Steaming up sales

by Allison Sebolt
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With many consumers now demanding convenience as much as ever, the bar has risen steadily for the quality of food products desired to be quick and easy. When it comes to the microwave, steam cooking has raised quality to a new level.

A product launch using microwave steam technology that has proven to be highly successful is the Healthy Choice Café Steamers line from ConAgra Foods, Omaha.

"Consumers told us the frozen meals they were used to didn’t give them everything they wanted," said Rob McCutcheon, vice-president of marketing for Healthy Choice. "They lacked the freshness today’s palate demands, so by taking a healthy method of cooking (steaming), and combining it with the separation technology developed at ConAgra, we were able to offer a better frozen meal."

There are 14 Café Steamers entrees, including various Asian-inspired flavors.

"The steam cooker technology … alleviated one of the challenges the frozen category faces with everything in a meal being cooked in the sauce," Mr. McCutcheon said. "Ingredients looked the same and could get mushy. The separation technology of the tray format allows the product to be steamed more thoroughly throughout the package while cooking, allowing the vegetables to stay crisper, fresh looking and tasting."

Information Resources, Inc. named the Café Steamers line as the best selling new food or beverage product through mid-year 2008, and one of the requirements of the recognition is that the product earned a minimum of $7.5 million in net sales at the end of the first year in market. The separation technology proved so popular Healthy Choice has used it in its Fresh Mixers line, which is microwavable pasta or rice-based dishes that may be stored at room temperature.

More recently, The H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, introduced Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash potatoes. The potatoes are already scrubbed, peeled and chopped and ready to steam in the microwave.

"Steam to cook is a great way to achieve a fresh taste with the convenience of a microwave," said Tracey Parsons, spokesperson for Heinz. "Busy moms, in particular, are looking for ways to get added convenience. With steam to cook packaging, it also minimizes clean up because there’s no dishes or pots needed for heating."

With Steam n’ Mash, consumers also may customize the potatoes and make them chunky or smooth or in whatever traditional recipe so desired. The idea is to make the preparation as easy as possible while still allowing for customization.

"We’re targeting everyone who enjoys homemade mashed potatoes but doesn’t have the time for all of the scrubbing, peeling and chopping," Ms. Parsons said. "In particular, our advertising targets busy moms, but we also know that dads and kids enjoy the convenience of Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash as well."

Other steamed potato products on the market include Wada Farms Easy-Steamer Gourmet Red Potatoes, which are washed, ready-to-steam and come in a microwavable bag, according to the Global New Products Database from Mintel International, Chicago.

Innovations in steam technology have been used most often with frozen vegetables, and Birds Eye Foods, Rochester, N.Y., has been using the technology in many of its products. Most recently, the company introduced Steamfresh Meals for Two in varieties such as Shrimp Alfredo and Asian Style Chicken Vegetable Medley. In addition, the Steamfresh line includes fresh frozen vegetables in varieties such as Asian Medley, Southwestern Corn and Garlic Cauliflower. The specially designed package allows for steam to build up and be released as necessary. Birds Eye also has introduced a lemon pepper vegetable variety under the Steam and Serve label, which uses a microwavable steam vent system and is packaged in a 10-oz container, according to Mintel.

Green Giant, a brand of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, has several frozen vegetable products that use steam for cooking, including the Valley Fresh Steamers line. The line includes varieties such as Broccoli and Cheese Sauce, Asian Style Medley, and Super Sweet Corn and Butter Sauce. Green Giant touts steaming as a more nutritious way of cooking as overcooking may reduce the nutritional content of vegetables. The Valley Fresh Steamers products are available in a microwavable bag and were first introduced nationwide in September. In terms of boxed products, Green Giant has various products labeled "Simply Steam," such as broccoli cuts and garden vegetable medley.

Even store brands are picking up on the trend as Archer Farms has a steam-in-the-bag Asian-Inspired Rice and Broccoli Seasoned Blend and an Indian-inspired Cashew Saffron Basmati Rice, Mintel said.

According to Mintel there were 151 new products launched with "steam" on the product label in 2008, which was up from 104 in 2007 and 51 in 2006.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, January 20, 2009, starting on Page 41. Click here to search that archive.

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