Don’t shed a tear

Onions may bring tears to most people’s eyes, but for supermarkets that merchandise and cross-promote the acidic vegetable aggressively, they can be tears of joy. According to the National Onion Association, based in Greeley, Colo., the annual retail value of the U.S. onion crop is between $4 billion and $5 billion. Perhaps more importantly, onion use per person capita continues to grow.

According to Kim Reddin, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association, in 1983 onion consumption per person per capita was at 12 pounds, now it is right around 20 pounds. She estimates that when population expansion is taken into account the increase in onion consumption equates to about 60% growth.

“Consumers certainly aren’t shying away from onions,” says Reddin. “They seem to be incorporating onions into a lot of different meals.”

Industry insiders say some of the onion growth can be attributed to Americans continued desire to expand their culinary horizons, exploring different cuisines from around the world. “Almost every ethnicity and almost country in the world uses onions as a mainstay in many of their dishes,” says Reddin. “It’s without a doubt one of the most popular vegetables worldwide.”­

Domestically, onions are the traditionally the third or fourth highest selling vegetable at retail, flip-flopping with tomatoes for the third spot behind lettuce and potatoes. While the most popular onion remains the yellow or sweet onion, accounting for about 85% of sales, the red onion continues to gain favor with consumers. Insiders say that the growing red onion trend started at the foodservice level with restaurants such as Subway and Pizza Hut and has recently begun to trickle into retail as well. 

“Red onions are growing primarily because of its color and flavor,” says Reddin. “They have a little bit different flavor profile than the yellow onion, they look great on salads and sandwiches, which is one of the main reasons food services made the shift to using red onions.”   

As one of the more popular vegetables in the produce department, insiders say onions often lend themselves nicely to cross-merchandising opportunities. Insiders say many supermarkets, depending on the season, can create innovative displays that feature onions with a variety of products. And, just because the grilling has come to an end, that does not mean retailers should put onions on the backburner. For example, the autumn and winter months bring chili season and many supermarkets place chili packets and mixes next to their onions. The same can be done for stew and bean mixes as well.

“The great thing about onions is that they are so versatile, they can be promoted alongside almost anything a consumer might buy,” says Bob Meek, CEO for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group. “Home cooks can slice some up and put them on a plate to be eaten with a hamburger. Mild onions can be marketed to be included in salads. Spanish onion varieties carry the acid and do the best job of adding flavoring to cooked products. Sweet potatoes also complement onions well and they can be marketed to be cooked together.”

Beyond promoting different onion usage opportunities, as consumers continue to incorporate healthier foods into their diets, insiders say it would be beneficial to the onion industry to better promote the nutritional aspects of onions as well. In addition to being a low-calorie, low-sodium, fat- and cholesterol-free food, onions are high in vitamin C and are a good source of fiber. Studies have also shown that consumption of onions may be beneficial for reduced risk of certain diseases and may prevent gastric ulcers, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.   

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