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Restrictions may now be over, but Covid-19 had a significant effect on all aspects of the food industry, and pasta, rice and cooking sauces were no exception.
As Maddie Grinham, brand manager at Mr Organic, explains, “For a category that had stagnated pre-pandemic, Covid-19 and the subsequent national lockdowns triggered a sharp rise in sales of pastas, rice and cooking sauces in conjunction with the increased popularity of home cooking and supply chain pressures.
“This increase has generated opportunities for brands to capitalise on the momentum and respond to consumer demand for health, convenience, and sustainability, as well as the need to differentiate and bring innovation to the category.”
Rising costs across the board are also evolving consumer trends as we embrace the new normal, with customers choosing to dine in and save money on petrol and restaurants. But premium quality, provenance, health and sustainability continue to be the key drivers of consumer choice in 2022.
With the cost-of-living crisis forcing consumers to cut down on spending, a new trend has arisen where customers are now looking for premium ingredients and cooking sauces as an alternative to dining out. As Sally Assinder, UK marketing manager at Garofalo, explains, “An appetite has arisen for more speciality shapes and consumers trying different shapes and more premium brands and tasting the difference over standard pasta.
“With less time post-lockdown and consumers looking for quicker recipe solutions sales of meal kits for home delivery with premium ingredients have increased. Premium pasta with a premium sauce makes the ultimate quick, easy and tasty meal solution and we have seen our pasta sauces and pesto continue to grow post lockdown. While consumers have always wanted to see pasta from Italy they are now looking for quality sauces and pesto to be Made in Italy.”
According to Louise Wymer, CEO of The Simple Root, “The cooking sauce sector is a traditional category which has mastered convenience; however, over the last few years consumers are expecting more than just quick dinners and demand a focus on great tasting sauces which use simple, sustainable ingredients.
“Consumers are wanting to see more premium, restaurant-inspired flavours which are accessible to any diet but also add that treat element to their midweek dinner.”
In fact, a move toward ‘premium convenience’ has been a major customer trend in the new normal as hybrid working continues and consumers choose to eat out less. As Ian Butt, commercials director at Potts’ Partnership, explains, “Where people may have eaten out multiple times per week, we find that they are now staying in more and cooking at home.
“However, people are still looking for that quick and easy dinner solution that eating out provided which means they are turning to our convenient sauces. We have coined the phrase ‘premium convenience’ because that’s what Potts’ customers are looking for.”
When it comes to cooking at home, Claire Harcup, head of sales and marketing at Sun Valley Rice believes that consumers will be continuing the lockdown trend of recreating their favourite restaurant dishes or takeaways, and rice will be a big feature of this. “Rice is the ‘go-to’ side for an Indian, Thai or a Japanese Katsu curry or Mexican Chilli, stir-fries and nourish bowls as well as a vital ingredient for sushi, burritos, and risottos as rice acts as an excellent flavour carrier for cuisines across the globe.
“It is a UK store cupboard essential along with pasta and consumers are now more aware of pairing different rice varietals with cuisine type and this trend has increased during the Covid-19 period when scratching cooking at home accelerated, and more people re-creating favourite meals from restaurants and takeaways.”
Focus on health
Aside from quick and easy meals that feel indulgent, consumers are also still looking for higher nutrition options after the pandemic caused the public to consider their health. As Maddie explains, “This hyper-focus on health and specifically sugar content can be said to be driven in part by the pandemic, and greater consumer awareness of dietary health and a subsequent boost to batch cooking.
“The pandemic increased consumer focus on ‘aspiration needs’, which involves a focus on preventative care and taking proactive actions to maintain specific health goals or avoid illness/ailments over the long term. We see this in particular in cooking sauces, with more and more brands catering to health-conscious consumers.”
For Louise, “The global pandemic has only acted as a catalyst in shaping consumers’ dietary and lifestyle choices. The most notable consumer change is the boom in plant-based eating, where consumers are making conscious decisions to increase their intake of vegetables based on a renewed interest in healthy eating.
“What we’re proving at The Simple Root is that cooking sauces don’t have to mean complicated, long ingredient lists or unhealthy additives. In recent consumer testing research, our range of sauces received a 90% purchase intent rating, highlighting the demand for fresh plant-based sauces which are packed with natural, healthy ingredients.”
Increased demand for free-from is something Sally has also experienced. “Our extensive range of gluten-free pasta continues to grow faster than any other type of pasta. The quality of gluten-free is becoming better and better and with more people moving to a Gluten-Free diet it has been vitally important to ensure that taste and quality were not compromised, something we at Garofalo have succeeded in, which we know from the constant 5 reviews we get for our Gluten Free range.”
Free-from is somewhere that rice excels as it is naturally gluten-free and fits into plant-based diets, and as Claire suggests, retailers should be incorporating “dual merchandising where possible so that rice sits within gluten-free fixture to maximise sales potential.”
Provenance and sustainability
As well as a focus on healthier choice lines, provenance is also a growing consideration to consumers and ensuring that your products champion this is key for store cupboard staple success.
For Claire, “Knowing where your rice comes from is important. Like wine, different regions of the world, due to their climate and soil type, will produce different varieties and the quality can vary. California, like Japan, is known for growing the best short grain and medium grain rice varieties in the world; the Sacramento River Valley is one of the most fertile agricultural regions on the globe, boasting rich soil, ideal growing temperatures for rice, and pristine water from the Northern California mountains.”
Provenance is also tied closely to sustainability, as consumers look for ingredients from sustainable sources. “With more focus on a fundamental understanding of where our food comes from and the environmental impact, Mr Organic has noticed a marked increase in demand for Organic agriculture for cupboard staples such as rice and pasta.
“Organic provides dual reassurance to the consumer of being free some any harmful chemicals or pesticides, as well as environmental benefits such as the preservation of habitats and promotion of biodiversity. As brands compete to differentiate in an ever-competitive sector, these credentials will become more and more vital in attracting and retaining consumers, something retailers are taking note of,” Maddie explains.
This is something Louise took into account when creating The Simple Root. “Over recent years, sustainable living has become a key consideration for many households and is one of the most important purchase criteria across any sector.
“Using root vegetables as the base of our cooking sauces guarantees we have a low carbon footprint and low water intake, we also happen to be pretty good at growing root veg in this part of the world, which means they’re easier to get hold of and have fewer food miles.”
Keeping these considerations in mind when looking at store cupboard staples such as rice, pasta and cooking sauces to stock will ensure your shelves are bang on-trend.
Looking to the future
The current situation in Ukraine and the difficulty with Brexit have resulted in ever-growing concerns around global supply chains.
As Sally explains, “Currently the biggest headache facing pasta producers is how to keep their customers fully stocked with pasta. Empty shelves in retailers are still an issue and caused by the unprecedented extremely poor durum wheat harvest. Droughts and record high temperatures in Canada and the USA have resulted in a drop of around 50% in crop yield.
“Add to that continued wet weather in early Spring in Europe has further reduced global supply. This has caused durum wheat prices to increase by around 90% and they could still further rise as high as 50%.” As we move into the second half of 2022, supply issues may shape the future of the sector.
Maddie agreed with this, adding, “The future of rice, pasta and cooking sauces remain uncertain. And with prices of durum wheat rising and global political unrest leading to knock on packaging and transportation costs increasing, brands are looking to USP around sustainability, province and quality to justify increasing prices.”
When it comes to innovation in the future, Ian believes sustainability is now a major driver. “Consumers are far more aware of their impact on the environment and how their purchases play into that. They are now met with a sustainability dilemma every time they enter a shop and consumers want to be able to choose convenience and flavour without the guilt of buying products with unsustainable packaging. We have significant plans to continue innovating and incorporating sustainable packaging into our products will be a major part of that.”
Louise echoed these thoughts as she concluded, “With consumer decisions being made increasingly around wellness and sustainability, we will likely see the continued shift to plant-based eating with heightened demand for premium flavours which are naturally better-for-you and have core sustainable values.
“For retailers to ensure they’re on trend and maximise their potential in the category, they need to pay attention to these category drivers and keep an eye on savvy innovation. Plant-based isn’t going anywhere, and I think over the next year within categories that provide convenience for shoppers like chilled sauces, we’ll see an increasing demand for tasty and easy meal ‘hacks’ which are designed for the way we eat now.”