In recent years, “big food” has lost ground to smaller challengers in many food categories including sauces, dressings, and spreads. These are areas with few barriers to entry and they are especially welcoming to flavor innovation. 

This has put “big food” in a fighting mood. After years of neglect, categories such as ketchup and mayonnaise have suddenly become centers of innovation for the food giants.

Few condiments are as basic as ketchup and fewer offerings are more iconic than Heinz Ketchup, but even old brands need to learn new tricks from time to time. Heinz Sweetened with Honey Reduced Sugar Tomato Ketchup updates the Heinz Ketchup brand by avoiding high fructose corn syrup, cutting the sugar content by 25% by using honey as its only sweetener. 

Unilever has also been sweet on honey, challenging Heinz in the ketchup category for the first time with its new Hellmann’s Real Ketchup which is made with only six ingredients, including honey. 

“We saw this as an opportunity to elevate an American staple by stripping it down to only the most essential ingredients,” said Russel Lilly, marketing director for Hellmann’s. 

Kraft Heinz in turn is challenging Unilever’s Hellmann’s Mayonnaise brand with Heinz Real Mayonnaise, which launched in egg-shaped jars to remind consumers that it is made with 100% cage-free eggs. Hellmann’s itself added an Avocado Oil Dressing to the franchise, one with 30% less fat and calories than the regular product.

In addition to battling each other, Heinz and Hellmann’s are also pushing back against small mayonnaise brands that have nearly doubled their footprint of late. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, small mayonnaise brands had a 6.1% share of the market in 2017, almost double their 3.2% share in 2012.

Among those newcomers are brands like Avonaise, a vegan mayonnaise that replaces eggs with real avocado for a new kind of spread. The product is also soy- and corn-free, with less fat and fewer calories than traditional mayonnaise.

Small brands may be trendy, but they lack the brand equity and heritage that established brands can leverage with new offerings. The Heinz brand went to this well three times the past year or so, first with Heinz Mayochup Mayonnaise and then with Heinz Mayocue Spicy Sauce.

Mayochup marries new Heinz Real Mayonnaise with its iconic Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Heinz teased the mashup on Twitter in the spring of 2018, asking consumers to vote whether or not this product should be sold in the US. The brand established a bar of 500,000 “yes” votes to proceed, which it did.

Nearly a year later, Heinz shook the mashup tree again with Mayocue Saucy Sauce (blending mayonnaise with barbecue sauce) and Mayomust (pairing mayonnaise with mustard). Both “take the guesswork” out of creating your own mashups. Finally, in April of 2019, Heinz rolled out Kranch Saucy Sauce, a marriage of ketchup and ranch dressing geared toward the dip market. 

Other innovation efforts tapped popular brands from television, foodservice, and more. Kraft Heinz joined forces with the Food Network for the Food Network Kitchen Inspirations line of “globally inspired” cooking sauces, salad dressings, and more. Mexican Style Cilantro Lime vinaigrette paced a line of seven new vinaigrette dressings while Korean Gochujang was one of five new cooking sauces.

Specialty food innovator Stonewall Kitchen inked a deal with the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain to launch a new line of restaurant-inspired sauces and marinades including House Tartar Sauce and House Cocktail Sauce. In January 2019, the brand leveraged the popularity of Maine-based Alligash Brewing Company’s Tripel Ale with Maine Craft Ale Grille Sauce.

Taking small brands and making them bigger is a goal of food giants like Unilever. The company purchased the Sir Kensington’s artisanal condiment brand in 2017 and introduced a four item line of ranch dressings including Avocado Oil Classic and Pizza Ranch a year later.

With sales that exceed those of ketchup, ranch dressing is a massive category, thanks largely to the efforts of Clorox and its Hidden Valley Ranch brand. According to Clorox, over 70% of ranch dressing usage is actually outside of salad dressing. This versatility speaks to ranch dressing’s success and future opportunities like Clorox’s own new Hidden Valley Dips line.

Other brands want a piece of the ranch pie. Primal Kitchen hopes to challenge with a Vegan Ranch Dressing made with avocado oil and said to be paleo- and keto-friendly as well as Whole30-approved. Mother Raw Ranch is a “plant powered” ranch-style dressing and marinade from Reunion Foods that is cold-blended, made in small batches, and kept cold during delivery.

Though technically not a new ranch dressing, Bitten Salad Dressing from Kraft Foods shares some qualities that have made ranch dressing popular, with some clean label tweaks thrown in for good measure. “Made with real fruit and blended to creamy perfection” in flavors like Strawberry and Blueberry Basil, Bitten has a creamy consistency like ranch dressing, but is dairy-free with no high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors, or dyes.


Keep it Clean

The clean label trend continues to guide and shape new product innovation as consumers seek more information. Clean label, in fact, may be a key to connecting with brand switchers. According to a 2018 report by Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute, 75% of American consumers say they are more likely to switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information—including details that go beyond that on traditional product labels.

That percentage is up from a 39% response in 2016.

Going organic has become one of the more popular ways that brands can participate in the clean label trend including specialty food brands. Briannas Organic Salad Dressing goes this route with a five-flavor line including Honey Ginger Vinaigrette. 

Taco sauce is one of the more niche sauce categories, but it too is going organic. New Red Duck Taco Sauce line is hailed as the first certified organic, gluten-free, and vegan taco sauce line. Sold in flavors like Mild, Spicy, and Korean, the line comes from Red Duck Foods, a company that is a Certified B Corporation, a designation indicating a deeper commitment to social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.

Certain words have become popular for communicating clean label qualities. The word “simply” is one example. Ragu Simply Pasta Sauce relies on the word to communicate its Non-GMO Project Verified status and absence of artificial flavors.

Ingredients are sometimes used to prove clean label status. Sun-dried fruit is used by Traina Foods to demonstrate the cleanliness of its Traina Home Grown Barbecue Sauce line in Sun Dried Plum and Sun Dried Apricot flavors. Both are gluten free, vegan, and free of corn syrup.

Apple cider vinegar has become an iconic health ingredient to watch. According to IRI, apple cider vinegar is expected to see double-digit annual growth over the next three years and Litehouse, Inc. wants to ride the wave. Litehouse is making apple cider vinegar the focus of a new dairy-free, five-flavor line of Apple Cider Vinagrettes including Lemon Ginger Turmeric and Spiced Fig.

Kombucha is renowned for its health properties and has quickly become star in the beverage market. Ithaca Kombucha Company is one of the first to bring kombucha to the hot sauce market with its IKC JD’s Hot Sauce. Made with kombucha and crafted with natural ingredients, it is said to be the “perfect blend of hot, tangy, and savory.”

Clean label or not, flavor innovation ultimately drives most launch activity in sauces, dressings, and spreads.

Fig is an up-and-coming flavor making waves. Plochman’s Mustard added a Fig flavor in 2018, citing the fact that sales of fig-flavored products grew by over 80% between 2012 and 2016. The company added a Cranberry Mustard at the same time.

Rosé has risen to prominence in the wine industry, a fact not lost on Trader Joe’s which recently added Organic Rosé Vinagrette. The new salad dressing is inspired by rose wine and delivers light, tangy, and floral flavors. 

Turmeric has come out of nowhere to become one of the food industry’s newest functional ingredient stars. Still, it is unusual to see turmeric paired with another fast-rising ingredient — almond butter — as is the case with The New Primal Almond Butter Turmeric Dressing. This flavor, along with Sriracha Tahini, is part of a quartet of new culinary-inspired dressings from The New Primal.

Hotter is often better when it comes to sauces, but how hot can salsa makers go? Renfro Foods says that its Mrs. Renfro’s Carolina Reaper Salsa is its hottest product ever, even hotter than the brand’s Ghost Pepper Salsa. How hot is the Carolina Reaper pepper? It measures 1.5 million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) compared to just 30,000 SHUs for the average jalapeno pepper.

Texture can be a differentiating factor for pasta sauce, but few brands have gone as far as to add crunch-enhancing ingredients to sauce. Gil’s Gourmet is the exception with new Parmesan Walnut Pasta Sauce. 

The growing popularity of international travel is opening up new flavor sampling opportunities. Along these lines, one of the more under-developed opportunities in Asian flavors comes from Cambodia, a country seeing a recent tourism boom. Cambodian Raw Hot Sauce (Chrouk Metae) from Angkor Cambodian Food has a robust flavor and a deep red color. And it’s a lot cheaper than a trip to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat.

Gardel’s Fine Foods’ Chimichurri Sauces celebrate the authentic flavors of Argentina as they complement beef, poultry, pork, and more. Flavor offerings include Balsamico and Limón. 

Packaging innovation is often under-utilized for sauces, dressings and spreads, providing white space innovation opportunities. With the number of single-person households rising, the makers of Riggo Pasta Sauce Made Simple ask “who actually uses an entire jar of pasta sauce?” Sensing an unmet need, the brand offers meat-based pasta sauce in 9-ounce pouches that are “heat and eat” in just 60 seconds with no leftover waste.

Originally appeared in the July, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Spread the News.