Ken’s Steak House has had a light line of salad dressings for some time and, this year, augmented its healthy-positioned range with Healthy Options, a range of dressings with heart-healthy omega-3s sourced from fish oil and reduced levels of fat and sodium.

The saying that every dark cloud has a silver lining proved to be true for marketers of packaged food products in 2009. While the recession drained the life out of the housing market and proved costly to many employed in the restaurant trade, packaged food makers generally fared well during the economic tumult.

Consumers came home to packaged food products in 2009, as food dollars retreated from restaurants and gravitated toward supermarkets in 2009. The Food Marketing Institute reported in 2009 that 85% of consumers said they were eating home-cooked meals three or more times a week, up from 75% in 2006. Home cooking was “in” during 2009.

While the recession restored some much needed pizzazz to the center store, not everyone was celebrating. Sellers of salad dressings and sauces, in fact, found that a rebound in eating-at-home behavior did not necessarily translate into success. Stiff competition from private labels and other economically priced products proved vexing for many.

Tough Economics and Private Labels
Research conducted by Digital Research Inc. in October 2009 found 44% of consumers said they had switched to store brands to save money. Salad dressings and sauces were particularly prone to this and other recession-induced, cost-saving behaviors. Among those who switched, Digital Research found 53% said they had changed their salad dressing choices, and 49% did the same for pasta sauces.

 Consumers were asked in which of 16 major grocery categories they were most likely to buy a preferred brand only when it was on sale or if they had a coupon, a test of brand power. Salad dressing had the misfortune of landing at the top of that list with a 29% response, outpacing ready-to-eat cereal (27%), crackers (26%), salty snacks and cookies (both at 25%). Salad dressings were also tabbed as one of the top food categories vulnerable to SKU rationalization, per “Willard Bishop’s 2009 Total Store SuperStudy.”

 Perhaps consumers were just responding to a perceived lack of excitement in these mature product sectors or a dearth of change from the brand leaders. From a new product perspective, maybe such behavior was justified in 2009, as introductions of new salad dressings in the U.S. and Canada dipped 26%, compared to 2008’s tally. The year ended with 245 new products, according to Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics. The category was coming off a sales decline of 4.8% in the U.S. in 2008, says Datamonitor, so the launch number dip probably was no big surprise.

This dip in new products may help to explain a sales surge for private label salad dressings. A case in point is Treehouse Foods, a maker of private label salad dressings, sauces, soups and condiments. From the start of the recession to the fall of 2009, Treehouse saw its revenue rise 30%, according toU.S. News and World Report. That may explain why the company’s stock ended 2009 with a stellar 42.7% gain.

The sauce market fared somewhat better on the new products front. New product counts fell slightly in 2009, with Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics logging a 1.2% decline in new sauce products in the U.S. and Canada.

Label Claims: Organic Down, Natural Up…Some
More interesting than launch numbers were the product claims that new product introductions made during 2009. The meteoric rise of the organic sector, a narrative for the last decade, hit a brick wall for salad dressings in 2009. Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics found just 6.2% of 2009’s new salad dressing launches in the U.S. making an organic product claim, down from 15.9% of products in 2008.

The “natural” product claim picked up some, but not all, of the slack. Over one third of new salad dressing products launched in 2009 made a “natural” claim, up from 30.7% in 2008. One can surmise the scarcity and cost of organic ingredients, in the midst of one of the biggest commodity price spikes in recent memory, might well have persuaded some new product producers to go “natural” instead of “organic” in 2009.

That was not the case for OrganicVille Foods and its OrganicVille Gluten Free Organic Dressing. Not only is this dressing organic, but it also touches on the “gluten free” hot button, while making some waves on the sweetener front. Claimed to have no added sugar, this dressing is sweetened with agave nectar, a natural alternative to high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and artificial sweeteners that has been gaining favor in health and natural products circles the past few years.

Trans fat continued to make headlines in 2009, but more so in foodservice outlets than on grocery store shelves. The percentage of new salad dressings boasting the absence of trans fat was barely changed at 9.9% in 2009. The bigger news was the category’s growing embrace of low-sodium salad dressings, as they expanded to 8.6% of category offerings, up from 3.4% in 2008.

Look for this trend to continue in 2010, as major packaged food companies target sodium contents on product ingredient lists. Campbell Soup was one of the first to do so, but was joined in 2009 by ConAgra Foods and Sara Lee. In October 2009, ConAgra announced it would cut the amount of salt in its food products 20% by the year 2015. Sara Lee followed suit with a similar announcement in December, stating it would also cut its salt contents by an average of 20% over the next five years. Apparently, salad dressing makers appear to be ahead of the curve on this trend.

 2009’s new product haul suggests the movement toward cleaner ingredient lists and enhanced functionality is beginning to take hold. The percentage of new salad dressings claiming to be high in omega-3 fatty acids more than doubled in 2009, albeit from a tiny base.

Flavor Finesses
This should be good news for introductions like Ken’s Steak House Healthy Options Salad Dressing from Ken’s Foods Inc. Launched in myriad flavors, from Balsamic Vinaigrette to Raspberry Walnut, the dressing contains heart-healthy omega-3s sourced from fish oil and also claims to have reduced-fat and -sodium levels.

Yogurt is another healthy ingredient that could take salad dressing to the next level. 2009 saw a handful of salad dressing products formulated with yogurt, an ingredient that can improve the health profile of dressing, without suggesting the absence of taste or lack of flavor “zing.”

Leading the way was Ventura Foods LLC, with its Marie’s Yogurt Dressing in several flavors, including Blue Cheese, Feta Cheese and Ranch. Yogurt’s health contribution could be deduced from product labeling touting this dressing as having “half the fat and calories” of regular dressings.

Demonstrating the increasing speed to market of private label products, Wegmans Food Markets also innovated with a yogurt-based salad dressing line in 2009. The pacesetting grocery chain debuted Wegmans Food You Feel Good About Yogurt Dressing, a refrigerated line of pourable dressings in flavors like Thousand Island, Ranch and Greek Feta. In Canada, President’s Choice Yogurt Dressing went in the same direction, with a line of dressings that includes a Tzatziki variant, an unusual new flavor.

What other flavors could shake things up in 2010 and beyond? If 2009 is any indication, look for more experimentation with Asian flavors; sesame was a big gainer during the year, with products like Good Housekeeping Good Food Asian Sesame Salad Dressing. Fruit flavors could also be big, as raspberry jumped onto the top five flavor list in 2009. Continued interest in antioxidant ingredients, along with the rapidly expanding list of Superfruits, offer innovation opportunities. Herbs and spices, like oregano, cinnamon, yellow curry and red peppers, can have as many antioxidants as some Superfruits at a fraction of the volume, suggesting they also may be more prominent in the future.

The sauce market experienced many of the same trends as salad dressings in 2009. The year saw a big decline in the percentage of sauces claiming to be “organic,” as the number dipped from 15.7 to just 9%. Products claiming to be “natural” rose, but only modestly, as the claim was already noted on well over one third of new sauce introductions in 2008. The trans fat claim also rose modestly, so that 7.4% of the year’s new sauce product introductions in the U.S. made a “no trans fat” claim.

Gluten, it turns out, was one of the year’s big stories for sauces, and the percentage of new sauce products making a “no gluten” claim nearly doubled in 2009. Given the small percentage of the population that reportedly suffers from celiac disease, it is somewhat astounding that 13% of 2009’s new sauce product launches claim the absence of gluten.

Some new sauces went beyond this. Labels for Ethnic Cottage’s new Cooking Sauce and Grilling Sauce line prominently spelled out the line’s lack of gluten, lactose, trans fat, added sugar, starch and gums. The Indian-influenced line features Cooking Sauce flavors, like Bengal Masala and Punjab Spinach, and a Grilling Sauce flavor of Bay of Bengal.

2009 saw more companies and products claiming the absence of high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that has come to be seen in a negative light, a marker for highly processed foods. Launches were up dramatically, though from a very small base. Likewise, the “high fiber” claim is just beginning to proliferate.

Flavor, though, is really the name of the game when it comes to sauces, and 2009 saw garlic at the top of the flavor charts; hot and spicy flavor profiles also were prominent. Honey climbed up the flavor charts in 2009, while artichoke rose strongly. The number of new product reports boasting pineapple as a sauce flavor doubled in 2009, says Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics, though from a small base.

One place where pineapple is stretching its legs is salsas, with introductions like Mrs. Renfro’s Pineapple Salsa. Offered in a “medium” heat profile, the product is fat-, cholesterol- and gluten-free. Artichoke found its way into several products, perhaps none as eclectic as Made in Napa Valley’s Artichoke Fennel with Chardonnay Savory Sauce.

Continuing on the innovative flavor front was Dave’s Gourmet Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce. Butternut squash has been a fast-rising flavor, especially in the soup category. The flavor also is well-established on foodservice menus, where it is sometimes featured as a ravioli filling. Apparently, that helped pave the way for this launch, said to provide a “delicious change of pace.”

A change in pace is certainly in the offing for anyone who tries the Cranberry Port flavor of Mrs. McGarrigle’s Gourmet Mustard. This line also includes unusual mustard flavors, like Chipotle Lime, Hot Whiskey, Balsamic & Cracked Pepper and Canadian Maple. Give Canada-based Mrs. McGarrigel’s Fine Food Shop some credit for flavor ingenuity.

Economic concerns have slowed the consumer market’s embrace of convenience innovations in consumer packaged foods, but the quest for convenience in sauces made some forward progress in 2009. Quick marinade products were one of the year’s highlights, paced by Lawry’s 30 Minute Marinade in flavors like Buffalo BBQ with Cayenne Pepper, and Jack Daniel’s EZ Marinader Liquid Marinade in a Bag (also a 30-minute product) in a Steakhouse flavor from H.J. Heinz Company.

While economic concerns may be encouraging consumers to curtail eating out, there are more ways than ever to enjoy restaurant-quality food at home. Mario Batali Pasta Sauce from Gia Brands is a 2009 launch that has made this a reality, as have restaurant-branded products for home use. Panera Bread Refrigerated Dip and Legal Sea Foods Refrigerated Dip, both from Blout Fine Foods, extend the geographic reach of both restaurant outlets into the home.

Speaking of dips, look for more companies to leverage the success of thick, Greek-style yogurts with dips sporting a similar flavor profile and texture. Cedar’s Simply Delicious Tzatziki Greek Strained Yogurt Dip may be a sign of what is to come in this

Tom Vierhile is director of Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics, which is part of the firm’s Consumer Markets Knowledge Center, located at Vierhile has over 20 years of experience in new consumer packaged goods reporting and analysis, and holds an MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Contact him at or 585-396-5128.

Website Resources: Type the words “dressings,” “sauces” or “marinades” into the searchable database Some fun historical facts about Americans’ favorite salads Type in “dressings” for many dressing ideas

Going Global: International Developments: Salad Dressings and Sauces
Functional dressing and sauce products may be novel in North America but not in Japan, where ingredients like collagen have been popping up in food products for some time.

In 2009, the skin-enhancing ingredient found its way into Daisho Sauce for Tofu Beauty, a lemon-flavored sauce that is poured over tofu. Aimed at women, each sauce bottle supplies 3,000mg of collagen. That is the same collagen content as a bottle of Nippon Ham Salad Dressing. Intended to be poured over salad, this dressing has a unique jelly texture and comes in Tomato Jelly and Lemon Jelly flavors.

On the flavor front, Japan’s Ajinomoto and its affiliate Gaban Co. Ltd., a high-end spice brand, created a line of spice sauces under the Gaban brand name. The line combines Gaban’s spices with Knorr’s Western-style sauce and includes four varieties: black sesame and black pepper; garlic pepper; herb lemon; and spicy salsa. Just to show the spice trend is not limited to Asia alone, South Africa is where one can sample Ina Paarman’s Kitchen Lime & Coriander Low-Fat Salad Dressing.

Speaking of functionality, can a sauce really work as an aphrodisiac? Apparently, if the claims made by Doña Flora Picante de Bachaco Culon in Venezuela are true. Squeamish consumers probably want to take a pass on this sauce that contains yucca juice and  giant ground ants. The product label pictures a giant ant, making the sauce look more at home in the garden aisle than alongside a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

Finally, overseas developments suggest that flexible packaging may proliferate soon. Yamasa Shoyu of Japan recently introduced Yamasa Sendo no Itteki Specially Selected Soy Sauce in an innovative Doy-Pack pouch, with an aperture made of a unique thin film that keeps it airtight after opening.