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Heat and Veg

Eating and enjoying vegetables is a lot easier now that flavor and packaging innovations are turning frozen vegetables into a quick-and-easy meal solution. Frozen side dishes generated $216.6 million in food stores for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2009, a 14% increase from the same period in 2008, according to Information Resources Inc. Steam-in-bag packaging innovations that hit the market several

Eating — and enjoying — vegetables is a lot easier now that flavor and packaging innovations are turning frozen vegetables into a quick-and-easy meal solution.

Frozen side dishes generated $216.6 million in food stores for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2009, a 14% increase from the same period in 2008, according to Information Resources Inc.

Steam-in-bag packaging innovations that hit the market several years ago are a big reason why. Although the idea isn't brand new, technologies continue to improve. When the new packaging first hit the market, it was available mostly in “pillow,” or lay-down, bags. Now manufacturers are offering stand-up pouches.

Along with steam-in-bags, frozen vegetables are benefiting from pre-seasoned varieties.

Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., for instance, just launched a line of flash-frozen mixed vegetables called Special Blends. Sold under its Food You Feel Good About brand, the vegetables were inspired from items it sells in its prepared-food department and recipes featured in its Wegmans Menu magazine. Wegmans created the line with Contessa Premium Foods Co.

Positioned as a healthy convenience item, each variety can be prepared in less than 10 minutes. Flavors include broccoli/cauliflower/pine nuts in an olive oil, garlic and herb sauce; fire-roasted eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions; and green beans with shallots in an olive oil sauce. Each 16-ounce bag costs $3.99.

“In continuing to help you make great meals easy, these convenient and affordable frozen side dishes were inspired by some of our great recipes in Menu magazine,” Wegmans states in promotional materials. “Our chefs developed the recipes and we were able to find a supplier to replicate the flavors as if you made them yourself.”

Frozen prepared vegetables, those made with sauce, bread crumbs or the like, generated $224.5 million in food store sales for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, a 12% increase.

National-brand marketers have made seasoned blends a top priority. Birds Eye, for instance, offers a line of “specially seasoned” steam-in-bag frozen vegetables, including an Asian medley, garlic baby peas and mushrooms, garlic cauliflower and Southwestern corn.

Meanwhile, Green Giant's Valley Fresh Steamers come in such flavors as broccoli/carrots/cauliflower in cheese sauce, and green beans and rosemary butter sauce.

Green Giant also has a line of “Health Blends,” frozen vegetable side dishes designed to help meet certain health goals. The “Digestive Health” blend, for instance, includes yellow carrots, navy beans and spinach in a garlic herb sauce and is naturally high in fiber to help maintain a healthy digestive system, while the “Healthy Vision” variety includes sliced carrots, zucchini quarters and other vegetables that contain natural antioxidants that support eye health.

Seasoned blends are getting a big push at Allens, Siloam Springs, Ark., a manufacturer of private-label frozen and canned vegetables.

It recently launched Steam Supreme frozen vegetables in stand-up steamable bags with sauces like garlic/ginger and three-cheese (American, Monterey Jack and cheddar).

“These are sauces that people typically add themselves,” David Brown, Allens' retail sales director, told SN. “The only difference is that we're adding it for them.”

The sauce varieties tap into the gourmet-dining-at-home trend, said Brown.

“People are used to these types of side dishes from eating out in restaurants,” he said. “Since times are tight, they're not eating out as much and seeking out options in-store.”

The combination of steam-in-bag technology and sauces required Allens to seek out new packaging materials.

“Cheese heats at a high temperature, so we use a special poly bag that's able to withstand high-temp heat,” Brown said.

The investment is worth it because it has elevated the perception of frozen vegetables, said Brown.

“Vegetables have become a meal solution because you can just throw them into a microwave for a quick meal without the mess,” he said.

The new premium offerings come at a time when the category is already benefiting from steam-in-bag technology. The special bags puff up under the pressure of the steam created within the packaging. This lets vegetables steam directly in the microwave, without the need to transfer first to a cooking dish.

“The steam products are driving category growth,” Douglas Hinkens, dairy and frozen-food manager, Crossroads County Market, Wausau, Wis., told SN.

Birds Eye's Steamfresh side dishes are the No.1 frozen side dish in sales, generating $36.1 million in sales in food stores for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27. The Birds Eye Steamfresh brand is also the No. 2 product in frozen beans, peas, broccoli, corn and mixed vegetables, following private label.

A representative from Birds Eye Foods was unavailable for comment. Pinnacle Foods Group, Mountain Lakes, N.J., acquired Birds Eye, effective December 2009.

The steaming technology is so popular that it has extended beyond traditional green vegetables. Heinz, for instance, now offers Ore-Ida Steam n' Mash frozen mashed potatoes. Steaming in about 10 minutes, the potatoes come in several varieties, including cut russet and garlic seasoned.

The private-label business is also involved. Crossroads County Market recently started selling Flavorite private-label vegetables with steam-in-bag technology. Frozen peas corn and mixed vegetables are available in 12-ounce bags that retail for about $1.25 but are currently on sale for $1.

“People buy them because it's a convenient, high-quality product,” Hinkens said.

Despite costing a bit more than regular frozen vegetables, price isn't a big factor in steam-in-bag vs. traditional packaging, said Shirlene Ingraham, grocery-marketing analyst, Yoke's Fresh Markets, Spokane, Wash.

“People like the better taste and convenience,” she said. “They're willing to pay more for quality.”

Big Y, Springfield, Mass., has promoted various brands of steam-in-bag vegetables several times in its Living Well, Eating Smart consumer newsletter.

Carrie Taylor, Big Y's registered dietitian, recommends the steamable frozen veggies as an easy way to make a meal healthier.

“It's a very convenient way to get a vegetable into a meal,” she said. “You don't have to think much about preparation: Just pop it into the microwave.”

But she's not a big fan of seasoned blends — even those that are lightly sauced — because of the salt, sugar and fat content.

“I recommend that fruits and vegetables should stand on their own, without added sauces,” she said.

If sauce is preferred, it's better for people to add a sauce themselves, rather than buying a pre-seasoned vegetable, said Taylor.

But sauce blends can fit into a healthy diet, said Steve Finnie, marketing manager, Green Giant Vegetables, a General Mills product line.

Green Giant's Just for One single-serve frozen vegetables are endorsed by Weight Watchers. Among the varieties are broccoli and cheese, and corn and butter.

“This gives Weight Watchers members a way to eat cheese without having to derail their diet,” he said.

The line even appeals to those who aren't trying to lose weight, but simply live a healthier lifestyle.

Consumers love them because not only are they easy to prepare, but also because they motivate even picky eaters to eat their veggies, said Finnie.

“It's one thing to have a product that's healthy and can be prepared fast, but it has to taste good,” Finnie said.

The single-serve vegetables cater to a diverse group of consumers, ranging from single-person households to families where only one member may like a certain type of vegetable.

Lakeside Foods, a Manitowoc, Wis., private-label frozen vegetable supplier to most major food retailers, just launched a line of single-serve frozen vegetables.

One of its big supermarket clients is already carrying it under its store brand. Dave Allen, director of marketing, declined to name the retailer.

Lakeside launched a steamable bag two years ago. The momentum continued last year when it debuted a stand-up bag.

The stand-up bag makes sense because it's much easier for retailers to merchandise, said Allen.

“Because it stands up, consumers can see the picture of what's in the bag,” Allen said.

Lakeside's steamable products, which retail for about 20% less than those offered by national brands, have not cannibalized sales of its traditional frozen vegetable. Rather, they've built incremental sales, according to Allen.

“It's revitalized the category,” he said. “It's brought new consumers to private label.”

Like other suppliers, Lakeside is now getting involved in vegetable/sauce blends and fire-roasted vegetables.

“These products are another way to offer convenience and innovation for the consumer,” Allen said.