Nutrition a key component of evolving convenience trend

by Keith Nunes
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Convenience is no longer a unique new food product attribute on its own. As ingredient and packaging technologies have evolved, time-saving new products have become the norm. To succeed, food processors need to add value to products that were once considered added-value. For example, according to Information Resources Inc., the Chicago-based market research firm, convenient nutrition is a significant emerging trend.

I.R.I. defines convenient nutrition as food products that may be easily prepared or are ready-to-eat, such as frozen and refrigerated meals and side dishes that also are sources of vitamins and minerals. Similarly, grab-and-go snacks and beverages that are not only satisfying from a taste standpoint, but also offer nutrition will be popular. While granola bars have addressed this need, I.R.I. predicts the trend will extend across other product categories, including fruit and vegetable chips.

With its partnership with Curves, General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, has combined the convenience of a grab-and-go product with nutrition. Introduced at The FMI Show earlier this month, the line consists of granola bars and cereal that target consumers concerned about weight management.

"Our new line of products connects Curves’ women and fitness inspired equity with General Mills’ health and wellness focused innovation," said John Haugen, vice-president of health and wellness for General Mills. "The partnership speaks to both sides of the health and wellness equation. Great nutrition is one aspect, but physical activity is a necessity as well."

On an annual basis, I.R.I. issues its New Product Pacesetters to provide a snapshot of successful product development trends in the consumer packaged goods industry. To qualify for the ranking, new products must achieve $7.5 million or greater in year-one sales. Throughout the New Product Pacesetters for 2006, the concept of convenient nutrition was apparent, whether it was through the No. 1 ranked product, Kraft’s South Beach Diet line, Dannon’s Activia yogurt with probiotics (No. 4), Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Paninis frozen entrees (No. 9) or Stouffer’s Corner Bistro frozen entrees (No. 10).

"Clearly, a number of trends will impact new product development focus and opportunity next year, ranging from a rising number of gourmet consumers to a growing demand for eco-friendly packaging," said Sunny Garga, president of business and consumer insights for I.R.I. "However, consumers’ drive to incorporate more nutritious food and beverages into their diets will be the dominant force by far. The multiple dimensions of nutrition that are likely to drive significant opportunity for the next several years include convenient nutrition, kids’ nutrition, functional nutrition that provides specific health benefits … and nutrition that delivers beauty benefits from the inside out."

After a lull in 2005, the proportion of food and beverage pacesetters offering convenience was consistent with historical trends in 2006. That is good news, according to I.R.I., because consumer demand for convenience never waned. It has evolved. Consumers want health and wellness, taste and high quality along with convenience.

While down slightly from a record number of new product introductions in 2005, 2006 was still one of the most active in recent history, according to I.R.I. Yet, despite the high numbers, success rates remained consistent with rates over the past decade. Less than one-quarter of introductions met the New Product Pacesetters hurdle of $7.5 million or greater in year-one sales. In fact, only 3% of food and beverage introductions exceeded $50 million in their first year.

In its Times & Trends report, I.R.I. noted that "while these numbers are disheartening and clearly point to the need for change in new product development practices, they also reflect the fact new products are becoming more targeted."

Looking ahead, I.R.I. has identified several convenient products that have been dubbed New Product Pacesetters-to-Be and include the Campbell Soup Co.’s Reduced Sodium Soups, Birds Eye Steamfresh microwavable vegetable line, Quaker Chewy 90 Calorie bars and Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Brick Oven Pizza.

Launched in March 2006, the Birds Eye Steamfresh line allows consumers to take frozen vegetables out of the freezer and steam them in the microwave. A packaging technology that utilizes a special vent allows for consistent steaming of the product.

The Steamfresh launch has sparked a trend as other companies have begun to offer similar types of products. The Sholl Group II that licenses the Green Giant Fresh brand from General Mills was marketing its Freshtables SteamPerfect product during The FMI Show as "expanding the meal category." Available in nine styles, the product may be steamed in the package in 2 minutes.

Meal time meal solutions

The trend for more convenience also is having an effect on the retail food marketing industry. According to the Food Marketing Institute’s "U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2007," consumers are demanding greater convenience, higher quality, more variety and better nutrition all while maintaining a focus on price. The authors of the report identified a divergence in the ways shoppers describe home cooking, which they said makes the battle for the consumer’s food dollar more complex.

The report noted that more Americans prefer to eat their main meal at home. That is a change, compared to surveys conducted in the past. The drop in eating out is likely influenced by timely factors such as increased energy costs and the opinion many consumers have that meals prepared at home tend to be healthier.

What consumers consider to be a home-cooked meal is diverse. Answers collected as part of the F.M.I.’s trends report defined "home cooked" by the appliances used, the time required for preparation, whether it is fresh, from scratch, frozen, canned or boxed.

As the consumer definition of a home-cooked meal has diversified, so have the convenient meal solution formats supermarkets have started to offer. They range from fresh-food delis, in-store bakeries, coffee bars, sushi stations and even olive bars. The variety of offerings is a reflection of consumer demand for variety as well as convenience, according to the F.M.I.

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