Freshness from the freezer

by Allison Sebolt
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As cooking technologies and ingredients have evolved, the quality and variety of frozen meals has improved in recent years. In fact, according to the findings published in the February issue of Consumer Reports, 14 out of 24 microwavable meals received a “very good” rating for taste from the magazine’s testers, a marked improvement from when prepared meals were last tested in 2004.

According to Consumer Reports Health, the pasta/bean category offered the most products deemed “very good,” including Lean Cuisine One Dish Favorite Santa Fe-Style Rice & Beans, Kashi Black Bean Mango, Kashi Garden Vegetable Pasta, and Healthy Choice All Natural Entrees Portabella Spinach Parmesan.

So what has changed to improve the quality? Healthy Choice, ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, has launched several new products, including an all-natural line as well as Mediterranean and Asian-inspired options in its Café Steamers line.

The company also reformulated some products to include more whole grains or lean white meat. The Mediterranean flavors were launched in January, and while the company previously had Asian-inspired Café Steamers, the Chicken Pad Thai variety was recently added. The all-natural line includes flavors such as Tortellini Primavera Parmesan, Mediterranean Pasta and Sweet Asian Potstickers.

Jonathan Gray, manager of research and development for ConAgra, said the company is focusing on introducing more culinary-style meals and varieties and using less processed and more all-natural ingredients. The company also has a patented ultragrain technology, which he said the company uses to deliver whole grains in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the flavor of the pastas.

The Café Steamers line uses ConAgra’s SteamCooker technology, a tray-in-tray technology that keeps the pasta and sauce separate, allowing them to be cooked separately to allow for improved freshness.

“There is a perception of frozen food being overly processed,” Mr. Gray said. “So we took the approach, ‘Let’s go all-natural … let’s not use artificial ingredients, let’s not use artificial colors and preservatives and flavors. Let’s use whole grains, let’s use real vegetables, real meat.’”

Overall, he said consumers don’t want to sacrifice the flavor or satiety, so the company uses fiber and whole grains in its vegetarian options to help with satiety.

“Healthy Choice was formerly about lower fat, lower sodium, lower saturated fat, which we still adhere to, but it’s more about the good things — abundance of antioxidants, abundance of fiber, heart healthy,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s less about the negatives and more about the positives.”

Mr. Gray said many of the Healthy Choice flavors are intended to mirror what is going on with restaurant flavors and trends, with some culinary-inspired ideas, including Pumpkin Squash Ravioli and Asian pastas.

The trend toward culinary-inspired cuisines may be seen in other brands as well. Lean Cuisine, a Nestle brand, has a line of Spa Cuisine entrees with 5 to 6 grams of dietary fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The line recently introduced varieties such as Apple Cranberry Chicken, Roasted Honey Chicken and Thai-Style Noodles with Chicken.

“At Lean Cuisine, we strive to balance nutrition and great taste,” said Kristin Gibbs, director of marketing for the Glendale, Calif.-based company. “Our Spa Cuisine entrées have 5 to 6 grams of fiber from nutritious ingredients like whole grains, fruits and veggies, and deliver on taste because we use high quality ingredients such as natural sea salt and no preservatives or artificial flavors.”

Kashi, which is owned by the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., also offers microwavable meals in flavors such as Mayan Harvest Bake and Lemongrass Coconut Chicken.

“The Kashi brand is clearly one to watch,” said Jamie Hirsh, associate editor of Consumer Reports Health. “It was the only brand that earned a ‘very good’ score for both nutrition and taste for all four of its meals that we tested, though they are a little pricier than most.”

ConAgra’s Mr. Gray said moving toward using natural ingredients and whole grains, no preservatives, and meeting heart healthy requirements will continue to be popular with consumers and determine the future in the category.

According to the Global New Products Database from Mintel International Ltd., Chicago, there were 687 microwavable meals introduced in 2009, down from 877 in 2008 and 749 in 2007.

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