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TV dinners may have gone the way of rabbit ears, but today’s frozen meals are akin to smartphones and other highlights of personalized technology Just as providers of communication tools have innovated and adapted to reflect and meet the needs of users, so have frozen meal companies.

Today’s freezer cases now include a growing variety of meal offerings, from organic, natural, free-from and better-for-you items, to gourmet and upscale offerings, to different portion sizes.

“Consumers’ expectations are changing in regards to all formats, whether in fresh or frozen. They want more authenticity in dishes and bigger flavors,” asserts Michael Gunn, director of culinary, research and development for The Schwan Food Co., based in Marshall, Minn.

Data published in the 2015 State of the Industry Report from the National Refrigerated and Frozen Foods Association (NFRA) show that frozen entrées are the largest category in the frozen area, with $10.7 billion in sales.

Nature Calls

A bright spot within frozen meals is the addition of more organic, natural, free-from and better-for-you products.

Julie Henderson, VP of communications for Harrisburg, Pa.-based NFRA, says that this segment is driving innovation and contributing to the growth of the overall frozen meal segment. “Health-conscious consumers are a large and growing segment of shoppers today, and manufacturers, big and small, are … producing products that will appease those shoppers’ preferences,” she notes.

The notion of better-for-you is evolving across the food marketplace, affecting frozen meals “Today, consumers’ definition of health goes beyond the facts about the nutrition content or portion size of the food,” observes Kristin Reimers, director, nutrition for Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods, who cites examples like Blake’s pot pies, casseroles and entrées. “While these aspects are still fundamental to health, health now also encompasses their values and emotions around how the food was grown, the ingredients, and where and how the food was prepared.”

Smaller, regional and startup brands have done well with healthy and better-for-you frozen meals. “As consumers, and particularly Millennials, are gravitating toward more natural and organic products, it has created a great opportunity for small and niche manufacturers whose focus is solely on those attributes,” notes Henderson,

Many of these boutique brands, including Amy’s Kitchen, Better4U Foods, Cascadian Farm Organic, Evol, Kashi and Cedar Lane Foods, have upped their profiles, both in new product launches and sales.

The gap in such products was the impetus for Better4U Foods, according to founder Amy Lotker. “It’s as if for many years, the health-oriented consumer had few options, if any, in the frozen section of a market,” she recalls. “This is exactly what prompted us to launch our business.”

The Delray Beach, Fla.-based company continues to grow and innovate, introducing two new lines: USDA Certified Organic ancient grains pizzas in three varieties and Bread Bowls in four varieties. “To provide a larger audience of consumers with healthy organic products, Better For You Foods LLC is now offering private label product development for other companies seeking to create USDA Certified Organic,” adds Lotker.

“We are really excited to see consumers and the industry shifting their focus beyond the niche diets that only serve a small percentage of the population, to instead address the basic building blocks everyone needs in the pursuit of good nutrition — fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein with less sugar and sodium — especially in convenience foods,” says Amanda Luke, VP of brand strategy at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Luvo. “We’re encouraged by the growth specifically in frozen premium foods and see this as just the beginning in helping reinvent the perception of the frozen category.” In the past year, the company has added to its menu of offerings Chicken with Harissa and Chickpeas, Vegetable Bibimbap, Vegetable Coconut Curry, and Chicken in BBQ Sauce with millet grits and collard greens.

According to Luke, ongoing education and marketing efforts are pivotal in sustaining the growth of natural, organic and wholesome frozen meals. “We believe there is a great opportunity for retailers to capitalize on this increasing demand by promoting the benefits of frozen meals to consumers not currently shopping the category,” she notes.

Likewise, the category’s biggest names and brands have gone au naturel, so to speak, by adding more natural, organic, free-from and otherwise better-for-you items to their large portfolios, as with Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen and Heinz’s Weight Watchers Smart Ones.

ConAgra’s Healthy Choice brand has expanded its Simply Café Steamers line to include new meals made with USDA-certified organic ingredients, including a Sweet & Spicy Asian Style Noodle Bowl, Unwrapped Burrito Bowl, Creamy Spinach & Tomato Linguini, and Three Cheese Tortellini. “The meals with organic ingredients will begin rolling out this spring and reach full national distribution by July. Pricing will be consistent with the other Healthy Choice Simply Café Steamers recipes, so Healthy Choice eaters won’t have to pay premium prices to eat organic ingredients,” notes Kat Hrabovsky, senior brand manager for Healthy Choice.

Other major brands have boosted their portfolios of healthy/organic/natural entrées, too. At Schwan’s, Gunn emphasizes consumers’ growing interest in knowing where their foods come from. “People want ingredients with a purpose — that have a story and a reason for being — in addition to adding something to a dish. Organic is more important, too, in bringing something new to frozen,” he remarks.

NFRA and other industry groups, along with frozen food companies, have been working to share information with consumers about the wholesomeness of frozen meals and, along the way, dispel any misperceptions about heat-and-serve items from the freezer.

“Frozen foods are made from real ingredients picked at the peak of ripeness and fash-frozen to lock in all the beneficial nutrients,” Henderson asserts. NFRA is continuing its Real Food. Frozen marketing campaign and recently wrapped up its National Frozen Food Month efforts in March focusing on the convenience and variety of real food in the freezer section.

Big World of Flavor

Much of the innovation in frozen meals is tied to flavor, to deliver different eating experiences to consumers. As a result, frozen meals increasingly feature bolder, spicier or more unusual ingredients.

“When you look out across the frozen category, everyone, from the most basic providers to higher-end organic brands, [is] putting chilies in mac and cheese, sweet chilies in garden burgers, and a variety of other flavors that you can now find in frozen meals,” says Gunn.

As part of its work to ramp up flavor — and in step with its overall R&D initiatives — Schwan’s has started a Chef’s Collective program with rising culinary professionals. “We are partnering with young chefs who are stars in their communities and states who have differentiated themselves and been successful,” notes Gunn. “We’re learning from them and including them in our product innovation and renovation.”

Indeed, according to Rob Johnson, senior brand manager for ConAgra’s Alexia brand, flavors in today’s frozen meals reflect foodservice trends. “We’ve taken a lot of our cues from what consumers see in high-end restaurants — there are really cool things happening with bold flavors out in the restaurant world, and we’re harnessing those for consumers to enjoy at home in a really convenient format,” Johnson says.

“Heat and spice is … a current trend,” affirms Rachel Cullen, president and CEO of Dinuba, Calif-based Ruiz Foods. “Today, consumers can’t seem to get enough.” As evidence of this, she points to the current popularity of such items like Ruiz’s El Monterey Jalapeño, Bean and Three Cheese Burrito; Cheesy Pepperjack Tornados; Egg, Cheese and Jalapeño Breakfast Burrito; and Southwest Chipotle Chicken Signature Burritos.

Affirming Cullen’s observations, ethnic foods in particular are performing well in the frozen section. According to research from Chicago-based Mintel, sales of ethnic foods in grocery stores are estimated to grow more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2017, with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean products expected to increase the most in that time.

NFRA’s Henderson underscores the continued potential of globally inspired frozen meals. “Frozen ethnic foods let consumers be their own chefs without having to buy all the ingredients and do all the preparation, and allow consumers to take risks trying ethnic foods without the potential waste,” she points out.

“As consumers, and particularly Millennials, are gravitating toward more natural and organic products, it has created a great opportunity for small and niche manufacturers whose focus is solely on those attributes.”
—Julie Henderson, NFRA

“People want ingredients with a purpose — that have a story and a reason for being — in addition to adding something to a dish.”
—Michael Cunn, The Schwan Food Co.

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