After more than a decade of fairly flat sales, US annual per capita onion consumption rose 15% in 2017, the biggest jump in eight years. In fact, according to USDA numbers, consumption grew more than all the vegetables USDA tracks except cauliflower.
Restaurants are contributing to this surge, with chefs slicing and dicing 26% more onions than in 2005, according to the 2017 Datassential report. Pickled and caramelized onions star on many menus, and chefs are slipping more onions into appetizers.
“Chefs are always looking for ways to get creative and onions are so versatile,” said Rene Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association in Greeley, Colo. “Every time you turn around there’s a new dish.
“At our convention in California the chef made incredible onion ice cream,” Hardwick said.
Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms was pleased to learn its famous Vidalia onion was chosen as part of Walmart’s local produce program, which partners with chefs to promote produce from different regions.
Chief operating officer Troy Bland said the grower has a new display bin and offers plenty of tools, including help setting up in-store cooking demonstrations, to draw attention to the sweet onion category.
The popularity of onions is also being fueled by growing interest in plant-based eating, said Teri Gibson, director of marketing for Peri & Sons, based in Yerington, Nev., which has wrapped up its California season and is now harvesting in Nevada.
“People are looking for fresh ideas to mix and match vegetables so they can eat more every day without getting veggie fatigue,” said Gibson. “Onions are used in virtually every type of cuisine and every specialized diet plan including clean eating and paleo. We’re fortunate we’re part of all of those diets.”
Sales of fresh-cut onions are strong because they’re convenient and they reduce food waste, said Megan Jacobsen, marketing director of Gills Onions in Oxnard, Calif., which sells whole peeled onions to chefs and diced onions to retail.
With 50% of millennial women becoming parents, she advocates retailers take a Blue Apron approach to fresh produce by focusing on a quick, nutritious recipe, perhaps for the grill or for the Instant Pot, and assembling all the ingredients, including 8-ounce cups of Gills’ diced onions, in one place.
Good fit for 'good for you' trend
Along with their versatility, consumers are gaining an appreciation for onions’ health benefits, said Hardwick. They’re low in sodium, high in vitamin C, a good source of dietary fiber and folic acid and contain no fat.
The NOA has just released the fall addition to the extensive onion toolkit for retail dietitians launched earlier this year. The supplement focuses on tailgating, onion-rich recipes for hearty family dinners and diabetes management.
“Supermarket dietitians have become major influencers to American consumers,” she said. “They conduct store tours to highlight healthy choices, they write blogs, conduct in-store demos and more. What they recommend, consumers buy.”
At Peri & Sons, surveys show that consumers, especially millennials, are reading labels and researching products and companies more than ever, which inspired its new package for premium organic onions.
“People want their purchases to be good for them and also good for the community and the environment,” Gibson said. “Our new package, available in 2-, 3- and 5-pound weight, gives them a lot of information about our sustainable growth practices, our organic program and our community service in a fun and engaging way.”
More in-store signage is also needed, she said, to help consumers distinguish among onion varieties and educate them on where their produce comes from and how it grows.
Gibson sees sweet onions as a good example.
“Though their shape and size differ, our survey shows 85% of shoppers looking at sweet onions displayed next to yellow onions have no idea why one is more expensive than the other,” Gibson said.
Like Peri & Sons, which supports breast cancer research, giving back to the community is a big part of marketing efforts for Reidsville, Ga-based Shuman Produce and its RealSweet Vidalia onions, now arriving from Peru.
President John Shuman, founder of Produce for Kids, said in-store campaigns will continue this fall with signage and point of sale materials, and PFK’s Power Your Lunch Box Promise digital campaign will encourage families to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Shuman has also increased its organic program.
Retailers can also bring attention to the onion category with novel items like Blands’ pee-wee size Lil’ O’s vidalias and “tearless” Sunions, now growing for the second year at Peri & Sons and at Lake Park, Ga-based Generation Farms.
“Last year we received amazing feedback from chefs and retailers and we anticipate more excitement this year,” said sales and marketing manager Lauren Dees.
The sweet, mild Sunion, which mellows in storage, is available from late fall to early spring and Dees said the crop is looking good.
“At the end of the day,” said Jacobsen, “whether folks are shopping for onions at retail to cook food at home or they’re enjoying our onions in a restaurant, we’re all in this together.”