KANSAS CITY - During the COVID pandemic, bacon has been a go-to food for many consumers, said Mel Coleman Jr., vice president of Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods.  

“Meat in general is top of mind for consumers as they are trying to stock up to feed their family as many as 21 meals a week,” he said.

That goes for Coleman Natural Foods’ sugar-free bacon, too.

“Even now, the keto, whole 30 and paleo trends have remained popular, so as shoppers are stocking up, they are looking for products that meet those diet and lifestyle requirements,” Coleman said.

Neil Dudley, vice president of sales of Hamilton, Texas-based Pederson’s Natural Farms, agreed that producers of bacon sold at retail have been luckier than most during the pandemic.

“Being a heavily retail focused brand — that has been survivable if not beneficial to our company,” he said.

Pederson’s is even launching a new product this year, a small batch dry rub bacon, though it is the company’s first launch in a while.

“We’re very excited about it,” he said. “We see dry rub as an emerging trend.”

The small batch dry rub bacon will join a product roster that also includes everything from hickory-smoked to applewood-smoked and no-sugar to steakhouse-cut. 

COVID has changed Americans’ eating habits in many ways, said Russ Smoke, vice president of prepared products for Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch. One trend in particular is the desire for comfort foods to get us through these tough times.

Niman Ranch and its fellow bacon producers are there to meet the need.

“American families have been cooking regularly at home and are rediscovering a home-cooked breakfast and looking for comfort food. There’s nothing more comforting or delicious than bacon!” 

Craving inspiration

With so many meals being cooked at home now, many consumers in the COVID age are getting cooking fatigue, Coleman said. They need new inspiration and ideas for preparing meals at home, and fortunately, Coleman Natural Foods is there to help.

“We’ve been producing new recipes that incorporate some of our most popular prepared items, such as bacon, to inspire families to go beyond the traditional means of using our various products,” he said.

For instance, the company has been pushing the “Bacon isn’t just for breakfast” message. Bacon, Coleman said, can liven up veggies, add a garnish to pasta, and “basically be wrapped around anything to make it better.”

In the new world of 2020, with tighter budgets, shoppers want to make sure that when they do spend money, they’re buying quality food they feel good about feeding their family, Coleman said.

If they do make the decision, increasingly harder for some, to spend a premium, they want to make sure they’re doing it for a very good reason. Often, Coleman said, that reason is animal welfare, personal health or another cause.

“Consumers are more interested in where their food is coming from and will be looking for meat products raised and processed in the U.S. on farms that care about the humane treatment of their animals,” he said.

Coleman Natural Foods requires its farmers to raise their livestock 100% crate free, which results in a healthier, stronger animal who can exhibit natural behavior throughout their life.

“We believe a healthier animal means better meat quality and a great tasting product for our customers,” Coleman said.

For added consumer confidence, Coleman’s production standards are third party-audited, and all of the farmers the company works with are American Humane Certified, meeting or exceeding more than 200 science-based animal care standards.

Coleman Natural Foods’ most popular bacons flavors are its Coleman Natural Hickory and Applewood Smoked.

Coming close on their heels is Coleman Natural Foods’ sugar-free bacon, which meets the needs of trending paleo and Whole 30 diets, Coleman said.

Pederson’s Original No Sugar bacon remains the “leader of the pack” for the company, Dudley said. And the company’s main differentiator from its competitors is still its commitment to “no antibiotics ever, no needle injection, no added synthetic nitrite.”

“We are involved in the game from pork production all the way to the end consumer,” Dudley said. “We provide an avenue to capitalize on consumer trends in bacon. We’ve been a part of the better-for-you niche our whole life.”

Real smoke makes the difference

Smoke cites Niman Ranch’s use of real hardwood smoke instead of the more commonly used liquid smoke as a major market differentiator. And the company has partnered with the same artisanal smokehouse to make its bacon since the mid ‘90s.

Niman Ranch sells seven different varieties of bacon in retail grocery stores, including its uncured Canadian bacon. All of the company’s bacon varieties are Certified Humane, no antibiotics ever, gluten-free and raised by independent US family farmers.

Niman Ranch’s Applewood smoked bacon is its “classic,” Smoke said. It’s won numerous awards and is the company’s most popular variety.

“It’s a favorite for Sunday brunch on kitchen tables across the country. It’s a classic for a reason — it’s the perfect balance of smoky and sweet.”  

Over the years Niman Ranch has added to its product roster with new flavor profiles including maple, hickory smoked and double Applewood smoked to fulfill demand from eaters who want new, bold flavors, he added.

Niman Ranch introduced a sugar-free bacon line in 2017 to meet the demand from health-conscious consumers looking for bacon that can be a part of paleo, keto and whole30 diets, he said.

“These varieties have performed very well, as those health-conscious consumers also prioritize sustainable and humane livestock production, all Niman Ranch strengths,” Smoke said.

Niman Ranch also offers uncured options for consumers looking for natural curing agents (the company uses celery powder and sea salt).

Another variation on the bacon theme that has proven successful for Niman Ranch is Canadian bacon. It’s a leaner alternative made from pork loin that’s slow-smoked over real applewood.

And for those who love a super smoky flavor, Niman Ranch makes a double-smoked bacon, which was developed for fast casual restaurant chain Shake Shack to use on its Smoke Shack burger.

In May, Good Housekeeping magazine gave the product its Best Bacon award.

One big trend in the bacon industry is a desire for high quality. A recent Mintel report found that 30% of those polled would eat more bacon if they were offered premium cuts, 21% if humanely raised, and 20% if fewer ingredients. Transparency is also a top trend, Smoke said. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it’s raised. They want to know that the product they buy matches their values.

For Niman Ranch, meeting those consumer needs starts on the farm.

“Our independent family farmers raise the pigs right,” Smoke said. “Niman Ranch pigs are raised on pasture or in deeply bedded pens where they can root, play and exhibit their natural behaviors. We believe that pigs given a stress-free life produce the finest tasting bacon.”

In addition, Niman Ranch farmers use heartier breeds of pigs that can thrive in outdoor settings, which results in richer marbling and fat that creates a superior bacon, he added.  

This story was featured in the October edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.