Frozen entrees supporting diet fads have been put on ice in favor of longer-term solutions that contain more wholesome ingredients. Consequently, buzz words like “low-fat” and “low-carb” have taken a backseat to terms like “more vegetables,” “whole grains” and “low sodium,” retailers told SN.
“This trend is best exemplified in Kraft's recent name change for their line of healthy dinners from South Beach Diet to South Beach Living,” said James Allen, frozen and specialty foods manager for Bi-Lo, Greenville, S.C. “Eating healthy within the framework of a healthy lifestyle without sacrificing taste and quality is the major trend as opposed to reducing calories or dieting.”
At Bi-Lo stores, Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice frozen meals represent 80% of category sales, while about 9% of sales are attributed to items marketed by Weight Watchers.
Along with the big names, natural brands like Amy's Kitchen are steadily gaining shares at Bi-Lo. The organic and natural ingredients in such lines appeal to shoppers seeking healthier lifestyles, a growing trend that hasn't gone unnoticed by food makers.
“The healthy segment has been one of the main drivers of the frozen dinner category for the past several years, with growth in the double digits,” said Allen.
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, sales of Lean Cuisine single-serve frozen dinners increased 6.7% to $7.8 million during the 52 weeks ending Jan. 27. Weight Watchers single-serve frozen dinners and Weight Watchers Smart Ones single-serve frozen dinners were also up, 3.1% to $13.2 million and 7.2% to $288.3 million, respectively.
Premium, good-for-you ingredients are where the emphasis is now, said Don Stuart, managing director of Cannondale Associates, Wilson, Conn. Fat content, trans fat and calories are on shoppers' radars. So are frozen foods with no preservatives or artificial flavors.
“Low-sodium is another big concern, but it is difficult for manufacturers to reduce sodium content without significantly impacting flavor,” he told SN.
With all eyes on ingredients, marketers are highlighting more healthy attributes on their packages. For instance, on most Lean Cuisine dinners and entrees, total fat content, calories and trans fat are listed in bright blue lettering. Beneath that, a bright orange strip touts claims, such as “No Preservatives.” Some products also boast a bold green box in the upper right-hand corner that reads, “Twice The Veggies Of An Average Lean Cuisine Entree.”
Easy-to-read icons are actively sought by shoppers at Crossroads County Market in Wausau, Wis., according to John Peacy, who is assistant frozen dairy manager there. The single-store retailer caters to a high number of elderly patients with special dietary needs.
Some shoppers are diabetic and need sugar-free foods. Others have heart and blood pressure conditions and want low-sodium frozens, said Peacy.
“The big problem is that many of our customers can't see well and have a hard time finding frozen foods that meet their doctor-prescribed diets,” he said. “Having low-sodium or sugar-free right on the package helps tremendously.”
Weight Watchers' Smart Ones entrees are top sellers at Crossroads County Market, particularly when on sale. The food maker has entrees like Angel Hair Marinara, Beef Pot Roast and Four Cheese Pizza.
Healthy Choice Café Selections Cream Dill Salmon is another popular item at Crossroads, and Amy's Kitchen frozen foods are starting to catch on with locals too, noted Peacy.
Bi-Lo's Allen has seen more seals of approval from the American Heart Association and other groups appearing on frozen foods recently.
“Natural and organic are probably the biggest new icons that manufacturers are striving for and using wherever applicable,” he said.
While national brands continue to develop new offerings, retailers are also venturing into the space with their own private-label lines.
“I'm somewhat surprised that only a few retailers have moved all the way to better-for-you frozen dinners and entrees,” said Jim Hertel, managing partner, Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. “Wegmans has its Food You Feel Good About products, which offer healthy vegetables and blends, and Safeway has developed a great frozen diet line.”
Safeway's Eating Right frozen line includes Black Peppered Chicken, Roasted Turkey with gravy, carrots and cornbread croutons, Chicken Enchilada and Beef Portobello.
Like other products in the retailer's Eating Right line — which include hot and cold cereals, snacks, soups, juices, canned goods, salad dressings and fresh bagged salads — the chain's frozen entrees feature a “Spot Your Needs Gallery” on every package.
The system uses color-coded “spots” that correspond with the dietary benefits of each food. A dark purple spot helps shoppers quickly identify foods that are high in fiber, dark red is used to identify whole grains and bright red represents foods rich in omega-3s. Low-fat, fat-free, reduced-sodium, low-cholesterol and no-sugar-added are just a few of the other attributes included in the gallery.
Like most other categories merchandised in the store, frozen foods are forever changing. Innovations continually emerge, said Allen.
“Slow-churned ice cream and novelties, which offer much better taste with less fat and calories, are the innovative drivers in ice cream products,” he said. “In dinners, entrees and sides, ConAgra launched Healthy Choice Café Steamers in response to the success of Steamfresh vegetables. Now, other companies are working diligently to create their own steamable versions of dinners and vegetables.”
Twelve varieties of Healthy Choice Café Steamers hit stores nationwide last July with a suggested retail price of $3.49. Varieties include Roasted Chicken Marsala, Beef Merlot, Cajun Style Chicken & Shrimp and Creamy Dill Salmon among others.
The latest products to be introduced by Lean Cuisine are Flatbread Melts. Each of the fold-over sandwiches contains 330 calories and 9 grams of fat or less.
Weight Watchers has created new meals as well. The company has four new Smart Ones dinners focused on fruit. Aptly named “Fruit Inspirations,” the meals come in Orange Sesame Chicken, Honey Mango Barbeque Chicken, Pineapple Beef Teriyaki and Cranberry Turkey Medallions.
After downing a diet dinner, most diners want dessert. Diet desserts making waves at Crossroads County Market include Weight Watchers Smart Ones Signature sundaes, chocolate mousse, brownies and chocolate fudge cake, said Peacy.
The food maker also has New York-style cheesecake, strawberry shortcake and key lime pie. Skinny Cow has become wildly popular in recent years, too. The U.K. company makes ice cream bars with fewer than 100 calories each and tubs of ice cream with around 100 calories per serving.