This summer the stars were aligned in favour of leafy salad sales as a cosmic combination of warm weather, health conscious consumers, and high quality products led to consumers purchasing leafy salads more often, with (according to data from Kantar Worldpanel) frequency of purchase up 4.7%. But where does the category go from here? Rachel Anderson investigates
As the fresh produce industry launches the autumn season, it leaves behind it a successful summer in which some bagged salad products became the shining star of the retail aisles. In fact, Sainsbury’s described 2016 as being “the year of salad.” The retailer noted that – whilst sales of iceberg lettuce remained steady – sales of dark green leaves such as spinach and rocket sold particularly well, with baby spinach salad bag sales up by nearly a fifth this summer compared to last summer. In fact, spinach rocketed into first place to become Sainsbury’s “number one in bagged salads.” It also revealed that year-on-year salad bag sales saw:
- a 92% increase in sales of its mixed leaf salad – a mix of red multi-leaf, green multi-leaf, green batavia and radicchio
- a 52% increase in watercress
- a 27% increase in its Bistro bag – a mix of lambs lettuce, beetroot, red chard and bulls blood chard
- a 20% increase in rocket
- a 20% increase in its sweet leaf mix – a combination of iceberg lettuce, carrot, romaine lettuce and white cabbage.
But Sainsbury’s is not the only British retailer where salad bags have flown off the shelves at full throttle. Marks & Spencer, for instance, tells Produce Business UK that sales of its Rosa Verde mixed salad bag – an assortment of red butterhead lettuce, green butterhead lettuce, and lamb’s lettuce – shot up by 168% this summer, whilst sales of its bagged rocket soared by 27%.
Jackie Harris, chairwoman of the British Leafy Salads Association and technical manager at Valefresco, believes there are several reasons for this year’s uplifts. She says: “The weather has been a bit better this year and more people have been holidaying in the UK than previous years. The trend [for purchasing bagged salads] may taper off when winter comes in but I think it will still remain steady. Also, we are seeing some good products out there at the moment. People are seeing that they are good and so they are popular. At Valefresco we are growing the best products for the best colour, yield, taste, and shelf life. It takes a good five years for a variety to come on to the market.”
Alec Roberts, account manager for spinach, celery and baby leaf for vegetable specialist Tozer Seeds also asserts that today’s focus is on innovation. This means that leafy salad products boast qualities such as a good shelf life and enhanced flavour, texture, shape and colour – as is perfectly exemplified in the vividly hued red Bulls Blood variety (ruby red chard). Varieties sold by Tozer such as Dragon’s tongue, a red-veined wild rocket, and a new, hot-tasting, red-veined rocket named Fireworks, are helping to give leafy salad lines a point of difference. Roberts also notes that, with growers in mind: “most of our efforts are on improving agronomic traits, such as pest and disease resistance.” He reveals, for example, that varieties such as chard that are particularly susceptible to diseases are now stronger – meaning that growers are in a better position to supply consumers with the good quality products they desire.
Both Harris and Roberts agree that – thanks to its versatility – baby leaf spinach has become a background product in the way that iceberg lettuce used to be. “Spinach is a big filler now. It’s a healthy, inexpensive, green leaf,” asserts Roberts.
Tom Amery, of The Watercress Company, notes that watercress, like spinach, is also becoming more commonplace. He says: “It’s a very popular product that’s on the shelf in most fresh produce aisles and used in a broad range of dishes. It’s in a lot of ready meals and it is being used as a mono-salad more and more. People often buy a ready meal and then a bag of salad. We also have ‘scratch cooks’– so watercress is being used there too.” Amery explains that, as a grower, he has helped drive his product’s widespread us by telling his customers that: “yes, you can put watercress in sauces, salads and sandwiches.”
Fresh produce delivery firms including Abel & Cole and Riverford also “love it” reveals Amery. “They love it because it’s a high-end product and for the price they are getting they feel it’s something really worthwhile.”
Recipes boost uptake: herb salad with cumin roast beetroot, squash & carrot
A healthier wavelength
Harris notes that the prevailing healthy eating trend, combined with the galactic number of recipes that are available, is also contributing to the success of leafy salads. One such ray of inspiration is the Make More of Salad campaign, which is funded by British leafy salad growers (with support from the European Union) and which features quick and simple recipe and serving ideas. It promotes these through consumer media, online via social media and on its website.
Harris and Amery also note that the continuing juicing and blending craze is another reason why sales of certain bagged salads have soared. Amery says: “Spinach is now a common ingredient in smoothies and watercress is riding on the coattails of that trend.”
Many fresh producers will recall the days when vivid-green juice was a sight seen only on fictitious supernatural-themed television shows. Now, however, as health-conscious consumers start to incorporate more salad leaves into their diet, green juice is evidently being concocted in the kitchens of many British homes.
Olympic diving pool water? No, watercress and kiwifruit juice
This autumn Amery is even starting a trial with a local hospital. “We went there knowing that the health benefits of watercress are quite powerful, and said: ‘We believe that we can create a smoothie that is something nutritional for your patients.’”
The Watercress Company then worked with the hospital’s staff to create a daily blend for the hospital’s oncology ward patients – and the patients’ wellbeing will be monitored during the trial. Amery says: “I know from first-hand experience that when people consume what they believe is a healthy diet it has a positive effect on their outcome.”
Evidently, the leafy salads category is continuing to enter into new territory and has certainly not reached its zenith. Amery also reveals, for example, that more than 50% of watercress sold in the UK is sold in just two retailers (one of which is Sainsbury’s.) And Roberts notes that, despite the sector’s continuing innovation, there is still a lot of room for improvement. He says: “There’s a lot of innovation going on because people still want new things in a [salad] bag.” And so, as they look towards the forthcoming seasons, buyers would be wise to note that the leafy salads category arguably has a lot more distance to travel.