All dressed up

As shoppers seek more innovative, health-focused options, a new generation of salad dressings and toppers has arrived


As the holidays wrap up and we enter the New Year, many consumers try to move away from the heavy celebratory foods they’ve been indulging
in and look to lighter options. Cue the salad!

But as we all know, a bowl of greens can be pretty bland without the dressing. No surprise, then, that salad dressings are big business. According to Nielsen Canada data, pourable salad dressings generated more than $250 million in sales across the country in the latest 52 weeks ending Oct. 12, 2019, which was up 2.1% over the previous year.

What’s more, several manufacturers are now offering newer items like pre-packaged salad toppers—combinations that often include nuts, seeds, dried fruits, crunchy noodles and the like. These items can add extra nutrition, flavour and texture to a salad. Data on these newer mixes are unavailable on a wide scale, but according to Nielsen’s figures, seasonings for salads and salad toppings such as bacon bits are up 2.73% over the previous year, with sales climbing to more than $182 million.

What’s popular in salad dressings has changed over the last decade or so, matching the move towards health-centric diets such as paleo, keto, vegan or plant-based, gluten-free, and organic. “There is one dominant theme influencing salad dressing launches right now,” says Dana McCauley, food trends expert and a director in the Research Innovation Office at the University of Guelph. She explains that the newer dressings are “heavily skewed toward plant-based. A lot of it is about the vegan and the raw—taking creamy dressings and reinventing them with ingredients like almond or cashew milk, or other dairy alternatives.”

Giancarlo Trimarchi, co-owner of Ontario-based independent grocery chain Vince’s Market, says in the last few years “there’s been a movement away from conventional brands with dressings over to artisanal, locally-sourced dressings with health additives.” Trimarchi says the first wave of this change brought forward new flavours and packaging, seen in brands such as Stonewall Kitchen out of the United States. The second wave in dressings, he says, is the one that started at least two years ago: the move towards “gluten-free, vegan ingredients, no added sugars, more health-conscious options … we’re still riding that wave,” he says. Currently, Trimarchi is seeing “the addition of new kinds of sours, vinegars. A lot more apple-cider based dressings.”

Christy McMullen, co-owner of Summerhill Market in Toronto, agrees. “Anything that has apple cider vinegar or turmeric in it is hot right now,” she says, noting this is because “people are looking for more health benefits in their food. People might not want to drink apple cider vinegar in the morning,” but as a salad dressing base, it’s a win.

Part of the shift to healthier dressings comes from the consumer perception “that the dressing they were putting on top of their salad was taking away from the health benefits they were trying to achieve” by eating more salad in the first place, says Trimarchi. One Canadian company that has taken this notion and made a winning formula out of it is Mother Raw, which sells a range of organic, plant-based, cold-blended dressings and dips in varieties such as Caesar, Ranch and Japanese. Kristi Knowles, CEO of Mother Raw, says the inspiration behind the company was this: “Why shouldn’t my salad dressing be as healthy as my salad?” With ingredients like cold-pressed olive oil, apple cider vinegar, hemp seeds and more, Knowles says the ingredients tell the story of its dressings. The company’s motto is “put good on good,” with products that are convenient but don’t skimp on flavour or nutrient-dense ingredients.

When thinking about salad dressings, it’s important to remember that salad itself has been redefined. “It’s becoming the base upon which you build your meal,” says Trimarchi. Salad is no longer just a side dish, agrees McMullen, and people are seeking ways to make salad a hearty and healthy dinner choice.

This might also be part of what’s fuelling the newer trend toward pre-packaged salad toppers. Companies like Martin’s Fruit Farm based in Waterloo, Ont., and NaturSource just outside of Montreal are two Canadian companies that now offer these toppers. At Martin’s, inspiration to create the Saladitions line came about when management scanned the salad topper market and found that most were “not all that healthy”—often they included croutons, bacon, or other fillers, says Peter Katona, director of sales and marketing at Martin’s Fruit Farm. In contrast, Saladitions, which come in Crunchy Harvest Mix, Zesty Fruit Medley, and Citrus Pepper Blend flavours, feature dried apples from Martin’s farms mixed with pumpkin seeds, dried sweet potatoes, beets, cranberries and cherries, depending on the mix chosen. They’re also gluten-free and plant-based.

In addition to nuts and dried fruits, NaturSource’s Salad Topper also includes dry noodles for crunch. Harvest Snaps, out of the United States, does a gluten-free green pea crisp Salad Toppers line with a similar marketing focus on delivering crunch. Many of the gluten-free and health-focused toppers tap into the keto market, says McCauley, where adherents might want “crunch and texture but aren’t going to use a crouton for obvious reasons.” There’s also the interest in adding protein to meals and this is something products containing nuts and seeds can fulfill.

Who’s buying these dressings and toppers? According to Camille Balfanz, senior brand manager at Litehouse Inc. (a U.S.-based company that makes a variety of salad dressings including gluten- free, organic, Greek-yogurt based, and dairy-free versions), the company’s “current consumers are well-educated, suburban adult couples who are flavour enthusiasts looking for healthy but tasty options.” More generally, Brian Neumann, senior manager, brand build and innovation at Kraft Heinz Canada, says “the largest segment of salad dressing consumers tend to be 18 to 44 [year old] men and women,” and McCauley notes that baby boomers, since they often entertain, buy a lot of salad dressing.

How can you make the most of salad dressing and salad topper sales? “Dressings have moved from the grocery aisle into the produce section,” says McMullen, adding this is because most of the newer salad dressings need to be refrigerated. This can make merchandising tough, but the main thing is to put dressings “intermixed in the salad and produce section,” explains McMullen.

At Vince’s Market, salad toppers are part of the assortment and are clearly identified as such. Using a “clip strip in the salad dressings section seems to be what’s working in terms of merchandising,” says Trimarchi. Vince’s is also considering creating its own salad topper kits in-house out of its bulk food section. “To do a mixed kit and label it as a salad topper doesn’t seem too far a stretch,” Trimarchi says, since they pack bulk in house.

McCauley suggests thinking beyond just the traditional “salad” produce when merchandising these kinds of products. “Put dressings near the peppers and zucchini for people who want to make grilled salads” in the summer, for instance. And in winter, “put them near the baking potatoes because you can use dressing as a topper for potatoes.”

Sampling is also a key strategy for introducing customers to new things; and when sampling these products, consider offering them atop “non-traditional” items as well. Mother Raw’s tahini-based and other dressings are often used on Buddha bowls, says Knowles, which is handy for customers who want to eat a healthy meal but lack the dressing or sauce to round it out. Some salad toppers can go on top of soups, and certain dressings can be used as marinades. Thinking outside the box might just be the key to maximizing sales.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’December 2019/January 2020 issue.