Manufacturers Innovate to Keep Frozen Food Fresh

Consumers love the convenience, and when done right, frozen foods can be a blockbuster.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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STOUFFERS Classic LasagnaThe frozen pizza market had gone flat for a few years until Kraft Foods resuscitated it in 1996 with the introduction of the DiGiorno brand rising crust pizza. Once consumers experienced that thick, fluffy DiGiorno crust and a parade of follow-up imitators, frozen pizza, and the category's IRI numbers were anything but flat. Overall the category grew by 12 percent each of the next two years.

Innovation sells in the food business, and in frozen food, innovation can warm up sales like a convection oven. For the food formulator, the frozen category presents distinct challenges and opportunities. Food properties, including flavors, colors, and can be locked in for months, and with the right formulation and production methods, the food blooms in the oven, as if by magic. Of course, when things go wrong, the results can be about as appealing as freezer burn.

When food products are stored at one temperature and consumed at another, the transition can have a negative impact on overall texture, says Donna Klockeman, senior food scientist with TIC Gums Belcamp, Md. One solution is the use of hydrocolloids, she says, and there is an array of ingredients and blends available to lend a hand.

“The complex processes of cooking/par-baking, freezing then reheating foods can make moisture, either too much or too little, a concern,” Klockeman says. “This common problem can result in dried meat, soggy crust or entrees coated in ice crystals, none of which is consumer friendly. Hydrocolloids are recognized for their ability to enhance the freeze/thaw stability of complex systems.”

Homegrown in the freezer case

In 2012, Annie's Homegrown Inc., Berkeley, Calif., expanded its organic prepared food lines into the freezer case, with a line of eight SKUs of frozen pizza followed by a four frozen entrees.

Using only the permitted ingredients list in the National Organic Standards can be a challenge for a food formulator... Sourcing meat ingredients that have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones can also be a challenge, both in overall availability and the resulting higher cost.”

– Bob Kaake, chief innovation officer, Annie’s

“Annie’s was the first organic or made with organic ingredients rising crust pizza to market,” says Bob Kaake, chief innovation officer at Annie’s. “Using only the permitted ingredients list in the National Organic Standards can be a challenge for a food formulator, especially when trying to replicate the functionality of processing aids used in commercial pizza doughs. Sourcing meat ingredients that have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones can also be a challenge, both in overall availability and the resulting higher cost.”

Jim Adams is the CEO and co-founder of a Qrunch Foods of Denver. The company, which began selling products in 2012, is built around an organic, gluten-free line of non-meat burger patties made from quinoa, millet and lentils. Qrunch Burgers, sold frozen, are now available in 280 Super Targets around the country.

“We learned a lot about frozen foods," Adams says when asked about the development of the products. "There are obviously some advantages, longer shelf life being one, but there are some challenges too.”

Adams also is quick to point out that freezing protects flavor. “If you make a terrific product, it will taste terrific as a frozen product,” he says.

Whether using organic ingredients for a product aimed at specialty retailers, or value-priced for bundled bargain products destined for club stores, formulators have some of the same technical concerns when developing frozen foods.

As TIC's Klockeman says, using hydrocolloids in combinations allows product developers to leverage the synergies between gums. TIC offers blended systems that work more effectively than individual ingredients to help sauces stand up to extreme temperatures while remaining creamy and flavorful (for example, Pretested Action Gum 1144 Powder).

Frozen desserts have their own set of problems, Klockeman adds, namely outsized ice crystals. The company also has hydrocolloids to address that, and its Ticaloid 451 “T” Powder is used to manage moisture and deliver desired texture in frozen tortillas, dough and bread.

Fresh staying fresh

IRI recently released a new report on retail sales of frozen snacks. The subcategory reached $4.6 billion in 2013, at current prices, growing 9 percent from 2008-13. The Chicago-based research firm notes, however, that yearly growth has been fairly minimal, “likely due to lingering consumer concerns about the processed nature of these snacks.”

The category is expected to grow 11 percent from 2013-18, reaching $5.1 billion at current prices. Future growth will rely on new product development focused on items with minimal fat, calories and sodium, real ingredients and convenient formats. Positive consumer perceptions associated with the convenience and affordability of frozen snacks as well as marketing campaigns highlighting the benefits and positive attributes of frozen foods are working in favor of category growth, IRI says.

If consumers do still harbor any prejudices against frozen foods, the industry is working to change that. Just last month, the American Frozen Food Institute launched a national effort to encourage consumers to take a fresh look at frozen foods through the “Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh” category education and promotion initiative.

AFFI member companies, including H.J. Heinz, General Mills, Nestlé, Kellogg, ConAgra and Schwan’s Consumer Brands Inc., have launched the campaign to inform and remind consumers that freezing “simply pauses just-picked, just-baked and just-crafted foods, locking in their freshness, flavor and nutrients.”

The “Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh” initiative is a three-year, $30 million per year effort to engage consumers through national television, digital and print advertising, online engagement and in-store and out-of-store promotion.

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