For its latest iteration of Hungry Jack mashed potatoes, J.M. Smucker touched on a couple of trends. The front of the box calls out the specific types of potatoes (redskin and Yukon Gold, in this case), while also noting “Mashed Potatoes [are a] Low Sodium Food.”


In comparison to main dishes, which often exemplify fusion cuisine or chef-inspired desserts, side dishes often take the back seat among those trying to analyze consumer needs and wants. Yet, the popularity of even the most basic of fare can provide insights into the marketplace.

Consumers are busier than ever, and the frequency of preparing and eating a full meal in the evening has been waning for many years, notes a report by Mintel (“Side Dishes, U.S., June 2008”). Both ongoing trends and recent events have influenced the side dish category, including the aging population and accompanying health concerns; increased ethnic representation; and limited time to prepare meals. These factors have translated into new product trends, such as comfort foods, healthy ingredients and convenient preparation.

Stacking Up Statistics
The U.S. side dish category is a large one. Including canned and frozen vegetables, it reached almost $12 billion, according to data from The Nielsen Company (volume and sales for 52 weeks ending March 21, 2009, food/drug/mass merchandise, including Wal-Mart). When defining the category as consisting of dry grains and vegetables, rice and dry potatoes, canned vegetables (excluding tomatoes), frozen vegetables, refrigerated fruits and salads, the total category volume declined slightly, by 1.4%, but grew by 9.1% in dollar sales. (See chart, “Side Dish Sales.”) However, rice, dry grains and rice mixes showed positive growth in both volume and dollar sales. On the other hand, canned and frozen vegetables, and refrigerated fruits and salads, while growing in dollar sales, declined in volume.

Frozen vegetables form the largest portion of the side dish category, with over 3.3 billion lbs. in volume and over $4.5 billion in retail sales. Within this segment, potatoes, mixed vegetables and corn continue to remain the top three vegetables. Canned vegetables (excluding tomatoes) declined in volume to 3.4 billion lbs., contributing over $3.2 billion in sales. Green beans, kidney beans and mixed vegetables rank at the top of this segment.

What Consumers Want
“Healthy, made convenient” is the ideal trait combination in consumers’ minds. Recently, frozen vegetable manufacturers have delivered these desired traits in the form of steam-in-bag vegetables. Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics shows product introductions from major branded manufacturers and store brands. Steamer introductions include Birdseye, Wal-Mart Great Value and Wegmans. Even Ore-Ida’s Steam N Mash Frozen Potatoes offer a preparation that is easier than instant mashed potatoes.

In the health arena, less specific claims, such as “digestive health,” are being seen with increasing frequency among side dishes. General Mills’ Green Giant has extended its Green Giant line of frozen vegetables in the U.S. to include a fourth version, called Digestive Health, notes Datamonitor. The products are naturally high in fiber to help maintain a healthy digestive system. Company literature states the products “provide you with specific nutrients to help you feel your best,” and they “will help you meet your health goals.”

Refrigerated side dishes (fruits, prepared salads, potatoes and certain other sides) declined in volume to about 660 million lbs., yet grew in dollar sales to $1.65 billion. The subsegment of refrigerated fruit showed growth in both volume and dollar sales, reaching $630 million in sales. Del Monte Foods leads this category, offering fruit in appealing selections, such as Del Monte Fruit Naturals, a personal 8oz serving of peeled, sliced and ready-to-eat fruit, notes Datamonitor. Meanwhile, the subsegment of refrigerated, ready-made salads was flat in volume, but grew in dollar sales to over $700 million.

Consumers’ interest in health also impacts side dish selections in foodservice, which is often a leading indicator for trends and opportunities in retail, as evidenced by Technomic Inc.’s attitude and usage study, “The Salad Consumer Trend Report.” When asked about likeliness to substitute side salads for French fries or other fried items, roughly 40% of the 1,500 consumers surveyed indicated they would “definitely or probably” make a substitution. Interestingly, amongst those desiring to switch to the healthier salad option, they tended to select what are often the healthiest options (i.e., broccoli salad and bean salad over potato salad, macaroni salad, and macaroni and cheese).

Bulk Basics
In the dry vegetable and grains category, volume sales increased 3.6% to 1.2 billion lbs. Every subcategory within this category is up in volume sales, from rice to beans to lentils. Volume sales for rice mixes are up 3.5%; instant rice is up 3.6%; and bulk rice is up 3.8%, according to The Nielsen Company.

Rice sales are likely influenced by the influx of ethnic consumers. Asians and Latinos, especially, typically consume rice at a much higher incidence than the general population. In some parts of the world, the word “rice” is synonymous with the word for “meal.” In Thailand, because rice is such an indigenous part of a meal, asking: “Have you eaten rice today,” is a way of saying, “How are you?” As ethnic groups that have traditionally consumed larger quantities of rice immigrate to the U.S., they bring their eating preferences with them and share them with others.

A healthy twist on the familiar, brown rice is increasing in popularity, likely driven by elevated consumer interest in its health benefits. According to the website, “the world’s healthiest foods” (www.whfoods.org), the nutritional difference between brown rice and white rice is significant. To produce brown rice, only the outermost layer, the hull, is removed. This process is the least damaging to the nutritional value of the rice and avoids the unnecessary loss of nutrients that occurs with further processing. Consumer recognition of these health benefits is evidenced by Mintel’s Simmons NCS study, where fully 38% of households report using brown rice. As compared to 2005, penetration is up 5 percentage points.

For many, beans, rice and other basic grains are well-known staples. The uncertainty sparked by the recession has been reflected in a desire to return to comfort foods, often childhood favorite foods that are simple, familiar, inexpensive and ultimately satisfying. Indicative of consumer trends, but perhaps a bit uncharacteristically, Gourmet magazine’s February 2009 issue centered on “comfort food.”

The Ancients
Beyond brown rice, consumers are rediscovering what are being called “ancient grains,” or grains used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and with great success in other cultures. Three of the most popular include spelt, quinoa and millet. These ingredients have an exotic and natural aura about them, yet their popularity may primarily be founded on health.

Spelt is naturally high in fiber and contains significantly more protein than wheat. Spelt is also higher in B complex vitamins and both simple and complex carbohydrates. Quinoa, dating back to 3,000 B.C., contains a balanced set of essential amino acids and is an unusually complete protein source, with a 12-18% protein content. It is also a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium and iron. Due to its very appealing health profile, quinoa is being considered as a possible crop in NASA’s controlled ecological life-support system for long-duration, manned spaceflights. Millet has a protein content very close to that of wheat; both provide about 11% protein by weight. Millet is rich in B vitamins, especially niacin, B6 and folic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc.

The chart “Use of Ancient Grains and Side Dishes,” from Mintel’s GNPD, indicates swiftly increasing use of ancient grains in new product launches around the globe. Suppliers have stepped in and are providing ingredients that meet processor needs. One large vendor is promoting flours from these grains as “combining high fiber and taste-tempting flavor with 21st century functionality and reliability.”

Many ancient grains are gluten-free, which is in sync with interest in gluten-free products currently sweeping through the industry. Side dishes labeled as “gluten-free” continue to proliferate. Pastas are a popular side dish largely inaccessible to those with gluten intolerance. Manufacturer Hain Celestial has developed the Arrowhead Mills 5-SKU line of Gluten Free Pastas, formulated with rice or corn flour, according to Datamonitor. [Editor’s note: Pastas are sometimes considered main meals, while other times considered side dishes. Due to the complexity of discerning usage occasion, pastas have not been included in the above Nielsen numbers.]

Sitting at the center of the two trends of ancient grains and gluten-free, one finds the recently introduced Gluten Free & Fabulous Quinoa with Marinara from Bon Apetit!  pf

Anju Holay is the managing principal of NSM Research Inc. (Barrington, Ill.). She holds an M.B.A. in marketing from The University of Chicago and a B.S. in engineering from Northwestern University. The consultancy (www.nsmresearch.com) offers qualitative consumer research, innovation consulting and nutrition science marketing services.



Website Resources:
www.PreparedFoods.com -- Type in “side dishes” for several articles
www.restaurant.org/research/chef_survey_2008.cfm -- The NRA’s “Chef Survey: What’s Hot in 2009” and children’s side dishes (hit top 10 trends link)
www.nutritiondata.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5705/2 -- Visually interesting, comprehensive nutrition data on quinoa
www.recipezaar.com/recipes/brown-rice -- More than 800 brown rice recipes