There’s no getting around it. Bacon’s truly unique and satisfying taste, mouthfeel and aroma when featured as a stand-alone side dish or as an ingredient in a host of retail and foodservice products is irreplaceable. And signs of its growing popularity are everywhere – from increasing sales to menu add-ons to new product launches.

Bacon category sales have significantly increased this past year (see chart), despite the struggling economy. For the latest 52 weeks ending Aug. 7, sales totaled $2,439,000,000 – up 11.21 percent from the same period the previous year.

“The meat case as a whole has experienced turbulent times recently, with higher product costs and tightening supply,” says Jarrod Sutton, assistant vice president of channel marketing with the National Pork Board. “Although consumers are watching their food budgets, one thing has remained constant through this volatile time – consumers still love their bacon.”

Bacon is not just for breakfast anymore, and there are applications for bacon at every meal, appetizer or snack occasion, Sutton says.

Port Washington, NY-based NPD Group reports bacon has seen the most growth in dinner-time meals, he adds. “Bacon consumption at dinner has grown from three annual eatings per capita in 2006 to 4.2 in 2011 [according to The NPD Group/National Eating Trends, two years ending May],” Sutton adds. “Today’s consumers are topping their burgers with bacon slices, crumbling bacon into their mac and cheese and wrapping dates in bacon for appetizers. We expect this trend to continue.”

Bacon consumption at foodservice is also increasing. “There are some areas within foodservice where bacon has grown,” Sutton says. “We’ve seen a steadily-increasing number of operators include bacon in their offerings to boost flavor and expand on existing menu items.”

Smoked bacon consumption during the lunch/dinner daypart is up and it is being widely used as a wrap around other proteins in many upscale restaurants, says Bernadette Noone, director of product management with Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

According to The NPD Group, total bacon food servings (including plated bacon, BLT sandwiches and bacon cheeseburgers) has held steady at restaurants. “However, quick-service restaurants did experience an increase in bacon foods by 7 percent in 2010 and 2 percent in 2011,” Sutton says.

QSR categories contributing to this growth were hamburgers (which make up 41 percent of all bacon food servings), sandwiches, convenience stores, and food/drug stores, Sutton continues. “Bacon cheeseburgers were the largest drivers for bacon growth in the hamburger category, while BLT sandwiches drove much of the growth in the sandwich and convenience store categories,” he adds, citing data from The NPD Group’s latest National Eating Trends report.

New bacon products have launched as retailers offer consumers more variety, while differentiating themselves from competitors, Sutton says.

“Retailers are offering more premium bacon, as well as more flavors, including maple and applewood,” he adds. “Thick-sliced bacon has become more prevalent at the meat case, as consumers will pay more for thicker and more flavorful bacon cuts. We also believe that retailers are paying more attention to their value brands in order to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers.”

Retailers are also offering center cut and low-sodium bacon products to meet various consumer needs and preferences, Sutton says. “In addition to national brands, many retailers are also offering bacon under a private-label.”

Bacon’s diversity

Mintel Global New Products Database lists 38 retail food subcategories for 2010 new product launches where each product contained the word “bacon” in its description or ingredients statement.

The 2010 Mintel subcategories with the most bacon-related launches were meat products, 93; pizzas, 46; sandwiches/wraps, 43; and potato products, 41.

In early September, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods announced the launch of lower-sodium Breakfast Canadian Bacon. Product is 97 percent fat-free and has thinner slices made with only natural juices. It is part of the product line that already has 6-oz. thick, 12-oz. unsliced and 6-oz. Hormel Natural Choice products. Product is available in 6-oz. and 12-oz. packages for a suggested retail price of $3.99 and $7.99.

Mintel featured several unique bacon products in its new product reporting, including Chicago-based Iltaco Foods’ The Big Pizza Breakfast Pizza. The 14-in. pizza is designed to be prepared in a conventional oven and retails in a 3-lb. pack.

New foodservice offerings containing bacon are also growing. Burger King began a national rollout in late August of its limited-time offer California Whopper. Costing $4.49, it contained guacamole, Swiss cheese and bacon. Industry experts felt the California Whopper was testament that Burger King was joining the fresh-and-healthy food craze.

Oklahoma City-based Sonic announced in mid-August it was adding three new breakfast burritos to its menu, including the Ultimate Meat & Cheese Breakfast Burrito. The new product consists of sausage, bacon, tater tots, cheese sauce, cheddar cheese and eggs wrapped in a flour tortilla and is priced at $1.99.

Epic Burgers and Waffles announced early in August it was debuting its Krispy Kreme doughnut cheeseburger at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition on Aug. 19 in Toronto. This burger, which made headlines throughout North America for months, is truly unusual. Traditional hamburger buns have been replaced with two original glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts. One lean, ground smash-style burger patty is slid between the doughnuts. It is topped with American cheddar cheese, tomato, lettuce, an egg and bacon.

Supplies of KFC Canada’s Double Down bunless chicken sandwich were expected to sell out in early July. This product returned in early June for its second limited-time introduction. During Double Down’s Canadian 2010 debut, it became KFC’s best-selling new menu item in history.

KFC Canada’s Double Down includes two premium pieces of seasoned Original Recipe chicken, two pieces of bacon, two pieces of processed Pepper Jack cheese and the Colonel’s Secret Sauce.

At the end of March, Denny’s began showcasing for a limited time seven new menu options with its launch of Baconalia! A Celebration of Bacon.

“The average American consumes more than 18 lbs. of bacon per year, so Denny’s decided to answer to the appetites of the nation,” says John Dillon, vice president of marketing and product development.

Traditional menu offerings were mixed with unique ones like its Maple Bacon Sundae, sprinkled with hickory-smoked bacon.

Looking ahead

Decreasing hog supplies and higher prices are expected to slow down bacon sales, Sutton predicts.

“Although prices are rising, we do not see this dramatically changing consumers’ consumption of bacon,” Sutton says. “Consumers may adjust their purchase habits due to pricing issues, but we don’t think they will end their love affair with bacon.

“Retailers can capitalize on this by featuring and promoting bacon frequently and consistently while educating consumers on new ways they can add flavor to any meal by adding bacon,” Sutton concludes.