Consumers may have become thriftier in the downturn when it comes to eating out, but gourmet-quality meals at home are on the rise. Premium-quality ready meals are booming, as are easy-to-prepare meat products. But consumers also are looking to adventurous side dishes to complement their protein, and new product launch activity suggests a flavorful revolution in the side dishes category.

An analysis of tracked U.S. product launches from Innova Market Insights of the three categories that most closely reflect the definition of “side dishes” [Potato Products; Prepared Pasta & Noodles; and Rice], found a dip in activity from July 2009 through June 2010, with 722 new products tracked—compared to 920 in the previous 12 months (July 2008-June 2009). But real innovation has been present, with many of the innovative product development trends in other categories also being reported in side dishes.

Italian dominance

Analyzing the type of ethnic cuisine or flavors being used for side dishes (U.S., from January 2009 to June 2010), Innova Market Insights noted a dominance for Italian-style products (65.2%), owing to the large number of pasta products noting their origin style (see Figure A, page FS-4). The large number of noodle product launches meant that this was followed by Thai (14.5%), Asian (8.7%), Chinese (5.8%) and Mexican (5.8%) style side dishes. Protein inclusions

Protein inclusions

When analyzing the prepared products that also function as side dishes to meat proteins, or include a meat protein ingredient (U.S., from January 2008 to June 2010), Innova Market Insights found a large dominance for poultry (40.3%) among the top five (see Figure B, page FS-6). This came ahead of the unspecified “meat” category (18.3%), beef (16.5%), shellfish (14.7%) and pork (10.1%). Here follows a run-down of some recent U.S. innovation in products that can function as side dishes.

Healthier options

Low in fat but full of flavor is the strategy being employed by the SmartOnes brand, which operates under the Weight Watchers weight-management concept. Recent additions to the line include Mini Rigatoni with Vodka Cream Sauce (6 Weight Watchers points), an al dente pasta with a creamy tomato vodka sauce and reduced fat mozzarella cheese. Meanwhile SmartOnes Pasta with Ricotta and Spinach (5 Weight Watchers points) consists of mini pasta ribbons with a creamy white sauce, herbed ricotta cheese, and chopped spinach.

ConAgra Foods has been highly creative in the frozen convenience space, particularly through their Healthy Choice brand. For example, the company was recognized recently with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Industrial Achievement Award for its Healthy Choice Café Steamers product platform. The judges described Cafe Steamers as “a significant improvement in frozen meal preparation and quality.”

Cafe Steamers use tray-in-tray steaming technology to separate sauce from frozen ingredients, using steam to cook the meal. New under the Healthy Choice banner is Healthy Choice Marinara Manicotti Formaggio. This top whole-grain pasta is stuffed with four cheeses with zesty marinara sauce and served with broccoli and a caramel apple crisp. The product contains 13 grams of protein and 24 grams of whole grain, but counts for only 7 Weight Watchers Points.

Sensory experience

Unilever’s line of Knorr Sides epitomizes the trend towards flavorful, convenient foods. A new Cheesy Bacon Macaroni consists of a tender macaroni in a cheesy sauce with crunchy bacon bits. Other new offerings under the Knorr Sides line include Knorr Asian Sides Classic Chow Mein, consisting of Chow Mein noodles in a savory garlic scallion-flavored sauce. Meanwhile Knorr Italian Sides Scampi is described as, “Fettuccini pasta smothered in a buttery, garlic and lemon flavored sauce.”

The microwaveable Chow Noodles from Nissin Foods are promoted as wider and flatter to hold more sauce and add a new twist to favorite pasta recipes like Tomato & Basil, Cheddar Cheese and Alfredo.

The modern and fun pasta brand, Putney Pasta, focuses on bold flavor to appeal to trendy young consumers. New to the line is Three Cheese Ravioli, where pasta made with durum wheat is stuffed with a savory blend of three cheeses (Ricotta, imported Romano and imported Parmesan). Also available in this line Three Cheese Tortellini, Whole Wheat Spinach & Cheese Ravioli, Portobello & Grilled Onion Ravioli and Cheesy Pizza Mini Ravioli.

A meatier option could be Stater Bros. Ravioli Pasta Filled with Beef—a microwaveable, ravioli pasta filled with beef that is made without the use of preservatives.

The Simply Asia brand includes an option with a pretty much overlooked, but nonetheless interesting, cuisine. Simply Asia Spicy Mongolian Noodle Bowl consists of pre-cooked Asian noodles with spicy Mongolian sauce and shallot sesame seed topping. The range is further complemented with the likes of Mandarin Orange Noodle Bowl, Spicy Kung Pao and Soy Ginger Noodle.

The word “simple” or “simply” in itself is interesting, with Innova Market Insights noting a surge in products marketed for their simplicity in formulation, as manufacturers look to market natural formulations, containing as few ingredients as possible. One example is Simply Enjoy Italian Sausage & Rigatoni with Red & Yellow Peppers in Marinara Sauce, which features rigatoni pasta with Italian pork sausage in a zesty marinara sauce, held in a heat-sealed plastic bag.

Macaroni & cheese

What could be a more traditional side dish than macaroni & cheese? The economic downturn has led consumers to look toward comfort foods that they know and love well, and macaroni & cheese has fared well as a result. Convenient options are being boosted, with ConAgra for example offering the Chef Boyardee Mac & Cheese line, where the product “made with real cheese” is offered in a convenient microwavable bowl.

But the health trend has led to a rise in products marketed as lower in fat, sugar and salt, as well as the proliferation of natural products, with examples also coming in the guise of this classic dish such as Back to Nature Organic Shells & Cheddar Dinner with Certified Organic Cheddar Cheese.

Fiber Gourmet Light Mac & Cheese takes health up a further notch, claiming to be “Fun fiber that kids will eat.” The product contains 35 percent fewer calories (“standard mac is 260 calories, this is just 170”), but with 18 grams of fiber per serving. The elbow macaroni shape is claimed to be easy for kids to eat. The high fiber pasta range is further complemented with Fiber Gourmet Light Rotini Pasta, Fiber Gourmet Light Short-Fettuccine Pasta and Fiber Gourmet Classic Lasagna, claimed to have the same color, taste, and texture as standard pasta, but 40 percent fewer calories.

“It also provides an unprecedented 18 grams of fiber per serving, much more than whole wheat pasta (which has a mere 5g),” the company claims.

Kraft has been pumping up the whole-grain content of many of its products of late and recently introduced Kraft Velveeta Rotini and Cheese, whole-grain rotini pasta mixed with creamy Velveeta cheese sauce. But the company also relies on its backbone values with products like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner: Extreme Cheese Explosion, “with more cheese sauce and bigger shapes” and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner: Explosion, which uses more milk and less butter than regular macaroni and cheese dinner. Meanwhile a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Kit was launched in a special Toy Story brand licensing arrangement.

Rice dishes

Rice forms the foundation of many traditional cuisines from around the world, but manufacturers also are keen to add a further touch of convenience or flavorful expression to a rice side dish. Packaging advances have allowed simple quality to reign.

Rice Expressions, for example, is a line of microwaveable rice dishes that allows consumers to express their “culinary creativity” in just minutes, while also touching on the organic trend. The line includes Rice Expressions Organic Long Grain Rice, Brown Grain Rice and Tex Mex. Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Basmati, packaged in a stand-up pouch, claims to give the consumer “delicious nutty flavor with a taste of India in just 90 seconds.”

Azteca Mexican Rice takes authenticity to another level with “premium and authentic” Mexican rice in a plastic pouch, promoted as, “Terrific for a side dish, burrito or enchilada topper.”

The Zatarain’s brand combines Louisiana flavor with the topical trend of sodium reduction with New Orleans Style Reduced Sodium Black Beans and Rice, while opting for simple traditional flavor in the case of New Orleans Style Rice with Beef Flavor.

Seeds of Change are keen to ride the region-specific trend, by combining whole-grain rice with flavors from all corners of the globe (e.g., Seeds of Change Havana Cuban-Style Whole Grain Rice & Beans). The line tells an interesting story with each product. For example, in the case of Seeds of Change Siena Tuscan-Style Whole Grain Rice & Beans—a blend of Cannellini beans, rice, peas and pasta—it notes the following, “Cannellini beans are so beloved in Tuscany (home of lovely Siena) that the Tuscan peoples’ nickname is ‘mangiafagiole.’ Yep. Beaneaters.”

Potato and sweet potato

The potato is the cornerstone side dish, but innovation is also rampant in this space.

Combining shapes can make for a unique sensory experience, and Trader Joe’s Microwaveable Seasoned Teeny Tiny Medley Potatoes is a mix of three different kinds of seasoned small size potatoes, seasoned with salt and spices (oregano, black pepper).

Health can be addressed with Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods Sweet Potato Pancakes promoted as an “all natural, saturated fat free, 0g trans fat, good source of fiber” option.

Heinz’s Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash Cut Red Potatoes combine convenience with a slight touch of culinary skill, where consumers first steam the product in the microwave, then mash, to create “homemade mashed potatoes without the homemade hassle.” The brand takes a more indulgent approach on Heinz Ore-Ida Ultimate Baked Potatoes Butter, which consists of creamy twice-baked potato with rich butter flavor. This line is also available in Sour Cream & Chives and Cheddar Cheese flavors.

Sweet potato can offer consumers an alternative to standard fare. For example Ore-Ida Sweet Potato Fries from Heinz consists of frozen sweet potato fries in an easy-to-open pouch. Ore-Ida Sweet Potato Fries claim to have been specially prepared, “so they’re fluffy on the inside, with the famous crispiness on the outside,” containing 0 grams trans fat. Alexia Foods says it carefully balances the sweet and savory flavor of sweet potatoes together with a hint of sea salt to create a “wonderful alternative to the everyday fry.”

But pure simplicity can also work to justify a high purchase price, especially if the product is organic. Nature’s Place Organic Potatoes, for example, are packs containing a mere two organic baking potatoes in a cardboard tray held in a plastic wrapper, but sell at $1.59! Meanwhile the Organics portfolio now includes Organic Russet potatoes which are “grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.”

Trend-conscious creativity is apparent throughout the side dishes space, as manufacturers look to give even greater prominence to their product. Meat will, of course, remain the focal point of the entrée, but innovative seasoning and preparation will be necessary in order to not be outdone by a captivating side dish; at least from a flavor perspective!

The author Olivia Sant’ Angelo is a Market Analyst at Innova Market Insights (, a leading supplier of new product and trend information in the food and beverage industry. Innova Market Insights is organized by food industry professionals to rapidly record new product activity and identify the trends driving the industry today and in the future. For more information, contact