IMPROVED FROZEN MEALS are one way American consumers can get a taste of wellness — without giving up convenience.
Healthful entrees, sides and snacks reign supreme, with category growth led by better-for-you kids' meals, gluten-free items and organics.
Entrees in particular are enjoying better sales, due to the addition of more healthful options. They include major brand names like South Beach Living, Healthy Choice and certain Stouffer's lines.
“The American consumer is really hungry for a better, healthier frozen product. The national manufacturers are doing a great job of providing better products,” said Russ Martin, corporate category manager for Yoke's Fresh Market, Spokane, Wash.
“Most of what is in the case now is more health-attribute-directed, as opposed to other prepared meal items,” says Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. The controlled levels of fat, sodium and other ingredients in healthful frozen meals let shoppers know what they are eating, he added.
At first, frozen food manufacturers wrestled with sodium and fat content. Now that much of the category can boast lower amounts of these ingredients, companies are looking for ways to make popular dishes truly healthy.
Over the past year, sales of these fortified frozen foods have undergone an impressive thaw. Frozen items containing antioxidants realized a 76% bump in supermarket sales for the 52 weeks ending July 12, 2008, and those with omega-3 fatty acids rose nearly 64% during the same period, according to research firm the Nielsen Co.
Other strong areas of growth include: organic frozen foods, which rose 23% in supermarkets to reach $325.6 million for the 52 weeks ending July 12; natural frozen foods, up almost 20% to $917.8 million for the same period; and products with fiber, which also increased 20% to reach sales of $28.3 million.
What are these specialty items going into? In the frozens category, supermarket buyers and industry sources note they are primarily offered in children's, organic and natural, gluten-free and ethnic products.
“I think this part of the category is going to grow,” said Debbie Leland, natural and specialty food buyer for Kowalski's Markets, an 11-store chain based in St. Paul, Minn. “It has been slow so far, but we changed some lines in there.”
Kowalski's added a door just for healthy kids' meals in its stores about a year and a half ago. Products include gluten-free chicken nuggets and natural baby food.
Parents always bought frozens for their convenience, but nowadays they're just as likely to purchase them because they're both healthful and easy to prepare.
“People are accustomed to buying healthy, natural frozen meals to begin with,” Leland said. “Brand-name recognition is important; people who have been buying Amy's for a long time will trust Amy's kids' meals.”
At Kowalski's, parents will find Amy's, which launched three SKUs of kids' meals earlier this year, while Earth's Best added Earth's Best Sesame Street frozen kids' meals, built around organic ravioli, along with breakfast foods and snacks.
New manufacturers such as Plum Organics, which started out in organic frozen baby food, are also jumping into healthful frozens with organic kids' meals, including Bowtie Pasta with Sweet Potato Sauce. The line started selling in Whole Foods Market and Super Target stores this fall. Gigi Lee Chang, the company's founder and president, believes the company's kids' meals will be just as popular, because they differ from typical frozen foods.
“They all boil down to a few core items, such as mac-n-cheese, chicken fingers and pizza. We are striving to break that cycle and offer parents better choices that kids will like,” she said. “This is incredibly important as children's health concerns, such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension, escalate.”
Despite the premium price, organic and natural frozen foods are still one of the higher-growth areas in frozen foods, retailers report.
Over the last two years, Yoke's Fresh Market has made a major commitment to organic and natural foods, adding 15 to 20 doors devoted to frozen products in six of its natural store-within-a-store sections.
“We have reset, or substantially increased, our frozen natural and organic items,” Martin said.
Still, organic manufacturers could do a better job of marketing and pricing their products, some say.
“American consumers are looking for things that are healthy and reasonably priced,” Martin said. Organic frozen foods do better in stores that have a demographic that is not as price-conscious, he added.
Also, national ad campaigns and promotional support would help the brands grow faster.
“[Organic frozen food] is an industry that is very comfortable with taking a product, putting it on the shelf and expecting it to sell. The consumer has come to expect reduced prices in some formats,” Martin said of the disconnect. It's up to the retailer to close the gap, and this has compelled the chain to regularly review the performance of products and favor those that have the broadest appeal at the fairest price point.
The organic subset in frozens is far-reaching, allowing it to cross over into other areas. For example, there is a small but growing interest in organic ethnic foods. Not only are non-U.S. native shoppers looking for such choices, but American consumers are interested in spicing up their meals by indulging in foreign cuisines. As they're learning, such a desire doesn't mean giving up on organics.
“It is a reflection of the broadening palate of American consumers,” said Jay Jacobwitz, president of Retail Insights, Brattleboro, Vt., which provides consulting services to the natural products industry.
Authentic East Asian food and authentic Indian food, such as meals provided by Kitchens of India, are becoming more popular, according to Leland of Kowalski's. Some of the meals are popular among vegetarians, but Americans are eating more ethnic foods in general.
“People just like to try different things. And, there are a lot of Indian restaurants in this market, so people are accustomed to it,” Leland said.
Chronic conditions such as diabetes and celiac disease are a factor in the creation of many new products. At Yoke's Markets, stores are adding some frozen gluten-free items as part of a chainwide gluten-free-food initiative.
“We're expanding our gluten-free category tremendously,” Martin said. “We're looking for probably 20 to 28 feet in our Nature's Corner, dairy and shelf-stable sections.”
The “gluten-free” distinction is helping new products, such as Organic Bistro Whole Life Meals, gain attention in the marketplace. In early July, the Lunds and Byerly's chains, Edina, Minn., and other operators began carrying the company's organic gluten-free meals.
- Commit “intelligent” space to organic and natural frozen foods: products merchandised in consecutive, grouped doors call out to shoppers.
- Think about making aisle signs more specific, to reflect the addition of better-for-you items.
- Offset healthful choices from conventional items within the aisle by using door strips, clings and, if appropriate, floor graphics.
Organic and gluten-free are not the only attributes that are important to health-minded frozen food shoppers. Many are also concerned about environmentally friendly packaging. So, it was no surprise when ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb., recently decided to reformulate its frozen food trays to include 40% recycled plastic.
The CPG giant is using the recycled plastic for its Healthy Choice, Banquet, Kid Cuisine and Marie Callender's frozen trays.
“We're looking at all aspects of our products, as we consider new ways to improve them, including finding ways to be more environmentally responsible,” said ConAgra Vice President Gail Tavill.
ConAgra partnered with Associated Packaging Technologies, Chadds Ford, Pa., to utilize a new technology that cleans recycled plastic for use as a component in frozen meal trays. The move will result in about 8 million pounds of plastic diverted from landfills into recycling, according to ConAgra.
It's a good idea that will likely resonate with green-minded customers shopping for health, said Russ Martin, corporate category manager for Yoke's Market, Spokane, Wash.
“Consumers are ready to embrace it — if they ever see companies coming forward that they can trust,” he said.