“Flavor trends start here” is the sign one could post in front of the sauces, marinades and salad dressing market. This market has traditionally served as a petri dish for new flavor and meal ideas, and 2012 was an especially keen year for cooking sauce innovation.

That is a good thing, because the market for sauces and marinades—which includes sectors such as wet cooking sauces, table sauces, condiment sauces and even dry cooking sauces—stumbled on the new product front in 2012. Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics database of new products logged a 24% decline in new sauces and marinades in 2012. The news was not quite as bleak in salad dressings, which nevertheless posted a 7% decline in new items in 2012.

However, anyone focused on sectors like cooking and simmer sauces may have missed the overall category slide. Big guns from the soup market decided to make this niche their playground in 2012, and the growth prospects for 2013 could be outstanding as a result. The highest profile 2012 launch came from Campbell Soup Company with Campbell’s Skillet Sauces. Heavy on ethnic flavors and somewhat light on volume, since each stand-up pouch serves two, the line is geared toward the elusive Millennial consumer.

“Dinner for two…(and then some)” is the description on the Thai Green Curry with Lemongrass & Basil, and Creamy Chipotle with Roasted Corn and Black Beans flavors of Campbell’s Skillet Sauces. The line is intended to provide consumers with quick-and-healthy meal ideas. Consumers were already moving in this direction, as the “Shopping for Health 2012” survey (sponsored by Prevention magazine and the Food Marketing Institute) found 57% of shoppers said they have tried a new healthy recipe in the last year, up five points from 2009.

Another top soup brand focusing on the cooking sauce concept was from General Mills under its Progresso label. In 2012, the firm debuted Progresso Recipe Starters Cooking Sauce, a canned cooking sauce line in such flavors as Creamy Portabella Mushroom, Creamy Three Cheese and Fire Roasted Tomato.

A slightly more decadent twist on this concept came from Robert Rothschild Farm, with its Meal Starter Sauce in flavors like Pub Style Beer & Onion and Tangy Chipotle Barbecue. Even more unusual is the Pepper Fig Hazelnut flavor of Sacla Sauce, a line of cooking sauces introduced in Belgium toward the year’s end.

Banking on Bacon

Across other sauce categories, the theme in 2012 was capitalizing on flavor trends, including the consumer love affair with bacon. Though sauces and condiments are not the first things that come to mind when thinking of bacon, that did not stop innovations like Prego Bacon & Provolone Italian Sauce from Campbell Soup. Smoked bacon also found its way into mustard, courtesy of Inglehoffer Applewood Smoked Bacon Mustard.

It will be interesting to see if this love of meat carries over into game meats, which are just finding their way into sauce products in some markets outside of the U.S. In the UK, David Oliver Fine Foods launched a line of Slow Brazed Sauces featuring rabbit and venison, among other meats.

The sweet-and-tart balsamic flavor is closely associated with salad dressings and vinegars, but it proved a lively addition to condiments, such as mustard and ketchup. Hartford Reserve Balsamic Fig & Date Premium Canadian Mustard offers a sweet-and-tart take on mustard. Ketchup is a condiment that tends to be resistant to flavor innovation, but 2012 saw Heinz introduce Balsamic Vinegar Tomato Ketchup as a limited-edition flavor, a bullish sign for ketchup flavor creativity.

Although it was just outside of the top 10 sauce flavors for 2012, balsamic was one of a handful of popular flavors that showed strong upward momentum. Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics noted that 2.3% of 2012’s sauce launches featured the balsamic flavor, up from 1.1% in 2011. Mushroom was another flavor on the rise, with 2.7% of new sauces featuring this flavor, up from 1.4% of launches in 2011.

Looking at marinade trends, sweet-hot or tangy-hot flavors were all the rage in 2012. Orange Chipotle, one of four flavors in the Chef LaLa Homemade Marinade line, fits this description, as does the Chipotle Honey with Tomato + Garlic flavor (for shrimp and fish) of Frontera Marinades. In addition, a “tangy sweet blend of pomegranates, orange peel and sage” highlights Williams-Sonoma Pomegranate Citrus Roasting Glaze.

Sweet for Barbecue

Barbecue sauces also were changing, with more focus on sweet or sweet/tart flavors. KC Masterpiece Southern Style Cider Vinegar Recipe boasts a tart-and-sweet flavor. Asian flavors also exemplified this trend. Robert Rothschild Farm’s Asian Honey Barbecue Sauce promises to go well with chicken, salmon, ribs and pork. Meanwhile, more suited for steak is Tonton Kobe BBQ Sauce, inspired by soy sauce.

Functional sauces and condiments tended to be rare, despite consumer interest in fortification in general. Indeed, the “Shopping for Health 2012” survey reported interest in protein on nutrition labels is climbing. In fact, the percentage of consumers said to be “concerned” about protein is up 10 percentage points since 2009—to 33%. This trend may help Protica Protein Ketchup, a product claiming to be the first protein-fortified condiment and boasting 15g of protein in every 1oz, dip-friendly cup. Even more unusual was Sloboda Biolayt Light Mayonnaise + Prebiotic, a new mayonnaise available in Russia that features prebiotic ingredients said to normalize metabolism and aid digestive health.

More typical health claims for sauces were the “no” or “low” variety. “No gluten” was the number two claim for new sauces in 2012, with 16.1% of sauces touting the elimination of gluten, up from 12.3% of launches in 2011.

Sodium-related claims also rose in 2012, with 5% of new sauces making a “low sodium” claim, up from 2.5% in 2011. Sodium content matters to consumers. The “Shopping for Health 2012” survey ranked sodium as the top concern among label-reading consumers, with 67% saying they care about the sodium content of foods.

Anything and Everything

If there was one sentiment that typified product launch activity in salad dressings in 2012, it would be the phrase “anything goes.” Another way of putting this would be to say salad dressing “goes on anything,” as product versatility was a rallying cry in 2012.

Seeking to set consumers free and let them figure out how to use its salad dressings, Kraft Foods and Clorox gave consumers permission to use salad dressing to top hamburgers; jazz up ice cream; liven up vegetable dip; and more. Kraft went so far as to rename its entire Kraft dressing line to Anything Dressing to highlight use on a wide variety of foods, not just salads. That moniker works for dressings like Balsamic Vinaigrette, Classic Catalina, Honey Mustard and more.

Clorox had known for some time that its popular Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing was used on a lot more than just salads. Clorox’s new Hidden Valley Ranch for Everything Topping & Dip formalized this flexibility with an offering dubbed the “new ketchup—great on burgers and fries.”

Healthful ingredients and hotter, spicier flavors were other salad dressing themes in 2012. For healthful ingredients, yogurt was the big story, as the Greek yogurt phenomenon continues. Yogurt was the key to Marzetti Simply Dressed & Light Salad Dressing’s low-calorie claim, with yogurt-based flavors, such as Light Blue cheese and Light. Ditto for Bolthouse Farms Yogurt Dressing, offered in a Zesty French variant. Both products are sold in the produce section of supermarkets.

Greek yogurt also invaded the dip category, where it was utilized as a “better-for-you” substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream. That is the case for Stonemill Kitchen’s Greek Yogurt Dip, in flavors like Kalamata Olives & Peppers. Also leveraging Greek yogurt was Le Terra Fina Greek Yogurt Salata Dip, a trans fat- and gluten-free product made with a combination of fresh vegetables, herbs and Greek yogurt.

Olive oil and superfruit ingredients also were hailed by salad dressing makers as image and health improvers. Hellmann’s Reduced Fat Mayonnaise with Olive Oil offers half the fat and calories of regular mayonnaise, helped by the use of Bertolli extra virgin olive oil as an ingredient. Açai, the Brazilian superfruit, was favored by Marzetti Simply Dressed & Light Raspberry Acai Salad Dressing, a refrigerated product said to contain a wealth of antioxidants.

Another superfruit—pomegranate—was a top flavor story. The fruit was tied for the seventh most popular salad dressing flavor in 2012, according to Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics. More impressive was the increase in usage for pomegranate from 2011 to 2012. In 2012, some 5.1% of salad dressing introductions were flavored, with pomegranate up dramatically from just 1.8% in 2011.

Balsamic, ranch and raspberry were the top three salad dressing flavors for new product introductions in 2012, but the flavor surprises came well after this trio. Bacon was tied for the number seven spot, a huge jump from the number 20 position it held in 2011. And, the flavor “zesty” came out of nowhere to tie for the number nine spot. 

Hotter and spicier flavors were an intense focus of innovation for salad dressings and condiments in 2012, especially products featuring the Buffalo flavor that has been so popular for chicken wings. Unilever’s Wish-Bone Buffalo Ranch Dressing claims to be made with Frank’s RedHot Sauce. Frank’s RedHot Sauce also found its way into Hellmann’s Limited Edition Spicy Buffalo Flavored Reduced Fat Mayonnaise.

One role of hotter and spicier flavors is to compensate for fat that may be missing in newly slimmed-down offerings. “Reduced fat” tied (with the no-gluten claim) for the number two most popular health claim for salad dressings in 2012, with 13.3% of product launches making a fat-reduction claim. Kraft’s new Sandwich Shop Mayo line used this strategy, as flavors like Steakhouse (made with A1 sauce) and Twist of Lime contain half the fat and calories of regular mayonnaise.