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    Free-from ingredients and ethnic flavor profiles enhance appeal of frozen entrées.

    By Lynn Petrak

    TV dinners have come a long way. Besides the fact that people rarely heat up frozen dinners and eat them on metal trays in front of a television anymore, the nature of heat-and-eat entrées has also evolved with the times.

    Reheatable pot pies may still be around, but you’re just as likely to find a lobster casserole topped with puff pastry as turkey and mashed potatoes. Likewise, fried chicken is still sold in the freezer case, but you can choose from all kinds of chicken-based frozen entrées, from Malaysian-style chicken curry to lemongrass chicken to organic blue cheese-studded chicken patties.

    According to Howard Waxman, analyst for Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, frozen food makers are finding that they must mix it up, in terms of flavor, ingredients, format, size, packaging and other attributes, if they’re going to move ahead at a time of tough competition not only with other foods on the shelf, but also with the in-store deli and prepared food section.

    Waxman offers some advice to marketers: “Figure out how to stay in the game, or drop out. Are frozens to go the way of the proverbial buggy whip industry? Will they become a low-end, last-ditch-only alternative to pricier ways to deliver convenience to customers, something you have in the freezer at home for some desperate situation, or something a large, low-income family might buy in lieu of alternatives that may be out of the reach of their budgets?”

    Amanda Topper, food analyst for Chicago-based Mintel, agrees that manufacturers and marketers are realizing that competition is stronger than ever, and that reaching consumers with new products and information is crucial. “I think the AFFI [American Frozen Food Institute] campaign is definitely a start,” she says of the trade group’s multiyear, million-dollar promotional program.

    Trending Healthy

    Consumers’ interest in organic and better-for-you frozen foods is evident in rising sales and interest in such products, according to market research from firms like Packaged Facts, Mintel and Chicago-based IRI. The trend is also underscored by the acquisition of smaller organic or niche companies by bigger names in the industry.

    “That’s what’s interesting — the larger manufacturers, like the General Mills and Kelloggs of the world, are buying smaller manufacturers to increase their presence in that area,” Topper notes.

    From startup and smaller companies to major manufacturers, there has been a variety of new product launches of organic, better-for-you and free-from entrées in the past year alone, in addition to meals made with “clean” ingredients. Those products range from Perdue’s line of Simply Smart lighter breaded chicken to Mayan Harvest Bake and Lemongrass Coconut Chicken from Kellogg’s Kashi line, among numerous others.

    Another example is a line of organic meals from Irvine, Calif.-based Artisan Bistro. CEO Leo Griffin says that eating organic has become more commonplace among Americans, but it’s not always easy to do. “Cooking every meal from scratch isn’t practical for most shoppers, so consumers are learning it’s possible to combine convenience with organic quality and to eat healthy frozen meals made with the same superior ingredients you can find in the produce section,” he says.

    Artisan Bistro’s organic entrées include such items as Wild Alaskan Salmon, Grass Fed Beef with Mushroom Sauce, the Thai Style Yellow Curry with Chicken Bowl and Wild Albacore Tuna Bake. Griffin says that more category innovations are in the offing, as the organic options continue to grow. “We want to help retailers to transform the frozen food aisle into a place where shoppers can find affordable, nutrient-dense meals made with organic, sustainable, gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients,” he notes. “We believe this will bring retail customers back to frozen and the category back to growth.”

    Meanwhile, Topper cites the Evol product line as another to watch. “That’s another brand I find myself talking about,” she asserts. “The tone of their core values is transparent, and their product line goes to the trend of consumers wanting transparent packaging and easily recognized ingredients.”

    The Evol line includes quesadillas and tacos that can be used for meals as well as snacks, in varieties like Fire Grilled Steak Quesadillas, made with beef raised without antibiotics, and Gluten Free Chicken Quesadillas.

    On the topic of gluten-free, many grocery freezer cases now include frozen entrées touting that attribute. The Udi’s line of gluten-free foods, from Colorado-based Boulder Brands Inc., for example, has expanded to include more frozen gluten-free skillet meals such as Chicken Parmesan, Ziti & Meatballs, and Chicken Florentine.

    Frozen vegetarian dinners are also growing more prolific. Qrunch quinoa burgers are one example, along with new offerings from established vegetarian/vegan/meatless brands like Kellogg’s Morningstar brand. Carson, Calif.-based Cedar-Lane Natural Foods, for its part, recently added tamales to its line of vegetarian frozen entrées, which also includes Baked Stacked Eggplant and Low-Fat Garden Lasagna.

    Ethnic Flavors

    The fact that many organic, free-from, health-oriented and vegetarian entrées also feature decidedly global flavors also speaks to the ongoing interest in cuisines and ingredients from around the world, spanning Asian, Latin, Indian and Mediterranean fare.

    Authentic Mexican flavors, in particular, continue to gain traction among consumers, Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. At Ruiz Foods, in Dinuba, Calif., President and CEO Rachel Cullen says the company’s pipeline has included many new items geared toward people looking for authentic tastes. “The introduction of our Spicy Jalapeño, Bean and Cheese Chimichanga, as well as our Spicy Taco Picante Burritos, reflects our innovation in response to the consumer’s desire for value and ethnic flavors,” she notes.

    Such products also exemplify consumers’ collective embrace of bigger flavors, a trend that has evolved over time. “When Ruiz Foods first began manufacturing frozen Mexican food in 1964, we offered burritos with a variety of heat levels — levels that we thought would be expected. What we quickly learned is that the non-Mexican palate was not used to heat, and, in most instances, while they were eager to try this new ethnic introduction to convenience and quality, they had not been introduced to a variety of Mexican spices,” she recounts. “This early consumer welcomed beef-and-bean, or bean-and-cheese combinations, but was hesitant to try jalapeños, picante or even chipotle. Today, however, consumers are asking for more and more.”

    Another thing that consumers seem to be asking for, or at least browsing, is frozen food from familiar names. The trend toward entrées co-branded with fast-casual restaurant chains like PF Chang’s, TGI Fridays and Chili’s continues. Some stores have also found success carrying frozen items — usually pizza — from local independent restaurants.

    “We’ve seen co-branded products on a regular scale with national branded restaurants, and doing it with local restaurants totally caters to the trend of eating and buying local, with the convenience of preparing it whenever you want, and usually at a lower price point than buying on premises,” Topper notes.

    While these newer types of frozen foods are injecting vigor into a category that’s been sliding in recent years, Packaged Facts’ Waxman says grocers can think even more out of the box — literally, in the case of paperboard boxes in the freezer case.

    “Retailers have taken the lead in meeting consumer demands for convenience. To a degree, this has excluded frozens, but there are openings to take advantage of the convenience of frozens. It could take such forms as delivering frozen products that have been microwaved on route to the customer and are ready to eat upon delivery,” Waxman says. “And as retail stores add foodservice components, do the same in-store, like having several microwave stations or microwaves at each table for heating up frozen snacks. It is time to get creative, or be left behind.”

    “Retailers have taken the lead in meeting consumer demands for convenience. To a degree, this has excluded frozens, but there are openings to take advantage of the convenience of frozens.”
    —Howard Waxman, Packaged Facts

    “We want to help retailers to transform the frozen food aisle into a place where shoppers can find affordable, nutrient-dense meals made with organic, sustainable, gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients.”
    —Leo Griffin, Artisan Bistro

    By Lynn Petrak
    • About Lynn Petrak

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