Frozen in time

Consumers are improving their diets and frozen food manufacturers are taking notice. 

Consumers’ desire to eat healthy has had a chilling effect on frozen foods. However, with better-for-you options available the category might be due for a late-summer thaw.

According to Chicago-based research firm Mintel, sales of frozen meals have steadily declined in the U.S., totaling $8.1 billion in 2012. The firm, in its May 2013 Frozen Meals US report, also noted that household consumption of frozen meals declined from 52% in July 2007 to September 2008, to 48% in August 2011 to August 2012. Momma_spicy2_300

Much of that decrease is due to consumers’ perception that frozen foods are high in fat and sodium, and that frozen dinners have little nutritional value. The report claimed that 47% of respondents agree that there should be a wider selection of healthy frozen meals, and nearly a quarter of respondents would like to see more vegetarian meals available.

Industry observers say any future growth in frozen food sales will likely come from the healthy foods segment. While frozen foods once provided an inexpensive alternative to cooking from scratch, today’s frozen foods must answer different consumer demands.

“Frozen food sales have been sluggish in general, but we are seeing nice growth in the natural category,” says Chuck Marble, chief executive officer of Elevation Brands, based in Framingham, Mass., and manufacturers of Ian’s and Blue Horizon Wild brands. “It is extremely competitive, and we see innovation out there.”

Ian’s recently launched Pancrepes, which are gluten-, soy-, dairy- and nut-free. They consist of a wrap that is thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake, and are available in Sausage, Blueberry, Apple and Strawberry. The packaging features quick-read food allergen icons on the front, so shoppers seeking allergy-friendly foods do not have to read the entire ingredient list. “We want to make it easy for shoppers to try our products,” says Marble.

Company officials also want to make it easy for retailers to merchandise the Pancrepes. They say it helps that the food is suitable for several eating occasions. Some retailers feature Pancrepes in the breakfast section of the freezer, while others offer it in the frozen sandwiches section.

Also new is Blue Horizon Wild’s Salmon Surf Burgers, patties that are available in Plain Salmon, Cilantro Lime and Blue Cheese flavors. The seafood contains omega-3, answering consumers demand for healthful foods, says Marble, adding that the salmon is wild caught, which responds to another trend.  “People are becoming very sensitive to keeping oceans wild,” he says. “We use Best Choice guidelines set by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.” The Surf Burgers are also free of synthetics, fillers and chemical preservatives.

It makes sense for health-minded consumers to look to frozen foods, says Allison Meyer, senior brand manager for Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, based in Elmwood Park, N.J. “The most natural preservative we have is temperature,” she says. “People are starting to realize a great benefit with frozen foods is you don’t have to put in as many preservatives.”

Meyer adds that retailers are also realizing the benefits of featuring more healthful frozen foods. Frozen sections now have two or three doors of natural foods, including various ethnic offerings. “If you talk about better for you food, that’s the engine of the category,” she says. “Before, frozen food was just about taste and convenience. In grocery we’re seeing taste, convenience and good for you, made of real ingredients.”

Dr. Praeger’s recently added two products to its veggie burger lineup, Asian burgers and Thai burgers. They contain no cholesterol, saturated fat, or trans fat and are a good source of fiber. The Asian veggie burgers ingredients include onions, water chestnuts and brown rice. The Thai veggie burgers ingredients include red peppers, carrots and string beans.

Mintel further claims that three in 10 respondents would like to see a wider selection of ethnic frozen meals. Its Frozen Snacks US report said that Mexican remains the most popular ethnic food. Rachel Cullen, president and CEO of Ruiz Foods, based in Dinuba, Calif., says that presents opportunities for the segment. Consumers eat Ruiz’s frozen snacks such as El Monterey Taquitos as a snack, as part of a meal, or as a meal replacement, she adds.

El Monterey recently launched Shell Shockers Taquitos, corn taquitos with chicken on the inside. El Monterey Shell Shockers are available in Nacho Cheese flavor and Jalapeño Ranch flavor. The brand also revamped the packaging for its entire Taquito line, switching from bags to boxes containing 24 or 28 Taquitos.

Taking comfort
For some consumers, frozen food still means comfort food, but now they want a healthier version. “There has been a tremendous need for things to really be revived in frozen foods,” says Hope DeLong, who handles marketing for Momma B’s Mac & Cheese. “There needs to be more innovation and better quality.”

Momma B’s Mac & Cheese, is available in three flavors: Homestyle, Pepper Jack and Truffle, contains no preservatives and no GMOs. “GMO is kind of a hard thing to control,” says DeLong. “There is testing and it requires a lot of behind the scenes work.”

While macaroni and cheese might seem retro, there is nothing old fashioned about Momma B’s marketing. The Boynton Beach, Fla.-based company launched the Mac & Cheese items in March, and has been promoting the products with a fan of the week photo contest on Facebook, cartoons with sayings on Pinterest and announcements on Twitter.

Each week a photo contest winner receives a coupon for a free Momma B’s Mac & Cheese.

Kellogg, based in Battle Creek, Mich., added several items to its frozen food brands this summer. Kashi Moroccan Minestrone Soup is a vegetarian soup that features zucchini, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, kale, yellow carrots, roasted garlic and Kashi 7 Whole Grain Orzo Pasta. Kashi Savory Chicken Noodle Soup includes white meat chicken and carrots, onions, celery, kale, red quinoa and whole grain bow tie pasta. Kashi Three Cheese Ravioli Steam Meal features Kashi 7 Whole Grain Pasta filled with ricotta, asiago and mozzarella cheeses, spinach, basil, red peppers and chickpea puree. Kashi Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto steam meal combines crimini mushrooms and asparagus with Kashi 7 Whole Grains and Sesame pilaf in a parmesan cream sauce. The two soups and two steam meals are all high in protein, whole grains and fiber.

Top of the mornin’
Breakfast is a bright spot among frozen foods. According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, for the 52 weeks ended July 14, sales of frozen breakfast food totaled more than $2.9 billion, an increase of 6.8% compared to the same period the previous year.

Handheld breakfasts performed especially well, increasing nearly 18% to $960.76 million. Other positive sales included frozen seafood, up 3.5% to more than $4.17 billion, and sales of frozen/refrigerated meat substitutes were up nearly 2.5% to $402.7 million.

In March, ConAgra Foods, which makes the Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s, brands, and Braun Research conducted their own study of 1,013 Americans. Among the findings: 80% of people agree that frozen foods are highly processed.

To combat the stigma, ConAgra, based in Omaha, Neb., created and posted a video, Discover the Future of Frozen Foods, on its website along with information saying that the vegetables in Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s frozen meals are picked at the peak of freshness, the meals are created by chefs, and the FDA reported there is virtually no nutritional difference between fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

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