Seasonings Change

October 10, 2008
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Category Review: In the spices and seasonings category, what once was the domain of specialty and gourmet stores now has become mainstream.


One needn’t look any further than the abundance of arugula jokes made at the expense of presidential candidate Barack Obama for evidence that the collective American palate is growing more sophisticated. But for some at-home cooks, whipping a bottle of Italian salad dressing out of the fridge and using it to marinate meat and veggies still constitutes the extent of their “ethnic” cooking. However, those with a bit more time on their hands and more adventurous tastes are finding trips to their local grocery stores to be more fruitful, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the spice and seasonings aisle. Once mainly the domain of serious cooks and culinary elitists (as some peg Obama), spice racks have become less intimidating and more user-friendly.

International Affairs

By far the most influential driver of trends in the spices and seasonings realm is growing consumer familiarity with ethnic foods - be it a result of an increase in international travel or diversity on restaurant menus.

Kara Nielsen, a “trendologist” who wrote last year’s “Spice Trends Culinary Trend Mapping” report for the Rockville, Md.-based market research firm Packaged Facts, says she’s seeing multiple layers of flavors being introduced in new spices on store shelves.

“We’re used to one straight spice. There’s always been classic blends, but now we’re seeing more interesting combinations,” Nielsen, who looks to the culinary world and specialty stores to observe trends, notes. “It’s not OK just to be citrus; it’s got to be citrus and chili.”

What once was the domain of specialty and gourmet stores now has become mainstream, both in national brands and private label.

“With consumers cooking more at home as a result of the tightening economy, they are looking to replicate the recipes and flavors that they were getting in the restaurants,” says Tom Martini, director of own brand sales at Adams Flavors Foods & Ingredients, Gonzales, Texas. “As a result, we are seeing tremendous growth in Mediterranean, Cajun, Mexican, Indian and Steak House-style flavors.”

And although the poor economy is having a negative effect on the foodservice industry, dwindling budgets have forced consumers to get more creative at home.

“The trend toward at-homeentertaining is thedriver that iscreating consumer interestin new food flavors,” says Aldon Reed, food consultant for Quality Food Brands/PHS Private Label Group Inc.

Paul Best, director of product and brand innovation at Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates LLC, notes that globalization also has had a strong impact on the kinds of products retailers are requesting for their private label spices.

“We’re seeing more emphasis in global flavors than ever before,” Best says. “If you look at the makeup of the United States, it’s more diverse than it has been in the past.”

Best runs Topco’s World Classics Trading Co. brand of premium spices and seasonings and says the brand is introducing a new line of rubs and glazes with Mexican, Asian, Indian and other ethnic varieties to meet consumer demand for more exotic flavors.

A Healthy Appetite

With the market for low-sodium seasonings growing because of heart disease concerns, sea salt - which enjoys a somewhat healthier reputation than table salt - is growing in use as a seasoning. It’s being used for everything from salted snacks to desserts and cookies (as a finishing touch). According to Reed, Quality Food Brands is capitalizing on this health trend with a bevy of new products.

“We currently offer 60 different spices and 26 different grinders in various sizes, and with healthy products becoming more widely requested, we are working on a variety of different blends using sea salt as the base. We currently have five different sea salt-based blends and expect to add a few more in 2009,” she says.

Linda Lee, vice president of private label sales and marketing at Williams Foods, has seen low-sodium seasonings grow in use in gravies, sauces and taco subcategories, as well as other blends sold in packets. She says consumers come to sea salt for different reasons.

“There are two different consumers - the one that’s health-conscious and looking for low-sodium [products], and the other consumer that’s interested in new and innovative trends,” she says.

Sea salts’ popularity isn’t growing because of its healthful perception alone - its transformation into an artisinal ingredient has made it a highly desirable seasoning for those looking to “gourmetize” their cooking at home, Nielsen says, pointing to companies such as SaltWorks and Cape Herb as innovators in sea salt. SaltWorks’ Fusion line of naturally flavored sea salts includes varietals such as Black Truffle, Matcha, Vintage Merlot, Espresso Brava and Lime Fresco.

Floral flavors, which also benefit from a “healthy halo,” are starting to make a splash on the spice rack, Nielsen says, and not just in specialty stores. McCormick now offers dried lavender in its Gourmet Collection and suggests using it to flavor custards, ice cream and baked goods, as well as savory dishes such as lamb and chicken.

Just as with every other food category, consumers also are looking for organic spices and blends that boast all-natural ingredients. These products are seen as more healthful and safer than their non-organic/all-natural counterparts.

Chuck Harris is Topco’s director of business management and oversees the company’s Full Circle line of natural and organic products. He says after requests from several retailers, Full Circle introduced a line of 24 organic spices.

“We’re trying to cover [with the Full Circle line] most of the mainstream categories within the grocery area,” Harris says. “Members requested that we look at organic spices, so we developed this line of 24 SKUs, but they are not blends.”

He says the line focuses on familiar single-spice items such as basil and cinnamon.

It's a Grind

Without a doubt, the biggest generator of excitement in the spices and seasonings category in recent years was the development of grinders built into jars for retail. And private label really has been able to shine here.

“We are finding there is tremendous growth in the grinder category,” Reed says. “We areexperiencing a compounded 30 percent growth in the grinder category and expect it to continue. We offer retailers grinders at affordable prices, therefore allowing consumers the ability to purchase several flavors instead of just one or two of the national brands.”

Grinders allow retailers to tap into several trends at once. For example, Reed says more of her company’s customers are requesting sea-salt-based grinder blends to capture health-conscious consumers, adding that retailers can use several strategies to boost sales with grinders.

“Look at all options before engaging a spice manufacturer. There are very few quality-oriented vendors, and you want to be sure the vendor you select uses pure spices without fillers,” Reed says. “For example, in a garlic sea salt you want the product to contain sufficient garlic to make a flavor impact - and it shouldn’t be 90 percent sea salt with a touch of garlic.

“You need to make sure the grinder caps are good quality PPT,” she adds. “This will ensure your consumers are buying good-quality caps that will hold up and not crack and chip in the grinding process.”

Grinders aren’t the only innovations going on in the packaging of spices and seasonings. When executed properly, creative packaging and merchandising can go a long way in increasing sales.

“I would make sure that [organic spices] have nice, clean, clear, concise containers,” Topco’s Harris says. “These consumers want to know what they’re buying. We have our line in glass, which natural/organic consumers feel are better, more sustainable. They want to see what they’re buying.

“On these types of organic products, one of the barriers for mainstream consumers is price,” Harris adds. “Our jars are a little bit smaller to get a lower retail price.”

Harris also says coupons can help defray some of the costs associated with buying organic spices. This could be particularly successful if seasonings are cross-merchandised with other natural and organic products at the meat counter. For example, retailers could offer a coupon on rubs that are cross-merchandised with organic/all-natural chicken or ribs.

Topco’s Best says spice tins and stand-up cardboard packaging are gaining in popularity, and that private label can take advantage of this reality.

“You’re seeing a definite drive towards sustainability. So having packaging that’s more sustainable - whether lighter-weight [or] more recyclable materials, anything that can contribute to reducing the carbon footprint is critical,” Best says.

Tins are convenient for consumers since they can be re-used, resealed and identified more easily in the cupboard. They also can be used multiple times while maintaining overall freshness, he adds.

Buying unfamiliar spices can be intimidating for consumers, especially for inexperienced home cooks. Retailers can ease the way by providing suggestions for use on product packaging or on display shelves. Best says that having a butcher or deli manager who can recommend seasonings can help.

“Build a little theater around the experience as you make that purchase,” he suggests.

In the end, Best sees private label spice and seasoning consumers as identical to those who buy the national brands.

“[In] the typical cupboard, you’ll find more than 20 private label products there. That being said, what I see today is consumers who are looking for new and innovative products,” Best says. “Private brands can actually be a leader instead of a follower - it goes hand in hand.”  PLB

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