Dress it up or dress it down; everybody loves a salad. One of the most easily customized food choices out there, salad can be “dressed” to one’s liking time and time again, without becoming boring or mundane. It can be served as an appetizer, a side dish or even an entire meal, depending on the occasion. It works equally well for lunch and dinner, and it blends in nicely with almost any different type or ethnicity of cuisine.

Salad dressing helps salad move from meal to meal, but it also stands nicely on its own. Enhancing everything from cold vegetables to cooked meats to sandwiches and wraps, salad dressing adds flavor and character to every food it touches. Salad dressing has become a convenient household “norm,” allowing people to modify the flavor and make-up of their meals with just a tip of the bottle.

Dressings also can be used to season seafood, meats, poultry and vegetables.

The Market for Salads and Salad Dressings

With health and convenience benefits firmly on its side, bagged salad has enjoyed popularity with American shoppers in recent years. Because it is easy to use and requires no cooking, pre-packaged salad offers people a reliable way to fit fresh, healthy vegetables into their diets. In 2006, Mintel reported that sales of bagged salads exceeded $3.3 billion in FDM channels, excluding Wal-Mart. This was a 5.6% increase from the $3.1 billion in sales achieved in 2004. American consumers have clearly caught on to bagged salad as a way to simplify healthier, fresher eating.

Although salad dressing is strongly associated with bagged salad, its sales are not. From 2004-2006, Mintel found that salad dressing sales fell 5.2% to $1.6 billion in FDM channels, excluding Wal-Mart (from $1.7 billion in 2004). Sales of salad dressing have fallen every year since 2001 (14% overall from 2001-2006). Competition from other salad toppings, such as bacon and cheese, is a major reason that salad dressing sales are down. Another is that, given positive press for olive oil’s heart-healthy benefits, many consumers may have switched to drizzling olive oil and vinegar on their greens at home.

Together, total sales of bagged salads and dressings increased 42% at current prices from 2001-2006. As previously indicated, however, bagged salads carried the market during these years. Mintel predicts that sales for the bagged salad and dressing market will reach roughly $10 billion by 2011, a rise of 38% in current dollars.

Some new trends in salad dressings include a rise in ethnic flavors and spritzers that allow consumers to better control the amount of dressing they add to their greens.

Market Challenges

Although bagged salad sales have been strong overall, 2006’s widely publicized E. coli case for bagged spinach greatly affected the market. In FDM channels, excluding Wal-Mart, total bagged salad sales dropped 4% in current terms from 2005-2006. Bagged spinach sales fell nearly 20% during this time, undoubtedly the effect of consumer fear.

Bagged salad suppliers are doing what they can to prevent such an event from happening again. They are also attempting to rebuild trust with American shoppers. Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) shows Ready Pac Organic Spring Salad Mix with a label claiming it is “triple washed.” There is a long way to go before people feel entirely safe eating greens straight from the bag, but marketing messages such as this will help.

Organic and All-natural

Partially as a response to fear over food contamination, the organic and all-natural movement caught on strong in the salads and salad dressings market. As consumers demand less processed, more natural foods, food companies have quickly responded. In 2007, “organic” was the second top claim featured on new salad and salad dressing products, according to Mintel GNPD. “No additives/preservatives” ranked third and “all-natural” fell close behind for both salads and salad dressings.

Because of the wide proliferation of natural and organic items in the salads and dressings market, even the most “mainstream” companies have joined in. Early in 2007, Kraft launched an entirely organic line of dressings. Kraft Organics features three preservative-free flavors: Balsamic Vinaigrette, Zesty Italian and Raspberry Vinaigrette.

Garlic Gold also features an organic Classic Balsamic Vinaigrette, sold by Seven Oaks Ranch. It is made from organic, garlic-infused, extra-virgin olive oil and boasts a rich and delectable flavor. The dressing comes in a stylish bottle with clear organic markings on the label, making it perfect for today’s trendy, yet health-conscious shopper.

Research from Mintel reveals that 13% of bagged salad buyers say they “only buy organic greens.” Luckily, many brands cater to this preference, including Whole Foods Market’s 365 Organic brand. Its Fresh Herb Salad Mix and Romaine Hearts are pre-washed for added food safety. Whole Foods Market ensures that all its products are formulated to avoid genetically engineered ingredients.

Premium Positioning

As people pay greater attention to the foods they eat, product “premium-ness” has become a prime concern. Consumers increasingly are looking to elevate the status of their salads, whether by buying fancier greens or utilizing a more luxurious dressing on a simple salad. Mintel GNPD shows Dole Fresh Discoveries capitalizing on this trend with two new Gourmet Salads: 7 Lettuces is a blend of romaine, red leaf, green leaf, butter lettuce, escarole, radicchio and endive; while Tender Garden consists of baby spinach, baby lettuces, carrots, baby greens and radicchio.

The premium trend has played out especially well in salad dressings. While overall salad dressing purchases have fallen in recent years, sales from the store refrigerated section have risen (27% in current terms between 2001-2006 in FDM channels, excluding Wal-Mart). Consumers want “premium” and “fresh,” both of which are provided by refrigerated salad dressings. Delicaé Gourmet markets Pomegranate Dijon dressing in the refrigerated section, offering exotic flavor and luxury to the average American shopper.

Convenient Health

Premium, organic or even plain and simple, all bagged salads and prepared dressings have one thing in common: convenience. With a quick tear of the bag and a squeeze of the bottle, anyone can have a tasty, filling meal that requires almost no clean-up. Bagged salad makers have focused more on convenience, attempting to make salad even easier to use and enjoy than it already is. In fact, “convenient” was the top new product claim for salad products launched in 2007, according to Mintel GNPD.

Makers of salad kits are including additional items in their bags of greens, so people can get a more complete meal with no additional effort. Dole Fresh Discoveries Summer Salad Kit is a ready-to-eat, complete salad that comes with crisp romaine and iceberg lettuce, carrots, red cabbage, radishes, croutons, sunflower seeds and a tomato herb vinaigrette dressing.

Beyond providing more than just a simple lettuce salad, bagged salad companies have focused on convenience in regards to healthier eating. Many consumers already view pre-packaged salads as an easy, efficient way to get nutritious vegetables into their diets. Ready Pac Bistro Salads takes that concept and runs with it, providing “grab-and-go entrées for nutrition-conscious consumers.” The complete meal salad kits contain greens, dressing, a source of protein, toppings and a fork. They already are packaged in a plastic bowl for maximum convenience on-the-go.

Weight Management

In addition to being linked to health and nutrition, salads also are associated with weight management. But, a high-fat, high-calorie salad dressing can instantly ruin a naturally “light” salad, as many dieters know. This drives the industry for reduced-calorie and/or reduced-fat salad dressings, both of which hold a strong place on salad dressing shelves in the supermarket.

In 2007, “low-/no-/reduced-fat” was the leading claim on new salad dressing products launched in the U.S., according to Mintel GNPD. “Low-/no-/reduced-calorie” was the fourth top claim on such products. Western Beef Supermarkets highlights both the fat and calorie content of its Lite Italian Dressing to appeal to consumers concerned with either. The dressing contains 70% less fat and 55% fewer calories than regular Italian dressing.

Lucerne Foods’ Eating Right line contains products with a generally healthy, diet-friendly profile, and its salad dressings are no exception. Eating Right Pomegranate and Blueberry Salad Dressing is low-fat and contains only 30 calories per serving. Likewise, Eating Right Light Ranch contains 55% less fat and 55% fewer calories than regular ranch dressing. Even with its healthier profile, the Light Ranch is described as rich and creamy because of its real buttermilk content.

One of the most recently successful movements in food and beverages designed for weight management has been portion control. Consumers are interested in products that help them monitor their calorie intake and avoid overeating. In the salad dressing market, one of the most successful innovations of the past two years has been Wish-Bone’s “spritzing” salad dressing delivery system. The spray method allows an even coating of dressing, but it provides only 1-2 calories per spray, allowing salad eaters to easily and effectively manage their caloric intake. Mintel reports that in 2006, its first year on the market, the Wish-Bone Salad Spritzer line achieved $16.7 million in FDM channel sales, excluding Wal-Mart.

More Adventurous Flavors and Ingredients

Light, low-fat, regular or extra creamy, the entire point of salad dressing is to add flavor and complexity to a salad. As a result, dressing flavors have become more intriguing by the day. Manufacturers seek to capture consumers’ changing tastes and preferences with innovative, exciting new dressing flavors.

As the U.S. Hispanic population grows, so does the number of salad dressings with flavors inspired by traditional Mexican or Latin American foods. In the past year, Mintel GNPD showed Hannaford Inspirations launching a Mango Salsa Vinaigrette, while California Classics featured a Jalapeño Ranch Dressing. The mango and jalapeño flavors are likely meant to appeal to Hispanic shoppers, as well as non-Hispanic salad eaters that like the flavors of Mexican or Latin American foods.

Asian cuisine is another set of flavors that has caught on with American eaters, as people expand beyond Chinese food to try Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean. Tastefully Simple released an Asian Aura Dressing to capitalize on these changing tastes and preferences. In a bottle that resembles packaging for stir-fry or soy sauces, Asian Aura Dressing is advertised for use on salads, stir-fries or grilled meats.

Beyond ethnic trends, another food trend of note in America lately has been that of the super healthy “superfruits.” Pomegranates, blueberries and açai berries, among others, have been noted for their high antioxidant content, leading manufacturers to include them in various products for an added punch of health. Mintel GNPD shows that salad dressings have been no exception, especially vinaigrettes, which blend nicely with fruit flavors. T. Marzetti features Cardini's Raspberry Pomegranate Vinaigrette, describing it as a refreshing splash of fruit for salads.

Trend-focused flavors will undoubtedly continue to dominate new product development for salad dressings and even bagged salad kits. Because salad is such an easily modifiable food, it lends itself well to experimentation with new flavors, combinations and formats.
The information in this article was partially derived from the Mintel Global New Products Database, www.gnpd.com, 312-932-0400.

Going Global

As environmental consciousness sweeps the globe, pre-packaged salads and dressings have become caught up in the excitement. Although the salad and salad dressing category seems naturally “green,” manufacturers have not yet fully jumped on the eco-friendly bandwagon. However, niche ethical and environmentally conscious products continue to pop up around the world, and Mintel expects strong growth soon.

In Canada, Fresh Express features sustainable packaging for its Organic Baby Romaine Salad. The red and green baby romaine lettuce is packaged into a renewable, eco-friendly container made from corn. Likewise, 4 Saveurs Salade from Monoprix in France comes packed into a biodegradable sachet that claims to decompose in just 45 days. In Hungary, Chef extends the idea of sustainable packaging to salad dressing, selling its flavored spray vinegars in eco-friendly bottles that contain no gas.

Another way that manufacturers have added a bit of “green” to their salad and salad dressing products is by supporting various global causes. In Mexico, Frontier Natural Products gives back 1% of sales from its Simply Organic Ranch Dressing Mix to support organic farming causes. Paul Newman’s Own in New Zealand advertises on bottles of its Lighten Up! salad dressing that it donates all profits from the brand to charities in New Zealand and Australia. The company claims to have raised over $10 million since 1984.