COVID-19 has been the great disruptor of 2020 and it shows in the sauce and marinade flavor profiles currently trending. With many restaurants on either hiatus or using abbreviated menus for dine-in or take out, grocery retail trends are leading the way for manufacturers. Now forced to hunker down and self-quarantine, more consumers turn to sauces and marinades to keep home menus interesting.

Prepared sauces take the guesswork out of achieving the ideal culinary balance and flavor for home cooks that want to recreate specific regional cuisines they’ve tried at restaurants or in their travels. Premium prepared sauces allow home cooks to quickly elevate a dish without spending the hours it takes to chop, dice or reduce a sauce. Consumers also appreciate the consistency in flavor in pre-made sauces from package to package.

According to Nielsen, the sales figures support how much home cooks are experimenting. The sauce/gravy/marinade category has grown remarkably with sales up 26% in 2020, as compared to same time in 2019. Moreover, this category growth is outpacing total grocery growth, which is up 24% YTD in 2020.


Familiar Flavors Are Home Base

Sales also show that consumers are starting with sauces that are a familiar “home base” for them. From the onset of the pandemic, consumers began cooking with sauces that were well-known, such as a basic marinara. From there, home cooks started to customize for deeper flavors because they quickly realized that the same five or 10 “go-to” dinners quickly became routine in mealtime rotation after a few weeks.

The plus-one innovations are virtually endless for home cooks that want to adapt a basic sauce for wide range of tastes in the family. Some add peppers for more heat or Italian sausage as a protein. Picky eaters can opt for a sauce or marinade “as is,” and the more adventurous eaters can add heat or other add ins. In the red sauce category, Vodka Sauce (63% up YTD over 2019) and Spicy (46% up YTD over 2019) varieties have seen the largest increases, according to Nielsen.

Other regional sauce and marinade profiles also serve as jumping off points for home cooks. Honey is a basic pantry staple, but now hot honey—flavored with habanero and ghost peppers—is all the rage both with home cooks and on restaurant menus. The delicious combination of sweet mixed with heat appeals to a wide variety of tastes, and there are hundreds of examples across appetizers, main and dessert menus featuring hot honey.

Balsamic vinegar reduction also is a popular ingredient because home cooks can use it in both sweet and savory applications. It is also one of the easiest ways to add depth to the flavor profile of a sauce.

Sriracha and chimichurri were lesser-known and considered exotic just a few short years ago, but with their quick acceptance into US palates, they are now almost descriptor words like Band-Aid(1) or Xerox(2). It’s not unusual to hear someone describe a sauce as a “Hispanic chimichurri” or a “Thai sriracha.”


A Look Ahead

Flavor trends with increased growth right now are from the Middle East and Korea. We are seeing continued interest in prepared ssamjang sauces and bulgogi sauces that can create an instant Korean street food night for a family at home. Korean cuisines, harissas and other spices like sriracha are selling well.

Gojuchang is popular now because the light twinge of sweetness balances out the hotter pureed red peppers. Red chili paste in ssamjang sauce is authentic and amps up the flavor of the protein for delicious Korean tacos or grilled meats.

A cool yogurt and mint cilantro sauce balances the heat from the straight heat of a peppery steak or a  spicy marinade. Schug sauces from Israel (red and green) are making their way into mainstream US households.

As consumers curb spending on travel, but not their desire for global cuisines, we will continue to see innovation in the ethnic flavor platform, especially deeper dives in regional specialties.  For example, consumer crave not just Mexican cuisines, but the specific authentic regional flavors of Oaxaca. The American palate continues to develop, and manufacturers are experimenting with bigger, bolder and more authentic flavors to meet the demand.

Last but not least, manufacturers also are considering ways to interpret the up and coming flavors into plant-based sauces, dressings and marinades. Today’s consumers are savvy and read labels more carefully than they did 10 and 15 years ago. Recent Mintel surveys show more consumers are willing to make the switch to grocery items containing less sugar and fewer artificial ingredients. Manufacturers are responding with clean label formulations of lower sodium and no added sugars.