Donna BerryCHICAGO — The United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, held its annual conference June 25-27 in Chicago. The program’s design allowed visitors to experience the fresh produce supply chain from grower to retailer and everything in between, including mechanical harvesting, robotics, packing and packaging.

The United FreshMKT Expo component of the show featured recent innovations for the produce department, with convenient and portable fresh foods dominating the exhibition. Exhibitors showcased an array of new fresh foods, including prepared meal solutions, snack items, juices, salsas, soups, dips and more. Within the expo was a special organic showcase dedicated to the growing sector within the produce department.

Mann Packing Co., Salinas, Calif., which was acquired by Coral Gables, Fla.-based Fresh Del Monte Produce in February, is rolling out a line of standalone vegetable noodles: butternut squash rotini, kohlrabi linguine and sweet potato fettuccine. The company also has a range of new fresh vegetable rice products with blends such as fried rice (carrots, kohlrabi and sugar snap peas).

“The veggie noodles and rice categories are booming and we saw an opportunity to get in on the growth with these new product lines,” said Rick Russo, vice-president of sales, marketing and product management at Mann’s. “These versatile products can be used in everything from pad Thai to risotto. As consumers become increasingly aware of the importance of eating fresh produce, we expect to see more products like this taking the place of traditional carbs.” 

The company also is growing its Nourish Bowls line with two plant-based protein vegetable noodle bowls intended to be microwaved for a hot meal. New Basil Pesto is made with vegan Chick’n while Tomato Bolognese includes vegan sausage. These are not vegan meals, however, as they both contain Parmesan cheese.

Good Foods L.L.C., Pleasant Prairie, Wis., is launching Avocado Mash, a blend of ripened avocados and seasonings with no artificial ingredients or added sugar. The mash is sold in four-packs of single-serve containers and was developed in response to the trending avocado toast menu item.

Also recognizing that avocado is a popular food these days, Wholly Guacamole, a brand of MegaMex Foods, Orange, Calif., is making snacking easier with a new line of portable snack cups featuring its signature guacamole and crunchy, gluten-free tortilla rounds. The guacamole comes in either mild classic or spicy hot varieties.

Ready Pac Foods, Irwindale, Calif., is growing its Bistro Salad brand with limited-edition Green Goddess Salad with chicken and herbed avocado dressing.

The educational program included a session covering highlights from the new SmartFood Choices 2018 report, commissioned in partnership with United Fresh Produce Association and 210 Analytics, San Antonio. The new research, a survey of 1,500 adult consumers conducted in May, takes a comprehensive approach to understanding how consumers’ behaviors are changing, and in turn, shaping the better-for-you and healthy food and beverage landscape.

“The growth of consumers’ adoption of snacking and convenience desires is changing the way they interact with food in their daily routines,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh. “This new research will help the industry make marketing, advertising and merchandising decisions as retail buyers and food service professionals look to better understand this dynamic market and discover new and innovative healthy foods to help their customers meet their lifestyle goals.”

The concept of SmartFood has many meanings. For most shoppers (90%), it suggests healthier preparation and a higher nutrition value. Eight in 10 shoppers said it is clean label food while 7 in 10 said it’s more about the environment, animal care and the planet. Nearly two-thirds of shoppers said SmartFood encompasses fair treatment of workers and small brands.

Smartfood chart

The report found 70% of shoppers have bought SmartFood specifically for its better-for-you properties in the past three months. A desire for fresher and less processed items is found to go hand-in-hand with emotional wellness for consumers. The positive feeling they get about buying SmartFood for themselves and their families rated well ahead of weight and health management.

The SmartFood shopper is well informed, according to the report. They use the ingredient list and nutrition panel, along with their own knowledge or experience, when making a purchasing decision.

“There is no longer a one-size-fits-all consumer strategy for retailers or manufacturers of better-for-you products,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics. “Everyone in the supply chain, from research and development, marketing and manufacturing, to distribution, merchandising and e-commerce needs to understand the widely varying desires and changing behaviors of the different SmartFood shopper segments.”

Ms. Roerink explained that cost is easily the biggest obstacle to making healthful choices. The additional time and effort required and lack of convenience round out the top-three reasons. Taste is important, but high-interest shoppers are willing to give a little on taste if the better-for-you benefits are clear.

One in two shoppers said a store’s SmartFood assortment influences where they shop for groceries, of whom 21% cited a lot of influence. This makes having a basic assortment of SmartFood a competitive must, and an expanded, but highly targeted assortment an important driver of competitive advantage.

Core shoppers chart

Above all, the study showed that attitudes and behaviors differ widely across the population, Ms. Roerink said. Shoppers have very different levels of effort, strategies and interests for each of the different meal occasions, making it important to develop very specific branding, marketing and merchandising strategies for each target audience.

She identified numerous opportunities for growth, including sharing the brand’s story.

“Authenticity is a core ingredient to winning today’s influential shoppers,” she said. “Further, more shoppers will make room in their budgets for better-for-you choices when benefits are clear. Own both emotional wellness — feeling good about making better-for-you choices — and physical wellness targeting specific health benefits.”

View slideshow of innovation at United Fresh 2018.