Redefining the frozen food aisle

by Allison Sebolt
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Several well-established trends in the food industry — consumer desires for convenience and natural and organic products — increasingly are becoming intertwined in frozen food product development.

According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, 77 new frozen meal and side dish products were launched in 2007 with organic claims, up from 38 in 2006. There also were 105 all-natural claims for such products in 2007, up from 64 in 2006, along with 332 convenient claims, up from 131 in 2006.

Chicago-based Mintel said taking an anti-processed claim may differentiate a brand in the market. Specifically, with each of the nine frozen meal brands the researcher investigated, at least 2 in 10 respondents who ate frozen meals described that brand as being "processed," which is a somewhat negative description in a market with more and more natural foods. In addition, Banquet and Swanson were the brands consumers most described as "processed."

Jay Orris, director of marketing for Van’s International Foods, Torrance, Calif., said part of the desire for convenience is the fact consumers are shopping less frequently but buying in bulk.

"As people are consolidating shopping trips … it’s simpler to buy things that are frozen or prepared refrigerated that have a longer shelf life, and those things lend themselves to really convenient preparation," Mr. Orris said.

Van’s specific focus is on using natural and organic ingredients in its frozen foods with waffles being its staple. The company also has a new line of stuffed sandwiches with natural ingredients. Mr. Orris said the organic trend has taken hold so much it is becoming popular in prepared items as well, although there have been some challenges along the way.

"The further you get away from a single ingredient item the more difficult it is for consumers to conceptualize why it is organic is an important point of difference," Mr. Orris said.

But he said consumers are beginning to value organic and natural ingredients in various foods. He also said the perception of quality of products in the frozen food aisle is increasing. Mr. Orris said even in frozen foods, it is becoming easier to preserve the sense of freshness natural and organic foods might indicate.

"With new technologies out there for frozen, you really can provide a fresh experience, even more so today than you might have been able to a couple of years ago," he said.

In frozen hand-held products, convenience is the main driver, and consumers are less concerned about the overall nutritional profile, Mr. Orris said. But he did note there is also a subset of consumers looking for healthy items in this area, with nutrition concerns especially prevalent in frozen meals. Mr. Orris indicated a rising popularity of pizzas and breakfast hand-held items in the category and the potential for ethnic foods.

Amy’s Kitchen, Santa Rosa, Calif., has had success in the frozen natural and organic category with various frozen meals, side dishes and entrees. The company even has achieved 70% share of the organic frozen food market.

On the more conventional side, Mintel said a potential opportunity for brands of frozen meals such as Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice might be to consider building meal solution systems consumers may use for every meal to lose weight, possibly consisting of five or six nutritious "mini-meals" a day. In addition, Mintel said consumers are seeking more premium frozen meal offerings and willing to pay more for products with better ingredients, more sophisticated flavors and authentic ethnic dishes. Currently, Nestle, Vevey, Switzerland, and ConAgra, Omaha, control the frozen meal category with the Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine, Banquet, Marie Callender’s Healthy Choice and Kid Cuisine brands.

Mintel also found among consumers who use family-size meals, 65% indicated needing to serve something else with the frozen meal to fill their family up, suggesting some of the convenience sought after by using frozen meals is negated by the need to supplement with other food. In addition, 56% of those using family-size meals said they would like to see more options with bigger portions in the category. Not surprisingly, Mintel found of the three segments in frozen meals (single-serve, multi-serve and pot pies), multi-serve showed the most potential for growth.

According to the The Nielsen Co., New York, frozen foods represent 12.2% of U.S. food and beverage sales, or $36.9 billion in sales. Overwhelmingly, such products are purchased in grocery channels, and the top frozen product categories are ice cream, pizza, novelties, poultry entrees and Italian entrees.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 29, 2008, starting on Page 44. Click here to search that archive.

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