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Hot sauce

Saucy new condiments have home cooks trying their hand at restaurantinspired dishes

Bland, bland and, well, bland. If you love to cook, nothing is worse than having dinner guests, or even the kids for gosh sake, give your meal the B-rating. No wonder that Canadian cooks are turning to the sauce aisle to spice up the dinnertime routine.

"Consumers are looking for variety in their meals," stresses Tony Angelucci, senior brand manager of meal enhancers for ConAgra Foods. Thai and ethnic flavours in particular are the most popular, he says. Twenty-five per cent of Canadian shoppers purchase Thai flavour enhancers, according to company research.

Meanwhile, Guelph, Ont.-based Rootham Gourmet Preserves sells a Thai dipping sauce that's been customized for Canadian palates. "It's got a nice little heat," says Cathy Smith, Rootham's vice-president. Smith says she first ran into the Thai trend at an American food show eight years ago. It's only in the last two to three years that Thai has taken off in Canada. Condiments and sauces aren't breaking any sales records, mind you. Nielsen data shows a two per cent increase in dollar sales of sauces and condiments for the 52-week period to April 9, 2011. Volumes were up just one percent.

Those numbers may not be as fiery as your mouth after chugging a bottle of Tabasco. But retailers tell Canadian Grocer that when the product line is right, sauces and condiments move quickly off shelves. Yanna Moncion, special projects manager at Moncion Grocers in Petawawa, Ont., says consumers still respond well to the President's Choice "Memories of..." line, especially a chimichurri sauce called Memories of Argentina.

Bruce Smith, assistant manager of Safety Mart Foods in Chase, B.C., says ethnic sauces are showing up in carts more often. Not too long ago Smith decided to test a new sauce called Something South African, and was surprised by its strong sales. He suspects the product's unique foil pouch packaging may have intrigued shoppers enough to try it.

A noteworthy trend is that health is now also a factor in the sauce aisle. Take low-sodium ketchup, for instance. Don Holdsworth, marketing director of ketchup and condiments at Heinz Canada, says his company's low-sodium ketchup is selling rather well.

Heinz also now touts ketchup's other benefits, such as the bone health-boosting effects of lycopene. Joel Gregoire, analyst at Toronto-based NPD Group, says some of the special labels that consumers indicate influenced their purchasing decisions for ketchup are "low-carb," "fat-free," "cholesterol-free" and "organic."

Another surprise in the condiment category is the strength of an old standard: mustard. Both Moncion and Safety Mart's Smith say their mustard sections keep growing. Smith has brought in German and Italian mustards, and they have performed well. Moncion recently tested a gourmet beer-based mustard by Anton Kozlik that proved quite popular.

Katerina Wright, who runs the Vancouver-based blog Daily Unadventures in Cooking, says she's increasingly on the lookout for grainy mustards. "That is something I will spend money on," she says. One condiment Wright isn't buying so much, however, is mayonnaise. "I use hummus more instead of mayo because it's healthier," she says.

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