Is there nothing sausage can’t do? The venerable links, which offer consumers the simplicity and versatility across a variety of dishes and dayparts, once again showed resilience in an economy fraught with uncertainty.

Driven by innovation and consumer demand, sausage as a whole posted nice gains in the retail marketplace, according to data supplied by Infoscan Reviews from SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based global provider of enterprise market information solutions. The refrigerated dinner sausage and breakfast sausage/ham categories each can boast an increase in dollar sales of more than 8 percent, while refrigerated frankfurters experienced a bump of more than 4 percent in dollar sales (see top brands charts later in this report for more details).

Of course, price increases have affected those numbers, but consumers continue to purchase sausage and franks, with unit sales numbers on those categories holding steady or posting smaller gains.

In August 2011, an online survey was commissioned by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council in order to gauge consumer preferences within the sausage category. A news release from the council announced the findings in October 2011. Among the results, more than four in five U.S. adults polled said they eat sausage, with 54 percent of respondents claiming that breakfast was the meal at which they dined on the links most often. The dinner meal followed, with 26 percent admitting to eating sausage most often, and only 4 percent of those surveyed said lunch was the daypart of most frequent sausage consumption.

Sausage processors, for their part, have long stood up and taken notice of the consumers’ attraction to sausage at breakfast. Amy Grabow, general manager for Sara Lee’s Jimmy Dean brand, explains that the frozen protein breakfast category experienced significant growth in 2011.

“As consumers understand the importance of starting the day with a satisfying, balanced breakfast versus sugar-loaded options, they have been looking for options that are high in protein, convenient and great-tasting,” she says. “As we head further into 2012, we expect to see similar trends, as category consumption will most likely be driven mostly by consumers’ desire to start their day with convenient and better-for-you breakfast options, either at home or on the go.”

Jimmy Dean recently expanded its convenience-oriented Breakfast Bowls line to include a Meat Lovers Bowl, which includes breakfast sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, potatoes and cheddar cheese.

“When it comes to breakfast, consumers are looking for ways to enjoy those traditional breakfast flavors, but without the hassle of having to leave the house or spend hours cooking in the kitchen,” Grabow adds. “We are also seeing that more and more consumers are eating breakfast during other parts of the day, whether it’s for lunch or dinner.”

Furthermore, she says, the combination of “sweet with savory” is a flavor profile that has become popular with consumers over the past year across the food industry as a whole.

“Products that combine the sweetness of foods like French Toast and pancakes, with the savory flavor found in turkey sausage, have become a big hit, and I expect that we’ll see more of this, as well as new combinations, over the next year or two,” Grabow explains.

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly drawn to sausage products using proteins other than pork as their primary ingredient base, and Jimmy Dean has taken advantage of this trend as well through its Jimmy Dean Delights and Hearty Turkey Sausage Crumbles lines.

“Turkey-based meats, specifically turkey sausage and turkey bacon have been gaining traction as a popular breakfast option, as consumers understand the need to start their day with a substantial breakfast but look for options with less fat and calories,” Grabow says. “The key is to ensure consumers can get a delicious balanced breakfast with protein to help keep them satisfy in the morning and give them the best start to the day.”

Outside the breakfast daypart, consumers are getting more adventurous and innovative in their demands for new flavor profiles, says Daryl Gormley, general manager for Hillshire Farm, another Sara Lee brand.

“Within the pre-cooked smoked sausage category, we have seen an increased desire for unique flavor profiles that can be used in various recipes,” he says. “Consumers are seeking out products with quality ingredients and unique flavor profiles, similar to those that they experience when dining out.”

Hillshire Farm saw these trends as an opportunity to provide consumers with a greater variety of flavors, and recently launched the Gourmet Creations line of premium pre-cooked smoked sausage, which includes the following gourmet-style varieties: Chicken Apple with Gouda Cheese; Beef & Bacon with Monterey Jack Cheese; Beef & Jalapeno with Monterey Jack Cheese; and Sweet Italian Style with Peppers and Mozzarella Cheese.

Gormley relays that consumers want variety in their food choices, and that extends to sausage selection as well. At the end of the day, the consumer wants choices in their shopping experience.

“Whether looking for better-for-you options or a traditional sausage, consumers appreciate having the opportunity to make that decision,” he explains. “Within our smoked sausage product portfolio, we strive to offer variety — whether it be flavorful beef or pork products or poultry-based options that offer fewer calories and fat, our portfolio is quite extensive and provide consumers with the variety they seek.”

As 2012 rolls along and more consumers gravitate toward recreating the gourmet sausage experience at home, and others gravitate toward low-calorie, low-fat options, sausage processors need to be aware of the opportunity in the offing to give the consumers the choices they desire — and keep the growth momentum slanting upward for the market as a whole.