activity of 28% and 21%, respectively, during 2005-2007. Potato products were the lone bright spot for sides, experiencing a 28% increase in new product activity during the same time period. Much of this growth can be attributed to the potato sub-category finally rebounding from the “low-carb” fad and innovations in instant potato sides. The fourth and smallest sub-category of side dishes is stuffing, polenta and other side dishes, and its new product activity remained constant from 2005, with just over 50 new products each year.

Several of the prevailing trends that are affecting the food industry at large are having a distinct impact on side dishes. The side dish market, like other food markets that involve cooking at home, has suffered as a result of shifting trends related to eating at home. As Americans continue to lead busier lifestyles and are more likely to eat dinner on the run, the nostalgic “homemade dinner with the entire family” concept is not happening as often. Because side dishes are often offered as quick and easy complements to the main course, it is of no surprise that sales and new production introductions have slumped during the past few years. Though convenience will always be a key driver in the side dish category, many of these convenient sides are not convenient enough for today’s consumer. Nowadays, families are likely to be juggling an array of different evening activities, and they rarely have time to sit down and have dinner together. In reality, the “evening meal” is a number of different meals served on one day for many households.

Even if a family did have time to eat dinner together, today’s “have it your way” mentality oftentimes makes it difficult to prepare a meal the whole family will enjoy. Many individual family members desire individualized meals for a variety of reasons (e.g., vegetarian, food allergies, diet-consciousness or even different-flavored or -spiced). Perhaps smaller portions and variety packs will be an area of future innovation for the category. This strategy could also be successful with the changing household unit--smaller households are likely to find typical, family-sized side dishes much too large for their needs.

As one might expect from this added emphasis on convenience, refrigerated side dishes registered the most notable growth from 2004-2006, more than doubling sales at FDM (according to IRI). Unilever dominates this category, holding 33% of the market, and its products played a key role in the sub-categories’ growth. Unilever’s Country Crock grew from just $4 million in 2004 to $101 million in 2006 (as per IRI).

Beyond convenience, other positioning claims grew in popularity from 2005-2007. As seen in several other food categories, there has been a distinct movement from consumers towards “more natural” and fewer chemicals in their foods. As a result, the “all-natural” claim grew by 65% and appeared on 127 products launched in 2007. Likewise, the “organic” and “no additives/preservatives” claims also grew by 14% and 85%, respectively. They were still not as popular as the “all-natural” claim, however. 

Health and weight management continues to be an important driver for new products, as well. The top four low-/no-/reduced-claims (including low-/no-/reduced-fat, -cholesterol, -sodium and -trans fat) more than doubled from 2005-2007. The low-/no-/reduced-cholesterol claim alone grew from 29 new products in 2005 to 85 new products in 2007, a 193% increase.

One of the most active companies in terms of new side dish product launches over the past few years was Target. Through its private-label brands, the retailer has continued to introduce innovative new products with unique ethnic flavors. In October 2007, Target introduced Thai Lime Rice under the Ming Tsai Blue Ginger Quick Rice brand. It is available in two unique flavors: Thai Lime and Lemongrass. The Thai Lime Rice variety is basmati rice, infused with the tropical flavors of kaffir lime and coconut. It can be paired with grilled chicken or shrimp for a memorable taste of the tropics.

Overall, private-label products account for 10% of total FDM sales of side dishes, or $361 million. Although private-label sales fell slightly from 2004-2006 (-2%), new product launch activity was fairly active over the period. Target, Safeway, Aldi and Trader Joe’s were at the top of the list as the most active companies from 2005-2007.

The number of newly introduced, pasta-type side dishes has declined in recent years. Products that offer smaller portions or single servings, such as this Knorr Sides Plus for two people, permit individuals to customize their own meals.

Maintaining Growth and Low-sodium Soups

Total sales of soup in the U.S. are estimated at just over $5 billion for 2007, which represents an increase of 5% since 2005. This figure may not seem very impressive, but it should be noted that this period of consistent sales took place on the heels of an unusually high growth year in 2005. In 2005, sales swelled over the previous year by 13% at current prices. This increase was a result of new product launches, including new flavors and new packaging (microwaveable bowls).

There are six segments in the soup category. Together, ready-to-serve and condensed soups represent two-thirds of the market. However, the segments showing the most growth over the review period were refrigerated/fresh soup (up from $8 million in 2002 to $101 million in 2007) and ready-to-serve broth (up from $301 million in 2002 to $446 million in 2007). Refrigerated soups have benefited from a fresh image and unique flavors, and ready-to-serve broth has grown as a result of improved packaging (aseptic cartons) and product innovations (low-sodium, flavored, organic, etc.). The main thrust in product development for 2006 and 2007 has been reducing sodium.

Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that the soup category was able to repeat those high levels of sales in 2006 and 2007. On top of these strong sales figures, new product introductions continued to increase each year, another strong indicator of the pulse of the market. In the U.S. alone, Mintel GNPD accounted for 390 new soup introductions in 2007--a 37% increase from the 284 introductions in 2005. Both soup sub-categories, wet soup and dry soup, drove this growth, with wet soup introductions increasing by 36% and dry soups increasing by 41%.

Campbell Soup represented more than half of category sales in FDM channels in 2006; however, sales inched down 1.1% compared to 2004, and its share declined by 3.5 percentage points, due likely to Progresso’s gains. Progresso has been coming on strong, with marketing promotions that focus on the quality of the ingredients.

According to the 2007 new product introduction figures, soups with low-/no-/reduced-sodium claims increased by 355% from 2005-2007. Only 11 new soup products were introduced with this claim in 2005, but this claim skyrocketed in popularity in 2007 with 50 launches.

Market leader Campbell, which began producing reduced-sodium soups in the 1970s with Healthy Request, has taken a leading role in the initiative to reduce sodium. In August 2006, the company introduced 32 new or reformulated low-sodium varieties for the 2006-2007 “soup season,” and it also announced an additional 14 for 2007-2008. The soups are made with sea salt. Progresso also introduced reduced-sodium products in 2006. By 2007, most major manufacturers offered at least a couple of lower-sodium varieties.

Sodium reduction is smart, not just for public image reasons, but because consumers actually seem to want these products--or at least they want the choice to buy them. In a consumer survey commissioned by Mintel, 70% of respondents who select soup for its health properties say low-sodium is an important consideration. In fact, 63% of respondents named sodium as the most important factor of all, followed by low-fat.

Progresso’s research and development has not stopped with a lower sodium line. In 2007, the company launched a “light” line of soups, one that has “50% fewer calories than regular ready-to-serve soup.”

Overall, the soup category is in a strong position to address rising health concerns in the U.S. For the most part, soups are filling, relatively low in calories and good sources of certain vitamins (like vitamin A from carrots), fiber (from vegetables and, especially, beans) and protein (from chicken, beef or beans).
The information in this article was partially derived from the Mintel Global New Products Database,, 312-932-0400.

Going Global

The evolution of healthy eating trends in the U.S. has led down a winding road with many twists and turns. Oftentimes, “what’s next” can be seen by taking a look at what is happening in other parts of the world. U.S. healthy eating trends tend to start in “trend-originating hotbeds,” such as Asia and Europe. 

One area that Mintel has identified as the potential next big thing in the U.S. is the concept of “health by color.” This concept includes a category of functional foods that match specific health benefits with specific colors. The trend is emerging in several different Asian markets, in part because of the increased awareness of antioxidants. Red, black and purple foods have all been identified for their specific health benefits. These include such foods as black sesames and soybeans, purple potatoes and carrots, and red tomatoes and peppers. Red foods are likely the most well-known so far for their lycopene content, while purple foods contain flavonoids for cardiovascular health, and black foods contain the antioxidant anthocyanin.

This trend is just starting to emerge in Europe, highlighted by a recent, high-profile launch in the Netherlands. In October 2007, Unilever launched the Knorr Eat Color range, a range of shelf-stable soups, including five different varieties with five different main colors, with each soup focusing on different benefits.