In January, Kraft Foods Group, Northfield, Ill., rolled out a line of Miracle Whip Dipping Sauces. The four flavors include Sassy Sweet Tomato and Smokin' Bacon Ranch, and the suggested retail price is $2.99.
Kraft will spend a heck of a lot more than that on a related multi-media ad campaign that kicked off in March. Print ads in magazines including People, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, plus radio ads in select markets will help build momentum for what could be a lucrative brand extension. And why? Because dipping sauces are hot. And with the brand recognition of Miracle Whip, which has annual sales of more than $250 million, this looks like a pretty sure bet.
Market researcher Mintel Group is forecasting 3 percent annual increases in dollar sales for a broad spectrum of sauces between 2012 and 2017. Offering a convenient way for both restaurants and home chefs to add a variety of flavor and texture to otherwise ordinary dishes, sauces appear to have a bright future.
"As culinary trends continue to evolve, one constant is a desire for even more choices," explained Robin Ross, associate director of culinary at Kraft, when this year's new products were unveiled. "Consumers have varying and multiple needs for their food and beverage choices. Some consumers find a healthy balance with less complex ingredient lines is important, while others want bold or ethnically-inspired taste experiences. Young people are especially adventurous and food savvy. They don't want to miss the latest food news, whether it's trendy flavors, pop-up restaurants or the newest food truck in town."
Kraft says bold flavors are in — especially peppers of all kinds, and bacon. And those kinds of flavors are the focus of the new dipping sauces. The accompanying bold advertising campaign has those flavors coming from the "Twisted Minds of Miracle Whip," which might be a marketer's way of describing a major food manufacturer's product development staff. But they might also come with a little help from an ingredient company
Cargill, Minneaplis, makes finished sauces that are sold to the foodservice industry. Cargill also produces and sells oils, sweeteners and texturizing ingredients that are used in a variety of sauces, says Wendy Erickson, a texturizing solutions technical manager for the company. She says Cargill's sauce manufacturing customers are always putting flavor first.
"Sauce is really the vehicle for delivering that unique flavor of the whole dish," Erickson says. "Our customers look for a familiar but high-quality, high-intensity flavor while also working to reduce calories or reduce fat."
Sauce also has to look great, have a pleasing aroma and the proper mouthfeel, and behave the right way on the dish — so getting the right cling is important, for example. Only if all those elements are present will the sauce succeed in adding to the overall dining experience.
Less is more
One of the most important drivers for the sauce categories has a familiar ring to it. Consumers want products that are lower in sugar, salt and fat, and they want a clean label with a reasonable number of ingredients.
Sauces are made with a combination of spices and flavors, usually in an oil base that has been texturized with thickeners and emulsifiers to provide texture and uniform dispersion of flavor ingredients. With those ingredients being practically essential to the product, it's easy to see that there would be some obstacles to obtaining a clean label. Yet, those obstacles can be overcome.
Sweet Baby Ray's is one of the top 50 brands of barbecue sauce in the U.S. Its Original Barbecue Sauce, described as "sweet and tangy," has a rich history involving a storied Chicago barbeque competition. As with many similar barbecue sauces, the four main ingredients are high-fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, vinegar and modified food starch.
A single, 37g serving contributes 70 calories and 16g of sugar to the diet of its backyard consumers. By comparison, Organic Annie's Original BBQ Sauce from Berkeley Calif.- based Annie's Inc., provides 45 calories, and 10g of sugar in a slightly smaller 34g serving.
Both products are made with more than 15 ingredients, although just a handful of them make up more than 2 percent of the product by volume. The ingredient deck for the Annie's product includes 17 ingredients, but it starts with brown rice syrup. Starches are lower on the deck than the expeller-pressed blend of "canola, soy/and or sunflower oil."
The Annie's sauce sells at a higher price point than the Sweet Baby Ray's. Undoubtedly, both are good, successful products, but the point is that food formulators have more at their disposal in terms of being able to meet customer expectations in the category than one might expect.
Whether it's texturants, spices, dairy ingredients or oils, there is a wide variety of ingredients available. And ingredient technologies are moving toward products with more intense flavors, better functionality and a better nutritional profile.
Bunge Oils, St. Louis, offers a wide range of edible oils including soy, cotton, canola and palm, that are trans fat free per serving, low in saturated fats and offer a wide range of functionalities and improved flavor stability, says Mark Jackson, VP of sales for packaged oils.
"In the area of nutrition, we are seeing increasing interest and request for 'natural' and expeller-pressed oils. We currently have a small offering that works well in any liquid oil application, including salad dressings and sauces," Jackson says. "Also, I believe there is a good story to be told for soybean oil. As more nutritional research on edible oils comes to light, I think positive consumer awareness will increase for soy-based products."
Jackson says that brands like Brianna's and Annie's dressings are made with ingredients that have a healthy halo, and that there is no reason why soybean oil couldn't meet that requirement just as canola and safflower oil do.
And there is a variety of ingredient options available that allow a processor to make a more healthful sauce that still performs well, says Amanda Higgins, a food chemist with Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz.
"There are still high demands to stabilize low-fat dressings and sauces to mimic the full-fat counterparts," Higgins says. "When the fat is removed, often times the texture becomes dense and heavy." Or it can have a thin, flat mouthfeel and lose some of the body, or separate.
"The addition of stabilizers such as gum arabic can help with emulsification to prevent separation. Xanthan gum or carrageenan can help create a fatty texture and creamy mouthfeel, and pectin can help prevent dairy protein precipitation in low-pH systems." Gum Technology has systems that will provide fatty texture comparable to a full-fat dressing, Higgins says.
Flavor and texture to savor
Convenience and nutrition are important but, as Cargill's Erickson points out, sauces are used to make other foods more enjoyable, so flavor and texture are the real keys. An element of that taste experience that food formulators often evoke is authenticity.
Dressings and sauces involving ranch, Alfredo or yogurt are expected to deliver an authentic dairy flavor, says Steve Dott director of sales and marketing at Grande Custom Ingredients Lomira, Wis. Grande provides a range of dairy based ingredients including a variety of whey and yogurt powders that are all made from grade-A milk.
"Our products enhance texture and mouthfeel and have a clean dairy taste that doesn't adversely affect the product's flavor profile," Dott says.
As an example, Grande's whey protein products can be used in dressings to build viscosity and creaminess and decrease syneresis, while replacing whole milk solids. The company notes it works closely with dairy farmers to maintain quality control over its milk supply, and that the milk is used for making world-class Italian style cheeses in addition to the "by-product" whey ingredients.
"We are seeing restaurant operators willing to take on a little more back-of-house prep," says Mark Gabrovic, Cargill's culinary director for dressings, sauces and oils. "By adding fresh ingredients that they already have on hand, they can add fresh flavor [even though] starting with a base sauce product."
Fresh flavored ingredients are great, but choosing the right texturant might also prevent flavors from getting lost in the background noise, says Gum Technology's Higgins.
"We have seen cases where starches can mask flavors," Higgins says. "In this case, it is desirable to replace the stabilizer system with a gum/starch blend, such as our GumPlete line. Gums can be used in lower concentrations than starches to create the same texture effects."
Higgins says this approach can also help with cost control, by lowering the need for additional flavor ingredients.
In another case, Gum Technology worked with a food processor client that was experiencing poor mouthfeel, freeze/thaw instability and some separation in its cheese sauce. After some testing, Gum Technology offered an ingredient that provides freeze/thaw stability through several cycles, and the processor was able to improve its cheese sauce.
As the barbecue sauce example illustrates, making a great-tasting sauce that has more of healthy halo is not out of the question. And it can be a simple matter of selecting the right kinds of ingredients, says Gabrovic.
"At times we can simplify the ingredient deck, if you will, by using ingredients that taste fresher, and by using ingredients that people recognize and making sure the functionality of the ingredient makes sense for the kind of sauce you want to make."
Gabrovic says foodservice customers are also looking for fresh flavors and clean labels. And they also like the convenience of ready-made sauces that allow them to offer mare variety on the menu without an exponential increase in the number of items they need to keep in stock.
It's not enough to offer great-tasting sauces if they wreak havoc on the nutritional label, and of course the most healthful product won't sell much if it doesn't taste good. Consumers want both, and food processors need to deliver.
The cost of ingredients and the resulting price point on a finished product are never out of mind for food processors, either. Ingredion Westchester, Ill., with a huge portfolio of sweeteners and starches, has had opportunities to help food formulators improve their products and their bottom lines.
"We were working with a foodservice sauce manufacturer that wanted to maintain the taste and texture of its culinary Alfredo sauce," says Shana Brewer, a senior marketing manager in Ingredion's texturant division. "But they also wanted to reduce cream, milk and butter to improve the nutrition panel, and they wanted to reduce formulation costs."
Ingredion used a proprietary texture technology to reformulate the processor's recipe, and the effort was a success on all counts, Brewer says. "We can trim fats, reduce dairy solids and save money in a sauce like that, plus we can build back texture that leads to a great eating experience."
Flavor enhancers can boost the flavor that is already in a formulation by and add umami, that savory deliciousness found in meats, fish and cheeses.
Kikkoman Corp., U.S. San Francisco, is well know for its soy sauces and teriyaki sauces, but the company also makes flavor enhancers, says Joe Leslie, a regional manager for industrial sales.
"A lot of customers are looking for natural ingredients and all of our products are natural," he says. Kikkoman now offers organic sauces and a new gluten-free soy sauce — made with rice in place of wheat — and many of its products are kosher and vegan. We also sell a lot more reduced sodium sauces now," he adds.
Flavor enhancers can boost the other flavors in a sauce when a lower sodium level is targeted, and Kikkoman produces a line of fermented flavor enhancers that are made without monosodium glutamate or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. On an ingredient deck it can be labeled "naturally brewed soy sauce."
Adding fuller, more complex, bolder and more authentic flavors to a sauce can make the sauce itself and/or the finished dish more flavorful and more nutritious. A creative drizzle or dip of sauce on a dish at a fine restaurant helps create a visual appeal for the entire dish while adding flavor complexity.