Soaring to new heights

by Larry Aylward
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Astronomy has come a long way since Galileo invented a telescope in the 17th Century to study the heavens. Chicken sausage can relate — it has come light years, and consumers have discovered it’s a low-fat alternative to pork sausage that also tastes good.

Today, supermarket sausage aisles are dominated with chicken sausage brands from big-name processors, such as al fresco, Johnsonville Sausage, Hormel Foods, Hillshire Farm, Tyson Foods, Aidells Sausage, Isernio’s Sausage and others. Supermarkets are also offering their own private-label brands.

Chicken sausage’s popularity is driven by Americans’ increased appetite for dark meat. Most chicken-sausage processors use low-fat thigh meat in their products. Thanks to these products, producers are no longer losing the amount of money they once did on not being able to sell meat from the back of the bird.

In 1999, Chelsea, Mass.-based Kayem Foods became one of the nation’s largest sausage and hot-dog processors to first introduce chicken sausage when the company created its al fresco brand. But when al fresco’s product was sampled in supermarkets, consumers wanted nothing to do with it, says Sarah Crowley, senior brand manager for al fresco. Consumers figured that a sausage made with chicken would taste bland, she adds.

“They couldn’t get shoppers to try the free samples,” Crowley says.

But al fresco changed its promotional approach with samplings, and supermarket personnel offered it as just “sausage,” leaving the word “chicken” out of the matter.

“[Supermarket personnel] would say, ‘Would you like to try this delicious new apple sausage?’ ” Crowley says. “Then people would try it — and they liked it. Then they were told it was chicken sausage.”

The al fresco brand began small with 40-lb. batches being made in a Cuisanart blender. But it has grown significantly.

“I think we’re shipping 11 million lbs. annually now,” Crowley says.

The dinner-sausage category reflects al fresco’s growth. Five years ago, chicken sausage comprised about 2.2 percent of the dinner-sausage category in terms of dollar volume, Crowley says, citing statistics from AC Nielson. That number has grown to 9 percent.

“What’s happening is that consumers have found a product they really like, and retailers see that this is a fast-growing segment within the category that they have to get behind,” Crowley says.

Dinner-sausage category sales grew 4.1 percent in 2012, according to AC Nielson. As part of that category, chicken sausage sales increased 23.3 percent.

“Chicken-sausage sales grew 10 times faster than the [dinner-sausage]category’s sales,” Crowley adds.

Bruce Aidells, the San Francisco-based sausage maker who has been making the product for 30 years, was one of the first processors to make chicken sausage in the mid-1980s. Aidells, whose first order was for 60 lbs. of chicken apple sausage, isn’t surprised by chicken sausage’s popularity.

“Americans just love chicken,” he says. “And there’s the perception that chicken is healthier than beef or pork.”

Kent, Wash.-based Isernio’s Sausage introduced fresh chicken sausage in 1990. Frank Isernio, president and founder of the company, says he was worried that it would cannibalize the company’s pork-sausage business.

“But we found there’s an entirely new segment of people who are buying chicken sausage,” says Isernio, whose company sells its products in more than 20 states.

Of course, those are the people who desired a healthy but good-tasting alternative.

“Today’s customers are increasingly knowledgeable about nutrition,” Isernio says. “People of all ages are more concerned with health and fitness than ever before. Our products give them options that they never had before.”

Fifteen years ago, people thought of chicken sausage as being good for them, but not necessarily good-tasting, Crowley says.

“Consumers want healthy choices, but they also want products that taste good,” Crowley adds.

Aidells said customers told him that pork sausage wasn’t healthy, but chicken sausage was.

“If you have customers telling you that, then you want to fill that need,” Aidells explains.

Aidells’ chicken apple sausage was a major success. Today, several companies make chicken apple sausage.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many times mothers would come up to me and tell me how happy they were that their children loved the chicken apple sausage,” Aidells says. “They considered it a more-healthy alternative than feeding their kids hot dogs.”

al fresco launched five flavors in 1999 and four of them remain and are the company’s top sellers — sundried tomato, roasted garlic and herb, spicy jalapeño and Italian. (The garden primavera variety didn’t make the cut.) The chicken sausage contains 70 percent less fat and 30 percent less sodium than pork sausage. The company is always trying to improve the products, Crowley says.

“We’re always trying to find ways to reduce the sodium more or to bring the fat lower,” she says.

al fresco has also expanded the brand to include 10 fully cooked dinner varieties, six fresh varieties and three fully cooked breakfast varieties. Its sales have tripled since 2006.

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel introduced its Natural Choice brand of chicken sausage last spring. Amy Sand, product manager for the Natural Choice line, says the line targets consumers “looking for a better choice who are motivated by natural living.”

“Chicken sausage is heavily consumed by health- and wellness-driven consumers and was a highly sought-after product when we added it to the line last year,” she adds.

Sand says chicken sausage is eaten nationally, but is most heavily consumed in the Pacific and East-North-Central regions.

Consumers who purchase chicken sausage are more affluent than consumers who purchase only pork sausage, with a household income of more than $75,000, Crowley says. While al fresco has targeted people ages 35 to 54, Crowley says people ages 25 to 34 are purchasing more chicken sausage than ever before.

al fresco’s sales — 70 percent occur outside of grilling season — also reveal that chicken sausage is popular year-round, and that consumers use it as an ingredient, she adds.

Quality rests in texture

The reason processors use thigh meat in chicken sausage is because it offers a higher fat content than chicken breast meat, but it’s lower than pork. If breast meat is used in chicken sausage, it will lead to a dried-out product, Aidells says, noting that his chicken sausage, made with thighs and skin, contains about 10 percent fat.

Because cuts of meat used in chicken sausage are leaner than a pork sausage and normally contain half the fat, chicken-sausage texture and moistness may be compromised if process controls such as temperature and blending times are not closely monitored, says Tony Muller, Hormel Foods’ development leader for fresh/processed meats.

Isernio’s uses a skinless-chicken thigh in its products. Frank Isernio says using whole-muscle meat is the key to creating a sound product.

“It’s much more costly to produce, but it assures quality,” he says. “We’ve found that there’s no substitute for great materials.”

Finding the correct texture is also pivotal to the product’s success. With whole-muscle meat, the key is to grind the product as coarse as possible, Isernio says. A coarse grind preserves the juiciness and mouth feel of the ground product.

Finer grinds are more mealy, grainy and dry, Aidells adds.

“I always concentrate on having a really coarse texture so the individual chunks of meat have a greater tendency to hold moisture,” he says.

Aidells notes that another way to maintain moisture in chicken sausage is through added ingredients, such as apple, which holds moisture well.

He says processors shouldn’t go cheap with nonmeat ingredients, such as apples and peppers. Aidells also says paying attention to detail is vital during the formulation process.

When Aidells began making chicken sausage, the last thing he wanted to do was create something that made chicken taste like something else.

“I try to complement the flavor of [chicken sausage], not make it taste like ham or a hot dog,” he says. “I look for flavor combinations that I think will go well with chicken.”

With flavor profiles, Aidells looks for combinations that have a history of working well together.

“What separates a delicious sausage from one that isn’t so good is balance,” he says. “It’s all about knowing how much of each component to add to get a balanced flavor that appeals.”

Over the years, Aidells says he has eaten his share of “amateur sausage” that has a “heavy-handed” taste to it, such as the bitter taste of sage.

“The art is to achieve that balance,” he adds. “I don’t know if you can train that.”

Muller says chicken is a great muscle protein to work with for adding a variety of flavor profiles since it is a neutral flavor protein.

While chicken doesn’t provide the same taste as pork, it’s easier to work with because of its mild taste.

Isernio points out that chicken’s neutral palate allows flavors to stand out. Still, Isernio’s takes a conservative approach with flavor profiles. For instance, the brand offers a classic Italian chicken sausage.

“We try to stay away from the flavor-of-the-month type thing,” Isernio adds. “We base our offerings on classic varieties and formulations.”

Muller says minimally processed fruits and vegetables are used to add the desired flavor and appearance characteristics to Hormel’s chicken sausages as compared to commonly used spices and powders.

“We decided on three flavors that covered a broad spectrum — from sweet and fruity [Apple Gouda] to a spicy and hot [Jalapeño Cheddar],” Muller says. “It’s really sky is the limit for the different flavor combinations a processor wants to develop.”

al fresco Executive Chef Susanna Tolini, who attended Johnson & Wales Univ., is always on the lookout for new food trends and flavors, Crowley says. Latin American and Asian flavors are gaining popularity as are spices hailing from North Africa.

Chicken not only absorbs flavors well, but ingredients such as red and green peppers are also easily seen, which is a great selling point.

“Chicken is lighter in color, so the ingredients pop,” Crowley says. “From a visual standpoint, you can have a really good-looking product.”

Some chicken sausages are made with low-cost comminuted meat, Isernio says. That said, he adds there’s room for top-tier, mid-tier and commodity-tier chicken sausages in today’s market place.

“[The category] is growing faster than ever,” says Isernio, noting that his company recently underwent a major expansion and built a new facility. “I expect it will continue to grow. The smart retailers are aware that offering premium sausage choices appeal to their most discriminating customers.”

The increased availability of free-range and organic chicken could spur the chicken-sausage category even more, Aidells says, noting that it will be interesting to see if the larger sausage manufacturers embrace the organic segment.

Crowley says the category will continue to grow. al fresco recently launched a chicken-sausage burger.

“There are a lot of places we can go with this,” she says, noting that a large percentage of consumers still haven’t tried chicken sausage. “We still see a huge potential for growth.”

Aylward is a freelance writer from Medina, Ohio.

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