Grilling and ethnic influences have recently been among the biggest drivers in the sauces market, and the flavor profile of sauces is definitely heating up to provide interesting new flavors to familiar home-cooked favorites.

Consumers are looking for products made with ingredients they perceive to be better for them, such as all-natural rather than products with high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors, says Gloria Cabada-Leman, president of the Carolina Sauce Company Inc., Durham, N.C.

She says the economy is playing a major role in the sauce market as people aren’t eating out as frequently and cooking more at home. The result is consumers are more interested in sauces and seasonings to enhance their home-cooked meals, adding new flavors and creating new versions of favorite old recipes.

Cabada-Leman says she is seeing a trend toward hot and spicy flavors such as products seasoned with chile peppers, including ultra-hot varieties such as the Naga or Bhut Jolokia pepper.

When it comes to how sauces are used, there is an increase in sauces for dipping and topping. For example, the H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, recently introduced Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce. The product is an extension of the Lea & Perrins line and designed to be used for dipping, topping and adding flavor to foods on the grill.

"The new Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce is sure to satisfy a hunger for the taste of authentic Worcestershire in a sauce now thick enough for dipping and topping favorite foods, especially grilled foods that can use that extra boost of flavor on top," says Rick Gray, brand manager for Lea & Perrins.

The emphasis on dipping and topping represents a break from the traditional use of Worcestershire sauce as an ingredient or marinade. The variety of use doesn’t end there.

"We hear from customers who are using sauces in interesting and creative new ways – using spicy tomato salsas instead of ketchup with their scrambled eggs and sausage for breakfast, or incorporating barbecue sauces into recipes cooked indoors instead of only using them on the grill," Cabada-Leman says. "I think a lot of this creativity is due to the increasing popularity of the Food Network. People are seeing new and interesting ways to use sauces and are willing to try them at home."

Grilling also has contributed significantly to the popularity of sauces. Laurie Harrsen, spokeswoman for McCormick & Co. Inc., Sparks, Md., says consumers are looking to add more variety to traditional grilled foods as grilling has become popular year-round.

McCormick offers Grill Mates marinades in flavors such as baja citrus, chipotle pepper, garlic herb and wine, and Hawaiian Luau. Through the Lawry’s brand, McCormick offers marinades in flavors such as Caribbean jerk, Havana garlic and lime and Louisiana red pepper.

Lawry’s also has a signature steakhouse marinade with Worcestershire sauce and a buffalo barbecue marinade with cayenne pepper and vinegar. The signature option is designed for adding flavor to steak or ribs, or it can be mixed into ground beef. The buffalo barbecue marinade is designed to be added as a seasoning to chicken, beef, pork or ribs.

"Because people are eating at home more and growing vegetable gardens or shopping at farmer’s markets more, I think the trend toward more natural, wholesome sauces will continue," Cabada-Leman says. "Likewise, the interest in exotic flavors will probably continue, but with an emphasis on authenticity, i.e., true regional flavors and not simply a gimmicky sauce that adds the latest new hot pepper. For example, I think the excitement about Naga Jolokia hot sauces will soon die down, but the interest in genuine ethnic or regional cuisines will likely continue to grow."

The regional sauces, dressings and condiments market grew at a compound annual rate of 3.2 percent between 2002 and 2007, and the largest companies in the market include Unilever, McCormick and the H.J. Heinz Co, according to Datamonitor.

"There seems to be a trend toward local or regional specialties, especially among people who no longer live in an area of the country where they grew up," Cabada-Leman says. "Many of our customers grew up in North Carolina but now live in other parts of the country where they cannot get their old local barbecue sauces, or even any other authentic North Carolina, vinegar-based barbecue sauces. This is consistent with the trend of people eating and cooking at home more. They want to make the dishes they grew up enjoying but can’t find the sauces locally, so they search on-line for their old favorites and show tremendous brand loyalty. At the same time, young people who are starting to cook more for their families are exploring regional or exotic cuisines and looking for quality sauces that you can’t find at the grocery store."

According to the Global New Products Database from Mintel International, Chicago, some recently introduced sauces include sweet southern heat whiskey grilling sauce from James Gang Barbeque and raspberry Habanero from Fire on the Mountain Buffalo Wings.

Asian flavoring on the rise

"From Asian to Latin to Mediterranean cuisine, Americans crave intense, authentic flavors," says Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing managger for food service and industrial at Kikkoman Sales U.S.A., Inc., San Francisco. "And chefs and manufacturers are looking for new ways – and rediscovering old ways – to enhance flavors and bring depth to their dishes by adding umami, the ‘fifth taste.’"

Asian sauces have become especially popular recently, and Carpenter says American palates are becoming more sophisticated as general interest in ethnic foods is increasing, and the demand for such flavors is being driven by both ethnic and mainstream consumers.

Carpenter says American consumers are noticing Asia’s regional cuisines and learning to better differentiate between food from South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. Kikkoman also has products in the Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Indian varieties.

"Soy sauce is no longer a pantry staple for Asian cuisine," Carpenter says. "Today, food manufacturers recognize the ability of naturally brewed soy sauce to enhance the flavor, aroma and color of food products that go far beyond traditional Asian applications. It’s the key to the deep, rich flavor of a hearty soup; the savory accent in beef jerky; even the delicate, sweet-salty notes that round out chocolate syrup."

Carpenter says soy sauce is branching out to meld with Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean and other ethnic flavors. It may be used in products such as pork osso bucco, French dip roast beef and even fajitas and quesadillas.

Health and wellness are still considerations in the market with Kikkoman offering reduced sodium options as well as organic and preservative-free options.

Breakdown of the market

According to Mintel International, there were 1,254 new sauce products introduced in 2008, down from 1,421 in 2007. Most of the introductions were in the cooking sauces and dressings and vinegar sub-categories. The flavors with the most new introductions included tomato, salsa, barbecue and mustard. The leading health claims among sauces include all-natural, no additives or preservatives, and organic.

According to The Nielsen Co., New York, total sales in the condiments, gravies and sauces category for the year ended July 11 were $7.5 billion, up 8 percent from the previous year.

Now is the time to try bold and adventurous flavors.

"Because consumers are becoming more savvy about ingredients and quality and at the same time more adventurous and willing to experiment, now is a good time to develop products with exotic ingredients or creative flavor combinations, especially if they are spicy – but the focus should always be on a quality product that has superior flavor and is made with better ingredients," Cabada-Leman says.

Allison Sebolt is an Internet editor for Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT&POULTRY.