• Side Dishes and Soups Echo Interest in Vegetables
  • Vegetables Considered “The New Meat,” with Emphasis on Center-of-plate

In the coming year, food forecasters expect less emphasis on the center-of-the-plate proteins and more importance on vegetables and grains previously relegated to the perimeter. “When the New York magazine declared, ‘Vegetables are the new meat’ [November 2010], chefs started paying more attention,” says Kara Nielson, “trendologist” for the Center of Culinary Development, San Francisco. “They are no longer the ‘sorry side dish,’” she says.


Nielson believes much of the thanks for this newfound awareness can be attributed to farmers’ markets. This means when supermarket shoppers reach for a frozen, canned and/or refrigerated soup or side dish, they expect both more and less; that is, more flavor and better texture with less in the way of such things as fillers and additives. For product formulators, this can be a tall order.

Flavor is the first order, and many companies have come out in front with big, bold flavors. Top flavor trends in soups fall in close line with global food trends of umami, bacon, sweet potatoes, roasted peppers and regional flavors from Asia, South America and Central America. Here are a few soup examples that capture these flavor trends:

n Umami: Campbell’s Co. Kettle Soups’ Burgundy Beef Stew with Baby Bella Mushrooms, Roasted Garlic and Rosemary; Portobello Mushrooms and Madeira Bisque with Shallots, Thyme and Sage.

n Asian and Middle Eastern: Pacific Foods of Oregon Inc.’s Cashew Carrot Ginger; Vegetable Lentil with Roasted Red Pepper; Chicken Pho Soup Starter; and Southwest Tortilla Soup Starter.

n Central and South America: General Mills Inc.’s Progresso World Recipe Soups, including Tortilla y Pollo (Chicken Tortilla), Albondigas (Meatball & Rice), Caldo de Pollo (Chicken & Vegetable) and Frijoles Negros y Jalapeño (Black Bean Jalapeño).

Trend forecasters say sweet potatoes are hot and have yet to hit their true potential. Consumption of sweet potatoes in America jumped from 4.5lbs per person per year in 2005 to 6.4lbs in 2011, according to the USDA. ConAgra Inc.’s Lamb Weston frozen sweet potato plant reports 50% category growth from 2005-2010. Early products include Pacific Foods Chipotle Sweet Potato soup, Alexia Food’s sweet potato fries, puffs and sautés, and H.J. Heinz Co.’s Ore-Ida sweet potato fries.

Orange, red and green are the colors of choice for frozen vegetable sides. “Hue-nutrition” or “eating your colors” is another increasingly popular theme. General Mills Inc.’s Green Giant brand Valley Fresh Healthy Colors line includes Market Blend (infused with extra-virgin olive oil), Valley Blend (with garlic butter sauce) and Antioxidant Blend (with red and yellow sweet peppers, broccoli and carrots). This product offering is a good example of healthy eat-your-colors marketing.

Whole-grain rice and lesser-known grains are gaining attention. Whole-grain rice is seeing double-digit growth, and more than half of shoppers bought whole-grain pasta in 2010. As many as 9% bought quinoa in the same year, according to The USA Rice Federation and the Food Marketing Institute’s “2011 Shopping for Health Report,” respectively. The expectation is that other grains will gain acceptance, especially as Middle Eastern and Asian flavors continue moving from the culinary and restaurant sectors to prepared foods. Examples are: black, red, jasmine and basmati rice, plus farro, kamut, quinoa and amaranth.

Flavor up, Salt Down, Chemicals Out

As demands for flavors go global, developers are looking ahead for ways to create bolder flavors with less sodium and no artificial additives. Sodium reduction is a top concern on product developers’ must-do list for 2012. Flavorists agree that to reduce sodium dramatically, potassium chloride is the ingredient of choice (KCl), but it can linger in the mouth and, in some formulations, leaves a bitter taste note. To address this, ingredient manufacturers have been creating different blends of potassium chloride and sodium chloride or incorporating blends of botanical extracts as ways to lower sodium without altering flavor impact. Other companies are concentrating sources of strong flavors, such as tomato, into powder and liquid forms allowing substitution for not only sodium but monosodium glutamate (MSG) as well. MSG has been falling out of favor.

Another way to make up for salt is to play up other flavors, particularly umami. Although protein main dishes are getting pushed to the side, protein flavor is still important. Yeast extract is one choice for natural broths, soups and sauces,  but advancements are proving that both umami (savory) and kokumi (full mouthfeel) are possible with other ingredients. Kokumi, a Japanese concept, is derived from calcium, protamine (from milt or fish sperm), the amino acid L-histidine and glutathione. Caramelized and roasted flavors intensify umami, and many examples of this class of ingredients are available in natural formats.

Bouillon, soup bases and stocks have not always been perceived as “clean” products. Early product formulations relied on chemical reactions from meat and vegetable proteins that were hydrolyzed by hydrochloric acid and neutralized with sodium carbonate, with yeast residues added in for flavor (Fenerali, G, Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, VII, CRC Press, 2000). At the time, bouillon typically contained very little actual meat, poultry or natural flavor extracts, which made them suspect for some shoppers.

Today, more natural, “like homemade” concentrated stocks and sauce bases are gaining market share for their small size, big flavors and product lines expanded to appeal to vegetarians, clean-label readers and reduced-sodium followers. These concentrated tubs, tubes and jars of flavor allow home cooks to tailor the intensity, sodium and flavor profiles for sauces and soups. Unilever Inc.’s Knorr brands introduced Homestyle Stock in 2007, a concentrated, shelf-stable jellied stock in chicken and beef, with natural vegetable flavoring.

CSC Brands LP.’s Swanson followed suit in 2011, with even smaller flavor packets, also in chicken and beef flavors. Both brands are free of artificial flavors and preservatives, and rely less on sodium for their flavor punch.

Superior Products Inc. boasts the broadest range in concentrated pastes, including offerings in categories as diverse as All-Natural, Reduced Sodium, Organic, Kosher and Premium. The Premium lines include an impressive assortment of flavors chefs clamor for, such as Au Jus, Beef and Chicken Chili, Clam, Fish, Ham, Lobster and Mushroom, Turkey and Vegetable bases. Each primary ingredient is a concentrated base of the title. The organic lines are notable for their clean list of ingredients and use of natural flavors rather than hydrolyzed soy, disodium inosinate or guanylate.

Back to Basics

Another consumer desire is that a product contains ingredients they recognize. This can get tricky when emulsifiers with unfamiliar names  can raise a red flag with shoppers. Friendly sounding, plant-based ingredients that act as stabilizers and emulsifiers are in development. For instance, pea protein is a heat-stable emulsifier and a good source of high-quality protein. Pea starch, too, is stable under high temperatures, acid and shear and so is a good fit for aseptic soup processing.

Sweet potato has received attention as a possible new emulsifier, adding even more potential to the category. A recent study from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing showed that protein concentrates from sweet potatoes form stable emulsions at a concentration of 1%. This could prove valuable for creamy soups and sauces or even for vegetable side dishes.

As for lowering fat while maintaining the mouthfeel of dairy-based soups and sauces for sides, creative starch blends are increasing their profile. Many starch blends available allow for lowering calories from high-fat oils and dairy cream, without having to give up on viscosity, cling or thickness in prepared soups and sauces.

The other issue for this category is texture. As consumers gain a stronger interest in fruits, vegetables and grains from local sources, expectations also could rise for store-bought prepared foods that have superior qualities in taste and texture. Sodden vegetables with overcooked pasta in a soup or side just won’t cut it; closer attention to ingredient preparation is in order.

In the November 2011 issue of Trends in Food Science Technology, a team of food technologists at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, reported that, all too often, ingredients for frozen, canned and refrigerated items containing fruits and vegetables are treated the same way—typically, with prolonged heat treatments. This often lowers the nutritive value and sensory qualities of the finished product. “Although the journey from farm to fork begins with the supply of raw materials, these typically are supplied without control of—or specifications on—nutritional or structural characteristics,” says Marc Hendrickx, Ph.D., the lead researcher.

The study’s test-pilot “healthy” soup with fresh carrots, tomatoes and broccoli was made with split-stream processing—rapid stabilization, early processing with high-temperature/short-time treatments—referred to as “intelligent food processing.” The results of the study indicated that, in vivo, the test soup increased the serum antioxidant levels significantly more than a conventionally produced soup.

Sargento Foods Inc.’s Portionables plays into the concept of this “intelligent” food processing. The individually quick frozen (IQF) and portion-controlled pellets contain customizable fresh ingredients and seasonings designed to preserve the flavor, texture and color of the product. Sargento formulates frozen chunks for soups and side dishes, desserts, sauces and beverages. Unilever’s Bertolli brand Frozen Meal Soups for Two contain frozen flavor pellets bagged with pasta, meat and vegetables. The user adds one cup of water and boils the mixture to make a soup.

Ten Side Dish Trends for 2012

Product manufacturers have an opportunity to play into consumer interest for convenient health foods that taste good. Think outside the frozen-vegetable box with these trends for side dishes and soups.

1.         Farro. The nutty Italian grain is now on menus at the TCF Co.’s Cheesecake Factory restaurants and at Pizzeria Uno Corp.’s Uno Chicago Grill, and Fig Food Co. launched an aseptic-packaged farro soup for Whole Foods Supermarkets in 2011.

2.         Sweet Potatoes. This quintessential Southern spud is no longer just for the Thanksgiving table. These high-fiber, low-glycemic index vegetables are a hit with kids and adults.

3.         Kale. The consumer research group Nielsen Co. says kale could be the new spinach. The restaurant newcomer is a perfect ingredient for soups, sauces, pastas and frozen vegetable mixes, because it holds up well to strong global flavors.

4.         Seasonal Vegetables. Frozen and canned vegetable companies have an opportunity to play into the demand for picked-in-season and preserved-all-year produce. Small Planet Foods Inc.’s Muir Glen group recently launched a seasonal heirloom red-and-yellow canned tomato product that is on shelves for a limited time, just as at the farmers’ market.

5.         Sea Vegetables. Also known as seaweed, sea vegetables are an option for spice seasoning in rice dishes, a vegetable-coating batter and stir-fried food.

6.         Beets for Sides and Desserts. Pastry chefs are sweet on vegetables. This could be a little far-fetched for Green Giant, but what about beet chocolate cake or a beet smoothie IQF?

7.         Kid-sized Sides. Pint-size portions of healthy side dishes are an overworked parent’s best friend.

8.         Gluten-free Noodles. Non-wheat noodles in side dishes and soups made from grains like quinoa, and black, red and brown rice appeal to a steadily increasing cadre of gluten-free product lovers.

9.         Street Food. Food truck fare is America’s version of street food. Global flavors that mimic the food truck phenomenon will be a hit.

10.       Meatless Monday Meals. Side dishes with alternative proteins can be served as a side or an entree on “Meatless Mondays.”

Source: Kara Nielsen, trendologist, Center for Culinary Development: “Side Dish Trends for 2012,” www.ccdsf.com; National Restaurant Association, “What’s Hot in 2012;” Mintel’s top ingredient trends.