Inherent health in the freezer

by Allison Sebolt
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The frozen food aisle in supermarkets nationwide is a microcosm of the trends currently shaping the food industry. Healthy, natural, exotic are all trends currently resonating with consumers and driving product development.

The Healthy Choice line from Omaha-based ConAgra Foods, Inc. has expanded through its Café Steamers selection of frozen meals designed to retain freshness. The company has launched all-natural options to meet consumer desire for foods with inherently good nutrition. ConAgra’s efforts represent just a few of the emerging trends in the frozen foods category.

"We are seeing from a consumer trend standpoint that (weight management) is going to be important, but (consumers) are taking a more holistic approach, so they are having a more positive outlook," said Bart Hendryx, senior brand manager for Healthy Choice. "Some of the key things we hear them say are that they are focusing on the types of foods and diets that will help them feel better today as opposed to weight loss."

He said emphasis increasingly is on diets consumers create themselves and not so much on traditional diets with a specific program. In addition, consumers want products that inherently have good nutrition and positive ingredients that promote proactive health. Important ingredients and considerations include antioxidants, whole grains, fiber and protein.

As a result of these factors, Healthy Choice expanded its line in February to include all-natural products. In addition, the company recently re-designed the packaging to showcase the positive nutrition of its food items. Mr. Hendryx said there is less of a focus today on the absence of negative food qualities such as salt, sugar and fat.

"Over recent years there has been a tremendous development in our culinary culture," Mr. Hendryx said. "It’s finding new ways to use simple, real, natural types of ingredients to make recipes simpler. And so by doing that, you are using really quality ingredients, and ingredients that are inherently healthy that tend to taste better."

He said Italian and Asian recipes are on trend with consumers with Asian recipes especially becoming popular as consumers demand more variety in frozen meals. To meet the demand, ConAgra has the Healthy Choice Asian-inspired Café Steamers line of products.

"We are looking at several ways to leverage our success on Café Steamers — whether it be through Asian-inspired cuisine or other types of cuisine," Mr. Hendryx said.

He said ConAgra plans to expand the Healthy Choice line in the near future with products that take the same approach as Asian-inspired Café Steamers but with other types of cuisine.

Overall, Mr. Hendryx said there is greater need for expanded technology in the area of freshness in frozen foods, and the innovations with the Café Steamers line are helping meet some of this need.

Another company tackling Asian-inspired products is London-based Unilever P.L.C. The company recently signed an agreement with P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz., to develop a line of frozen Asian entrees in the United States. John LeBoutillier, senior vice-president of foods for the U.S. at Unilever, said Asian cuisine ranks only behind Italian among ethnic cuisines for consumers.

The H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, continues to gain space in the frozen food aisle through its Weight Watchers Smart Ones brand. Recent innovations include Grilled Flatbreads with varieties such as chicken marinara with mozzarella cheese, savory steak and ranch, southwestern style chicken fiesta, and chicken bruschetta.

"The addition of Grilled Flatbreads to the Smart Ones portfolio offers yet another way to satisfy your flavor cravings throughout the day while sticking with better-for-you options," said John Bennett, brand director.

Smart Ones offers stone-fired pizzas in pepperoni, four-cheese and fajita chicken varieties. The brand also has pizza minis in cheese, pepperoni and vegetable.

Earlier this year Nestle USA, Glendale, Calif., expanded its Lean Cuisine brand with new varieties such as sun-dried tomato pesto chicken, beef chow fun, pasta Romano with bacon, linguine carbonara, five cheese rigatoni, chicken marsala, fiesta grilled chicken, and beef and broccoli.

Amy’s Kitchen, Petaluma, Calif., has a new Enchilada Verde meal with organic ingredients, and the meal includes organic brown rice with sweet corn, carrots, bell peppers, chilies and black beans. There is also a roasted vegetable tamale meal and a roasted vegetable lasagna meal from Amy’s.

According to Mintel International, Chicago, Nestle is the market leader when it comes to frozen meals with about 35% share in 2008 thanks to its Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s brands. ConAgra ranks second with a 26% share due to the Banquet, Marie Callender’s, Healthy Choice, and Kid Cuisine brands. Heinz ranks third with the Smart Ones by Weight Watchers and Boston Market brands.

"When it comes to health positioning, innovations are looking to more healthful preparation methods such as steaming to attract consumers," Mintel said. "Shifting from a diet focus to a healthier lifestyle banner is being seen across all diet/health-related brands. ‘Fresh’ ingredients are appearing on frozen meal packaging to elevate the quality and nutrition of the meals. Finally, the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables to adhere to R.D.A. guidelines help foster a healthier range."

Mintel said 84% of consumers eat individual frozen meals because of convenience, and less than half of consumers eat them because they taste good. In addition, only 19% of consumers eat frozen meals because they are low calorie, and only 12% eat them because the brand fits into a diet plan.

According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, there were 800 new frozen meal/meal kit products launched in 2008, down from 894 in 2007.

Mintel said the frozen meals category has benefited from the recession as consumers are eating at home more and estimated 2009 sales in the frozen meals category would be $5,685 million, up 3% from the previous year. Mintel also forecast that sales would reach $6,259 million by 2013.

"As consumers are looking for more ways to convert their eating out occasions to eating in, they are going to have higher expectations," Mr. Hendryx said. "But we already see they are turning to frozen for those opportunities."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 1, 2009, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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