CHICAGO — The center store still plays a starring role in home kitchens, said Thomas M. McGough, co-chief operating officer and executive vice-president of Conagra Brands, Inc. Nearly 70% of all main meals are made with center-of-the-store ingredients, according to The NPD Group.

“Now, this notion that the center of the store is irrelevant and dying, quite honestly, is a myth, and you can see that in terms of consumer behavior,” Mr. McGough said during Conagra Brands’ investor day on April 10. “More eating occasions originate from the center of the store, and that consumer behavior has been flat for at least the last five years. And in terms of sales growth, center of the store is growing at a 1% rate over the last four years. But what’s also true is you cannot paint the entire center of the store with the same brush.”

While large categories including canned soups and ready-to-eat cereal have declined, others such as spices and seasonings and pickles and olives are growing by mid-single-digits or more. Others, still, including nut butters and fresh bread and rolls, remain stable.

“Millennials are not going to the center of the store looking for chicken noodle soup,” Mr. McGough said. “They’re looking for sriracha.”

Center-store products are viewed as convenient and more affordable than other food options — particularly among time-starved and financially constrained millennials, he added.

“And millennials have grown up exploring global cuisines,” he said. “And what we see … is that people are returning to the center of the store for the seasonings, spices, sauces and condiments to make those meals at home. And millennials are making those meals at home by assembling components. And by far, people are assembling components, and most meals are made with center-of-the-store ingredients.”

Conagra Brands has a $4 billion center-store portfolio that includes businesses such as Chef Boyardee, Hunt’s, Pam, Peter Pan and Mrs. Butterworth’s. The company has seen success updating many of its frozen and snack brands and is now turning its attention to pantry staples such as condiments, sauces, meals and sides.

The Hunt’s brand is launching a “thicker and richer” tomato ketchup recipe with no high-fructose corn syrup or genetically modified ingredients. A new line of Hunt’s barbecue sauces features smoked flavors such as hickory cracked pepper, cherrywood chipotle and mesquite molasses.

Debuting from Rotel is a range of hot sauces with ingredients such as roasted green hatch chiles and cilantro.

The Manwich brand is getting a modern makeover with improved recipes and graphics. The sloppy joe sauce will feature contemporary flavors such as bourbon barbecue sauce, Mr. McGough said.

Pam will add specialty cooking sprays including organic extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.

In shelf-stable meals and sides, the company has identified “modern health” as an area of growth. Under that heading, the company has homed in on breakfast on the go and carb replacements. New from Chef Boyardee is Veggie Made Pasta, which has rotini noodles made with zucchini and lentils in a cheese sauce.

Also debuting are Healthy Choice Power Cups in flavors such as buttermilk maple pancake and strawberry pancake. Mr. McGough described traditional breakfast options in the center of the store, typically made with oats and other grains, as “carb bombs.”

“Our new Healthy Choice Power Cups are made with almond flour,” he said. “They’re low in carbs, high in protein and grain-free.”

Wish-Bone, Earth Balance and Healthy Choice salad dressings, Conagra Brands

Expanding into salad dressings

Conagra Brands acquired the Wish-Bone salad dressing business as part of its recent Pinnacle Foods transaction.  

“The salad dressing category is large and stable, but the Wish-Bone brand has underperformed, and that underperformance is rooted in a poorly executed label redesign,” Mr. McGough said.

In addition to a packaging redesign and recipe improvements, the company is adding dairy-free creamy ranch and honey poppyseed varieties made with almond milk.

“Now there are other opportunities to disrupt salad dressing, and the ones that we’re really interested in are lifestyle and plant-based opportunities,” Mr. McGough said. “And here is where the breadth of our portfolio is a huge asset. Wish-Bone is a great brand, but we have other brands that compete in these spaces.”

From Earth Balance, new vegan, keto, Whole30 approved salad dressings will debut in ranch and blue cheese flavors.

Conagra also is extending the Healthy Choice brand into the salad dressing category with new plant-based Power Dressing in three varieties: ranch, green goddess and garden french.

“They’re made out of cauliflower, lentils and white bean, and they’re made out of healthy oil,” Mr. McGough said. “When I started getting deeper into this category, I was shocked to realize that most of the healthy dressings, even those in the natural channel, are made with soybean oil. We won’t do that. These dressings are made with avocado oil. And on Healthy Choice, we know how to add flavor through a great combination of spices.”

Conagra Brands new refrigerated products

Refrigerated brands get a boost, too

Representing $1 billion in sales, Conagra Brands’ refrigerated portfolio includes Egg Beaters, Reddi-wip, Hebrew National, Earth Balance, Tennessee Pride and Blue Bonnet. Plans to modernize these businesses also are underway, said Darren C. Serrao, co-c.o.o. and executive vice-president. New products will include Egg Beaters liquid whole eggs, Hebrew National premium beef brisket hotdogs and Earth Balance vegan whipped topping and vegan egg replacer.

“Both are incremental opportunities to our portfolio and obvious extensions into both the natural channel as well as beyond,” Mr. Serrao said.

Reddi-wip is debuting Barista Series nitrogen-infused and sweet foam coffee creamers made with nonfat milk and cream.

“It’s designed to participate in the $3 billion coffee creamer category,” Mr. Serrao said. “The only thing is, unlike competitive coffee creamers, we actually make this thing with milk, not oil. Now these nitro creamers and sweet foams are taking off in coffee shops around the country, every major coffee retailer investing heavily to drive national distribution of a nitro creamer and sweet foam.

“Good news is now you can take these things and make your own coffees at home.”