Dips, sauces and other condiments with better-for-you ingredients are on-trend with the move to more healthful dining. Offering twists on classic balsamic vinaigrettes or salsa is one way to incorporate new flavors into traditional healthful offerings.

Today, more than ever before, restaurants are under pressure to continuously roll out innovative flavors, in order to differentiate their menus and drive customers into their restaurants. Consumers rank the taste of food as the most important attribute of a dish and seek out new and interesting flavors. In a consumer study for Technomic’s “2009 Flavor Consumer Trend Report,” more than four out of 10 consumers said they are more likely to patronize a restaurant that offers innovative, unusual flavors. More than one third of consumers reported an increased interested in trying new flavors, compared to a year ago.

Flavor can be most easily imparted through sauces, condiments and dips. Chefs are incorporating ethnic influences, as flavors become bolder, spicier and more exotic. Popular flavors on today’s foodservice scene include chipotle-ranch, honey-barbecue, cilantro-lime and soy-ginger--all of them virtually non-existent on mainstream menus a decade ago. Cream-based sauces and dips are being used for flavor innovation. Dips, sauces and other condiments with better-for-you ingredients are on-trend with the move to more healthful dining.

The Happy Marriage of Sweet and Savory
Heightened interest in global influences is leading chefs to experiment with new flavor combinations, above all sweet-with-savory combos. Four of the top five most preferred flavor pairings on McCormick & Company’s latest annual forecast of hot new flavor profiles feature a sweet profile, including sweet paprika and agave nectar (with a sweet-and-smoky profile); cayenne and tart cherry (sweet-and-spicy); rosemary and fruit preserves (sweet-and-sour); and dill and avocado oil (sweet-and-savory). Technomic’s flavor research showed women are more drawn to sweet-and-savory pairings, with 50% of female panelists finding sweet flavors appealing compared to 43% of males.

Menu items featuring sweet-and-savory flavor combinations include:
* Crispy Orange Chicken--Breaded chicken covered in a spicy-sweet orange glaze, mixed with mushrooms, broccoli, red peppers and sugar snap peas and served over almond rice pilaf (Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar).
* Coconut Shrimp--Sweet-and-crunchy, coconut-encrusted shrimp, fried and served with a spicy-and-sweet plum sauce for dipping (Miller’s Ale House).
* Whiskey-Apple Glazed Chicken--Sautéed with sweet whiskey-apple sauce and served over apple-and-sourdough herb stuffing with redskin mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables and a buttermilk biscuit (Claim Jumper).
* Bacon Maple Cupcake and Goat Fig Merlot Cupcake (More Cupcakes).

Mediterranean--the Latest Ethnic Hot Spot for Flavor
As consumers develop more adventurous palates, many are interested in ethnic flavor profiles. Others are drawn by the healthful aspects of ethnic fare and look for ways to incorporate other cultures’ better-for-you ingredients into their daily diets. More than six out of 10 consumers said they would likely order dishes with Spanish (72%), Greek (66%) and Mediterranean (62%) ingredients and flavors. The popularity of these cuisines is due in part to the health halo associated with Mediterranean fare. Females, in particular, are drawn to ingredients and flavors of the European Mediterranean, because of their perceived health benefits. Popular Spanish ingredients include avocado, green chiles and saffron. Greek ingredients include feta and goat cheeses, kalamata olives and pepperoncini. Common pan-Mediterranean ingredients are olive oil, rosemary, hummus and black olives.

The less familiar Mediterranean cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa have greater appeal among males. Approximately 40% of male panelists said they would definitely or probably order menu items made with flavors and ingredients from Moroccan, Lebanese and Turkish cuisines. Nearly one third of both men and women expressed an interest in Persian flavors.

Taking a Plunge Into Ethnic Dips
Consumers are venturing beyond honey mustard, ketchup and barbecue flavors for their dipping sauces. When asked what dipping sauces they prefer for chicken fingers, consumers showed interest in Asian-inspired sauces. Approximately 41% of men and 46% of women said they would choose a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, and 39% of men and 41% of women would choose teriyaki sauce. For wings, teriyaki, sweet-and-sour, garlic and curry sauces were ranked among the top dip preferences.

Both Asian and Latin dipping sauces are being used to complement a variety of standard appetizers. Menu items with Asian sauces include Jumbo wings with Spicy Orange Ginger, Honey Garlic or Asian Sesame Sauce (Duffy’s Sports Grill); Curry Chicken Breast Salad--chicken, almonds, raisins, romaine, scallions and coconut tossed in a curry dressing (Jerry’s Famous Deli); and Thai Chicken Pizza--featuring pieces of chicken breast marinated in a spicy peanut-ginger and sesame sauce, mozzarella cheese, green onions, bean sprouts, julienne carrots, cilantro and roasted peanuts (California Pizza Kitchen).

Beyond Asian flavors, Mexican and Mediterranean flavors also have fans. Consumers are dipping their bread and breadsticks in guacamole and salsa; pairing red and green salsas with mozzarella sticks; and choosing garlic and marinara sauces for onion rings and French fries.

Creamy Sauces Rise to the Top
Craveable, cream-based, comfort-food sauces are on-trend in these uncertain times. Because cream-based sauces are highly versatile and can be paired with most proteins, they provide an easy base for creating new flavors. “Everyday” cream-based flavors include ranch, tartar, Alfredo, cream and sour cream. These flavors are popular on sandwiches and pair well with seafood, chicken and pork. Opportunity flavors are Santa Fe ranch, garlic-herb, four-cheese cream and avocado cream. Tomato cream sauces are increasingly appearing in pasta dishes, as well as chicken, pork and seafood entrees.

Ready-for-trial creamy flavors just now moving into the mainstream are barbecue ranch, jalapeño cream, creamy curry, cilantro cream, ginger cream and poblano cream. Cilantro cream is being paired with chicken and pork, and jalapeño cream often complements chicken, pork and seafood dishes.

Consumers indicate that condiments with creamy textures are appealing for hamburgers and chicken entrées, especially chicken tenders and chicken wings. Sour cream, bleu cheese and Caesar dressing are popular hamburger condiments. For pasta dishes, consumers identified tomato cream and four-cheese or Parmesan cream sauces as opportunity flavors.

Menu offerings with cream-based sauces include:
* Shrimp Scampi Pasta--Scampi-style shrimp sautéed in a creamy garlic lobster-butter sauce with chopped basil, tomatoes, capers and Parmesan cheese, served on angel-hair pasta (Carrows Restaurants).
* Chicken Penne Gorgonzola--Penne pasta with Gorgonzola cream sauce, mushrooms, garlic and Roma tomatoes (Carino’s Italian Grill).
* Seafood Enchiladas--Stuffed with shrimp, scallops, onions and mushrooms, topped with crawfish and a roasted ancho cream sauce and served with rice pilaf (Rockfish Seafood Grill).
* Asian Nachos--Crispy fried wontons covered with chicken in a sweet-hot peanut sauce and topped with wasabi cream and melted cheese (Grand Lux Café).
* Hawaiian Style Misoyaki Butterfish--Served with Wasabi Ginger Cilantro Cream sauce (Roy’s Restaurants).

The “Do-it-yourselfers”
Many consumers enjoy adding flavor themselves to control the taste of their dish. About two thirds of survey respondents said they enjoy using dips and condiments (66%) and seasonings and spices (62%) to enhance their food at the table. Tastes and levels of adventurousness vary, though, so offering a variety of sauces on the side or at the table in containers or single-serve packets is a good way to present new options without intimidating consumers.

“Better-for-you” Sauces
Consumers indicate a desire for a greater variety of healthier sauces and condiments at restaurants. Panelists considered olive oil (69%), balsamic vinegar (52%) and red salsa (55%) the healthiest condiments and sauces. Olive oil, a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, is often promoted as a natural, heart-healthy condiment, and red salsa is perceived as a healthful option, because it contains fresh ingredients, such as tomatoes, onions and peppers.

Offering twists on classic balsamic vinaigrettes or salsa is one way to incorporate new flavors into traditional healthful offerings. Restaurants should also consider highlighting healthful sauces and dips on menus and, perhaps, provide their ingredient lists and nutritional information separately, to encourage health-conscious consumers to indulge.

Examples of menu items with healthful condiments, sauces and dips are as follows. Carrabba’s Italian Grill offers Chicken Gratella, a grilled chicken breast, based with olive oil and herbs. Chili’s Grill & Bar’s menu lists Asian Salad, comprised of lettuce with napa cabbage, crispy wontons, edamame, green onions, cilantro and sesame seeds, topped with an Asian vinaigrette and a creamy peanut drizzle and served with grilled chicken, salmon or steak. Bahama Breeze menus Chicken Santiago, a grilled chicken with creamy roasted red-pepper sauce, tomato salsa, yucca, peppers and onions, and, from Daily Grill, an Endive, Spicy Pecans & Romaine with Gorgonzola Cheese Starter Salad is tossed in a walnut-oil vinaigrette dressing.

Saucing Success
Without a doubt, consumers want flavor variety, including bold and mild flavors, as well as traditional and unusual flavors. But, many consumers are less likely to experiment with new flavor combinations at home, because they do not know how to make new flavors, or they lack the ingredients. This opens the door for operators to differentiate their concept through new and innovative dips, condiments and sauces.

Flavor innovation is a continuous process. Operators need to work to stay at the forefront of trends by featuring leading-edge flavors in their dishes. Dips, condiments and sauces are easy to experiment with, offering an ideal way to incorporate the newest craveable flavors into menus in order to drive traffic and sales.

 Some guidelines for saucing success include combining recognizable ingredients with unique flavor profiles; experimenting with global flavors in small plates, appetizers and sides; offering new options in cream-based sauces for consumers looking for something both adventurous and comforting; and considering integrating and promoting more organic, natural and local ingredients. pf