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Ragu: the way many of us learned to love 'Italian' food

Back in 1937, if you wanted to buy Ragu pasta sauce, you would have had to buy it out of the trunk of a car from its creators -- a married couple named Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano. Back then pasta and red sauce was not a staple of the American diet like it is today.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but sometimes these things can," says Wharton marketing professor Leonard Lodish. As Americans’ attitudes about Italian immigrants changed, Italian food became popular, and Americans’ perception of Italian food was built on tomato sauce. Ragu was a big part of that.

Today, Ragu is the number one pasta sauce brand in the U.S., but sales are down 18 percent since 2009 as more shoppers turn to private label sauces.  This could be one reason Ragu’s parent company, Unilever, is selling the iconic brand to the Japanese company Mizkan for $2.15 billion.

Mizkahn is the largest producer of vinegar in the world, along with other food products that, according to the company’s website, are revered throughout the world for bringing flavor to life TM.

Overall, the food industry is a slow-growth market.

“So if you are looking for high growth, food is a tough place, it’s going be a market share bet,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group.

If Mizkan wants to grow Ragu’s market share, says Balzer, it will have to take it away from a competing sauce.

Check out these other Ragu sauces from across the ages:

When you hear "Ragu," you might think of simple, old-fashioned red sauce. But like every other food product that's been around for a while, the brand has tried several other variations on its staple which did not stand the test of time. Here's a few memorable -- or unmemorable, as it were -- Ragu products:

1. Ragu Pizza Quick - For those who want something between the DIY of Boboli and the ready-made Bagel Bite

2. Ragu Chicken Tonight Simmer Sauce - Everyone of a certain age knows the accompanying dance to this ad

3. Ragu Beef Tonight Simmer Sauce - Because chicken wasn't enough

4. Ragu Fresh Italian Sauce - The selling point of this sauce was its inclusion of more tomatoes...in comparison to other Ragu sauces

5. Ragu Chunky Garden Style - It was like the chunky peanut butter of pasta sauces

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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