Changes in consumer purchase behavior tend to evolve slowly over time. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that dynamic.

Eight in 10 Americans say they have altered their food habits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, per the International Food Information Council’s [IFIC’s] 2020 Food and Health Survey. Six in 10 consumers say they are cooking more at home—the single biggest change in behavior and one that sounds bullish for sauce, dressing, condiment, and spread makers.

But recognizing dramatic changes in consumer behavior and capitalizing on those changes are two different things.

Indeed, 2020’s crisis atmosphere put a damper on new product launch activity despite the huge jump in at-home cooking and eating. Introductions of new sauces and seasonings in the U.S. were down by 18% for the first 11 months of 2020 versus the same period in 2019, per the Innova Database. Launches of spreads also were down, by 14% during the same time period.

But that’s not to say innovators were at a loss for new product ideas. The past 12 months does show food formulators pouring it on—particularly when it comes to flavor, health and even a new generation of products designed for modern kitchens with new appliances.


Fusing Flavors

Pandemic or not, one interesting new trend involves blends of cool flavor and heat. The “buffalo ranch” combination was especially prolific.

Along those lines, 2020 saw the launch of Frank’s RedHot Buffalo ‘N Ranch Thick Sauce, Field + Farmer Buffalo Ranch Dressing, and The New Primal Buffalo Ranch Dressing and Marinade. 

Even ranch dressing standard bearer Hidden Valley read the tea leaves with its Blasted Dipping Sauce in a Blazin’ Hot flavor. And General Mills’ Old El Paso Zesty Ranch Sauce showed how ranch dressing is not only turning up the heat, it’s moving into new places as a flavor for tacos and more.

The “sweet heat” flavor profile also worked for Wish-Bone Jalapeno Lime Vinaigrette Dressing (Conagra Brands) and Hellmann’s Creamy Chili Honey Sauce (Unilever United States).


Bigger, Bolder, Better

Many new sauce, dressing and spread offerings simply emphasize new flavor experiences. Some of these involve new faces in new spaces. Other manufacturers aimed to delight tastebuds in other ways. 

One new face involves name consumers know from the restaurant world: Atlanta’s Chick-Fil-A Inc. Last spring saw the company introduce limited regional packaged sales of its signature Chick-fil-A and Polynesian Sauces at participating retailers in the Southeast. Last fall, officials then announced a nationwide rollout starting in early 2021. Speaking of chicken, barbecue brand Sweet Baby Rays’ introduced an entirely new subline of Ray’s Chicken Sauce, combing traditional flavors of honey mustard and barbecue sauce into something new—just for chicken.

"According the Innova Database, the percentage of new mayonnaise, dressing and vinegar products making a vegan claim shot from up from 6.5% in 2017 to 18.1% during the first 11 months of 2020."

Another new face is that of seafood and soups maker Blount Fine Foods Corp. This January saw the Fall River, Mass., company introduce five Blount Clam Shack refrigerated sauces and marinades. Varieties include Pineapple & Soy Renegade Marinade—a blend of soy sauce, pineapple juice, and ginger “for the right amount of umami and sweetness”—and Tomato Balsamic Pour-Over Sauce.

Likewise, Del Monte Foods Inc. took its longtime College Inn broth and brand in new directions with College Inn Savory Infusions. It’s a line of base seasonings to give a flavor boost to main dishes, side dishes, and soups in flavors including Roasted Chili and Garlic.

Alcoholic beverages provided flavor inspiration in 2020, which was fitting given a tremendous boom in alcoholic beverage consumption inspired by COVID-19. New offerings included Hellmann’s Creamy Bourbon BBQ Sauce and Plochman’s Tequila Blended Mustard.

Sauce Ventures LLC gave pasta sauce a jolt with earthy truffle flavor and Truff Black Truffle Pasta Sauce Pomodoro. Coffee also has been showing up in new places across the food spectrum including barbecue sauce. Among new offerings from Kroger is a Private Selection Coffee Infused BBQ Sauce.

Want a taste of foreign adventure? Harissa is a North African chili pepper paste that is capturing the interest of product innovators. Israel’s Rushdi Food Industries extended its Mighty Sesame line in the US with a new Harissa Tahini. Officials say it’s the first tahini product to tap the natural heat of harissa with a condiment that adds zip to dressings, dips, meat and veggies.


Vegan, Plant-Based

Americans are open to increasing their consumption of vegetables. According to Innova Market Insights, 48% of Americans surveyed in 2019 said they are increasing their vegetable consumption—versus only 4% that said the opposite.

Companies are cozying up to plant-based in part because consumers believe that plant-based ingredients make a product more healthful. According to IFIC’s 2020 Food & Health Survey, more than four in 10 Americans assume that a product described as plant-based is healthier than one that is not described that way, even if the former has the exact same Nutrition Facts label as the latter.

Innovation in so-called “vegan mayonnaise” offered evidence of a boom in vegan sauce innovation that has been taking place in the U.S., largely under-the-radar. 

According to the Innova Database, the percentage of new mayonnaise, dressings and vinegar products making a vegan claim shot up from 6.5% in 2017 to 18.1% during the first 11 months of 2020. 

For pasta sauces, vegan claims rose from 6.1% of launches in 2017 to 15.3% of launches through 11 months of 2020. Table sauces saw a similar trend with vegan products accounting for 13.9% of innovation 2020 versus just 8.1% of launches in 2017.

These changes are speeding up the embrace of plant-based ingredients across the sauce, dressing, condiment, and spread landscape. Prego Plus Meatless Meat Italian Sauce with “plant protein” is one example. Soy-based vegan meat crumbles replace meat, delivering 4g of plant-based protein per serving. 

Bolthouse Farms Plant Based Dressing & Dip is another example, in flavors like Carrot Miso, all said to be non-dairy and gluten-free with “no gums.” Dairy ingredients also got the boot from Clorox’s new Hidden Valley Plant Powered Ranch, a January 2021 launch that speaks to how strong and the plant-based trend has become.

Plant-based ingredients like cauliflower and more continue to gain traction. Wegmans Amore Cauliflower Pasta Sauce lists cauliflower as the number one ingredient. Conagra Brands says it new Healthy Choice Creamy Ranch Power Dressing is made with “no-soy ingredients like cauliflower puree, sunflower oil, and buttermilk.” Fabalish Aquafaba Ranch Sauce uses aquafaba – a by-product of cooking beans and other legumes – as second leading ingredient.

Even sauces known to be plant-based are doubling down on plants. True Made Foods’ No Sugar Veggie Ketchup is said to be “naturally sweet from tomatoes, carrots, squash, and spinach.” 

Another seasoning innovation that could help elevate vegetable consumption is Booker’s Soul Food Starters including Collard Greens Seasoning Mix, which make preparation of “southern sides” simple. 

“We aim to bring families back to the table to enjoy home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients,” says Claude Booker, co-founder of Booker’s Soul Food Starters.

Outside of nut-based spreads, Trader Joe’s Sweet & Savory Tomato Spread stood out in 2020. The retailer suggests the product makes a “tasty savory counterpoint to cheese and cold cuts.” It’s also recommended with roasted meats and vegetables

Avocado picked up where it left off the year before, powering innovations like Bolthouse Farms Cilantro Avocado Yogurt Dressing and Dip, Primal Kitchen Vegan Mayo Spread & Dip made with Avocado Oil, and Sir Kensington’s Avocado Vegan Mayo Sauce. Specialty food maker Stonewall Kitchen is adding a Garlic & Avocado Oil Aioli in 2021, an indication that avocado’s star will continue to rise.

Plant-based ingredients also can open the door to additional health benefits, such as enhanced gut health. Cleveland Kitchen, a culinary brand focused on healthy fermented foods, expanded the fermentation concept to dressings and marinades in 2020. The brand took classic flavors of sauerkraut, its core product, and used them for inspiration for a tangy Dressing & Marinade line that includes Hail Caesar. All are rich in “gut healthy” probiotics.

Probiotics could be primed for a deeper innovation run in 2021. According to September 2020 survey from Innova Market Insights, 75% of Americans believe that probiotics are important to achieve immune health. And 42% of Americans say they are looking for food and beverage products that support immune health, per the same survey.


Machines & Mixes

Innovation in cooking appliances is likely to have a growing impact on sauce and condiment innovation in the future. Air fryers have been hot sellers of late, creating opportunity for products like The Spice Lab Air Fryer Seasoning in flavors like Lemon Pepper Chicken. We may see more innovation activity around air fryers in 2021.

It’s interesting to note that the Instant Pot’s rise has been meteoric and the fast-cooking pressure cooker is beginning to impact sauce and seasoning innovation. Spice giant McCormick debuted a line of Instant Pot Seasoning Mixes in 2020 including Fall Off The Bone Ribs. Similar activity in other parts of the packaged food marketplace indicate that we’ll be seeing more Instant Pot optimized products in 2021 and beyond.

One appliance nearly all Americans have already is a microwave oven and Green Wagon Foods Steam Mates Steaming Bag & Veggie Seasoning allows consumers to use the microwave to steam vegetables in three to four minutes. Teriyaki is one of several flavors in this line.