Britons are becoming more adventurous with cooking sauces. Although the Italian sector remains the most successful, sauces inspired by Mexican and Asian cuisine have shown solid growth too. And premium British offerings are being tipped for future success.

The Italian sauces market grew 5% last year to £231m compared with 4.5% the previous year, meaning it now makes up more than half the ambient wet cooking sauces market [TNS 52 w/e 3 December 2006].

"Consumers are increasingly looking for restaurant-quality products to enjoy at home and we expect this to be the main driver of category value growth this year," says Remmelt Jongkind, marketing director for Napolina at Princes Foods.

The producer is keen to enhance its premium positioning following research that identified a shift from price concerns to quality and flavour. It relaunched Napolina sauces last year, as well as developing a new selection of seven sauces, which it expects will drive value growth at the premium end of the market.

Italian cooking sauces' trump card continues to be the health perceptions intrinsically linked to a Mediterranean diet. Premiumisation and provenance are also proving influential. These trends are balanced with a desire to play it safe, especially at family meal times.

"While UK consumers demand new tastes, flavours and food experiences, ultimately they are also looking for healthy family pleasers and flavours that aren't so removed from everyday life," says Suzanne McFarlin, food customer marketing manager for Masterfoods, which owns leading sauce brand Dolmio. "Italian fits that bill."

However, Italian flavours were not the only ones flying off shelves last year. Consumers added cooking sauces to shopping lists more often and increased the amount they bought on each trip.

The ambient wet cooking sauces market grew 3.8% in value to £459m in the past year, while volume sales rose even faster at 4.6%.

Consumers have also developed a taste for Mexican, from meal kits to spicy sauces and guacamole. A recent wave of NPD has resulted in Mexican flavours showing the strongest growth in the overall ambient wet cooking sauce market over the past year. The sector grew 12.3% to £22m and bolstered its market share to 5%.

Last year, Mexican cooking sauces attracted 9% more shoppers, and 19.2% of British households bought Mexican products.

The relaunch of the sector's major player Old El Paso was aimed at offering more authentic flavours and developing a connection between consumers and the brand's family-oriented image. This, says Pugh, is something the Mexican offerings are becoming good at.

"The emotional payoff for consumers of feeling that little bit more connected to the wider world is a key driver of demand for these kinds of product," he says.

The strong growth in Mexican cooking sauces is even more impressive when considering the minor role the products play in Mexican meals.

"Cooking sauces are a relatively small part of the Mexican meal - particularly in the case of fajitas and nachos - which is predominantly made up of seasonings, tortillas, salsas and other accompaniments such as guacamole, soured cream and jalapeno peppers," says James Bennett, head of marketing at Discovery Foods.

The producer has seen steady growth of its Mexican, Cajun and Creole sauces in the last year, particularly the two-step options, which have the seasoning sealed in the lid of the jar.

Cooking sauces have always been convenience-led, but separating the seasoning from the sauce offers a level of interaction that manufacturers say appeals to the growing number of consumers keen to spend less time preparing meals. This tactic will be increasingly employed in the cooking sauces sector and is already used in the Geeta's Spice & Stir range.

"In keeping with Indian cooking traditions, the spices are used first and stirred with other ingredients and the sauce is added last.

"The result is a far more intense and aromatic flavour," says Geeta Samtani, the range's creator.

Indian sauces haven't shown the same growth as Mexican, so category growth is not all about a craving for spices. The sector is still ahead of Oriental in value, but growth over the past year has remained slow at 1.1% to £78m, compared with 5.6% to £73m for the Oriental category [TNS].

However, consumers are still developing their appetites for new Asian flavours, according to Victoria Swing, brand manager for Sharwood's, which launched an Asian Tastes range, including flavours from Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia last year.

"Old favourites such as madras and tikka are still popular," she says. "But more authentic and regional sauces are also required to maintain interest."

Brand owners are adopting a broader coverage of ethnic cuisines, and introducing fusion flavours to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Premier Foods' Loyd Grossman range, for example, spans various food categories and covers cooking sauces from Oriental, Italian and Indian cuisines, including seasonal variants.

The brand is set to roll out its latest winter option - tomato & red wine with garlic & oregano - this month. It is also revamping its website to boost brand awareness and is investing in marketing and sampling activity.

The vitality of Mexican, Italian and Asian sauces has overshadowed the traditional sub-category. Traditional sauces fell a disappointing 2.5% in 2006 to £48m compared with 5.4% growth in 2005, but there is hope.

Gareth Pugh, consultant for Dragon Brands, highlights Knorr's new recipe profiles for the Chicken Tonight sauces as one approach to raising the quality bar for traditional meals.

"These will answer emotional as well as taste and convenience needs." n