Snap Kitchen, Austin, Texas, offers internationally-inspired bowls like the Mediterranean Mezze Bowl with beet hummus and cashew tzatziki and the Tex-Mex Chicken Bowl with apirulina crema and red salsa.

When Sergio Villegas mistakenly read a half Buffalo/half garlic order for chicken wings at Paisans Pizzeria & Bar, a suburban Chicago restaurant chain, he mixed the two sauces together and tossed the wings. The server made him redo the order for accuracy, while the staff sampled his new creation and liked it. Since then, he fine-tuned the recipe, now featured on the menu and described as “our signature mild Buffalo wings tossed with a savory garlic butter and topped with Parmesan.”

Trial and error is how many sauces are created. Culinary professionals add layers of flavor, often with a kick of heat, to take today’s consumers on the flavor adventure they crave.

“One of the easiest ways for chefs to address consumer demand for variety is with sauces,” says Kate Leahy, spokeswoman for Sunsweet Ingredients, Yuba City, California.

Home cooks, too, recognize the ease-in-use and versatility of cooking and condiment sauces. Manufacturers are responding through enticing innovations ranging from regional barbecue to globally inspired hot sauces.

Healthy options drive growth 

Consumer demand for condiment and cooking sauces helped the market reach $24 billion in sales in 2016, according to a report by Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland. Annual retail sales have been growing at a rate of about 2 percent and comparable growth is anticipated through 2021.

“Sauce formulators need to be aware that while consumers want to explore ethnic cuisines and flavor fusions, they are also looking to make better-for-you dietary choices,” Leahy says.

“Sauces are increasingly being marketed as organic and healthy, with new options such as low-sodium or low-sugar varieties supporting restrictive diets,” says David Sprinkle, research director at Packaged Facts.

“Marketing products as certified organic or carrying ‘free-from’ labels has become part of several trends that will help keep sauces and condiments popular with a range of influential consumers,” he says.

Premiumization of flavor profiles, ingredient sourcing and authentic recipes are driving growth of the shelf-stable sauces category. Such specialty sauces represent about 20 percent of the category, and are expected to grow about 5 percent annually in dollar sales, according to the Specialty Foods Association. Cooking sauces, flavored mayonnaises and hot sauces contribute the most to sales, with cooking sauces accounting for about 40 percent of total sales. Not surprisingly, millennials’ affinity for convenient fresh meals is driving innovation and category growth.

The flavor shift

Research shows that ongoing multicultural changes in the US and a desire for authentic recipes are expanding the category with exotic flavor profiles. For Daniela Barreto, manager and chef of Brazilian-themed Estadio Grill, Chicago, it is a combination of three tropical fruits – açaí, passionfruit and guarana – that serves as a backdrop for her exotic secret “Brazinha” hot wing sauce.

“Sophisticated chili pepper and fruit combinations are quite popular,” says Jean Shieh, marketing manager, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, California. “Consumer preferences are shifting from burning heat to medium/mild heat with interesting background flavors.”

Roger Lane, marketing manager-savory flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Illinois, says increasingly those are floral.

“Floral notes are beginning to trend across the sauces category,” he says. “We’ve seen their popularity grow in the beverage segment with hibiscus, cherry blossom and lavender, and all three of these flavors complement sauces. Their subtle flavor notes are difficult to identify, but create a premium experience.”

Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager, McIlhenny Company, Avery Island, Louisiana, agrees. “The subtle trend is to merge overlying flavor trends with the familiar, while also providing a unique tasting experience,” he says. “Product familiarity and most of all, memorable flavor delivery are paramount considerations.”