Once regarded as "generic," or lesser imitations of popular name brand products, private-label foods and beverages have come into their own. The economic downturn forced many budget-conscious consumers to "trade down" to private labels, only to discover the taste and quality were often on par with some of their favorite national brands.
Store brands have become trusted, quality products and are succeeding in differentiating themselves from national brands with high-quality ingredients, customizable options, packaging choices and a pulse on current trends such as health and wellness, organic, vegan, allergen-free and non-genetically modified (non-GMO).
In fact, health and wellness, clean label and transparency are pervasive trends in private-label foods, as evidenced at November's Private Label Trade Show in suburban Chicago, hosted by the Private Label Manufacturers Assn. (PLMA), New York.
This year, the show featured more than 2,700 exhibitors from 40 countries. Retailers have committed themselves to aggressive store-brand strategies while specialty chains are using their brands to show off the trends.
"Stores believe in their own brands today, and promote them and drive sales for them, as consumers have responded with confidence," says PLMA president Brian Sharoff. Below are some of the new products from the PLMA show.
With the consolidation that's gone on in private label, there is only one 500-lb gorilla in the category. TreeHouse Foods and its primary operating company Bay Valley continue to one-up the national brands. The company unveiled five flavors of organic, refrigerated smoothies, noting the branded leader in the category is not organic. A new almond milk line also is organic, as well as being free of carageenan. And a kids line of hot cocoa mixes comes in such novel flavors as s'mores, peanut butter cup, mint cookie and birthday cake.
TreeHouse is still working on the closing of its $2.7 billion acquisition of ConAgra's private label business, most of which was the former Ralcorp (ConAgra bought the business in 2012 for $6.8 billion.) The purchase, which is expected to close in the first quarter of this year, will more than double TreeHouse's size, making the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company a $7 billion firm almost entirely devoted to private label.
Waffles -- some as hand-held snacks and some in exotic flavors direct from Europe -- have been popping up on new product lists, and there was a handful of such launches at the PLMA show. Prince Waffles are made in Belgium but imported by the company's Irvine, Calif., beachhead. They're filled with custard, chocolate, berry, cherry, apple, apple-cinnamon, blueberry cinnamon, chocolate chip and vanilla.
In a similar vein, Créapan USA Corp., a Chicago business owned by a company in Baanhoek, The Netherlands, distributes frozen and chilled crêpes and pancakes in 40 countries. Its frozen retail assortment now includes 9-oz. pancake bites, which are dusted with powdered sugar and can be plain, topped or filled with fruit or chocolate. Looking more like small beignets, the puffed, round pancake bites are light and fluffy, and come in 24-count, 200g standup bags.
Potato chips are nothing new, but Dieffenbach's Kettle Chips can make them in taro, parsnip, batata and yucca as well as sweet potato.
Grower-owned cooperative TreeTop Inc., Selah, Wash., launched shelf-stable apple sauce flavors in 3.2-, 4- and 6.57-oz., squeezable to-go pouches. With no added sugar, artificial flavors or colors, the pasteurized product comes in six flavors. Tree Top claims to be one of the first private brands to capitalize on the use of the single-serve squeeze pouch, fast becoming the package of choice among kids, tweens and teens.
The Armour brand (now owned by Pinnacle Foods) has had a monopoly on Vienna sausages, long packaging them in the little blue cans. But Carmela Foods out of Puerto Rico packs them in shelf-stable pouches with available branding as Snack Bites. Using licensed characters, including the Peanuts gang, the company is aiming the high-protein snack at hungry school kids.
Dreampak LLC, Alexandria, Va., introduced coffee concentrate drops packaged in a water enhancer-style format. Called Press'd, the concentrate is available in 1.62-oz., pocket sized squeeze bottle, in various roasts and flavors such as Breakfast Blend, Colombian, Hazelnut and Vanilla. With no sweeteners or preservatives, the concentrates are made from premium Arabica concentrate and afford 16 cups of coffee.
Pizza has long been a private label stronghold. Rugged Oven, a new pizza brand from Little Lady Foods, Elk Grove Village, Ill., is a premium frozen pizza line created with authentic ingredients and a stone-fired crust. Its Rising Crust Flatbread is a first for the frozen premium pizza category, according to the company. Ingredients such as roasted vegetables, sausage and kale, double pepperoni and southwest chorizo are atypical of what's found in the traditional freezer case.
Also noteworthy is its microwavable, gluten-free deep-dish pizza that's single-serve in Pepperoni or Cheese. Developing its processes, pizza recipes and ingredients to fit the needs of some of the biggest foodservice and retailers and brands in the food industry, the company offers artisan pizzas, gourmet sandwiches and rising crust flatbreads.
Also pushing the pizza envelope is Lucia's Pizza Co., St. Louis, which offers pies in vegan sausage, sauerkraut & bratwurst and bacon cheeseburger. Like Rugged Oven, Mama Lucia's (Lucia's brand) offers a flatbread version. Sophia's Favorite Gourmet Flatbread Pizza is available in such varieties as Grilled Vegetables, Spicy Chicken, Pesto Chicken and the Californian (roasted red peppers, roasted tomatoes, red onions, goat cheese and fresh basil). Pizza for breakfast may take a real gourmet turn with its Hearty Quick Start microwavable pizzas. They come with egg and cheese and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage as well as a Western variety of sausage, bacon, egg, cheese, sweet peppers and onion, plus country gravy on a biscuit crust.
Hitting other consumer trends
Gluten-free, free-from (allergens) and vegan foods were everywhere at the PLMA show, and provided retailers with myriad options for those with special diets.
Sol Cuisine, Mississauga, Ontario, has all the free-from bases covered, and flavor to boot. It uses minimal ingredients to produce assorted frozen, 100-percent vegan, vegetarian, organic, meatless chicken, breakfast patties, black bean burgers and soy-based and mushroom rice burgers among other products. The Canadian company also offers vegan sausage patties, falafel and even BBQ tofu "ribs."
Frozen chopped herbs from Daregal Gourmet, Princeton, N.J., are traceable from farm to fork, according to the company. Ready to use, the preservative-free herbs are packed in rectangular shaker boxes with flip-top sifter lids. The herbs are processed within few hours of being harvested, retaining their flavor, aroma and nutrients.
Sprouted grains are trendy, and Angelic Bakehouse, Cudahy, Wis., offers hearty sprouted wheat and seven-grain breads, plus buns, rolls and flatbread/pizza crusts, all using an unusual process. Angelic's process involves grinding unprocessed, whole sprouted grain into a mash that’s used instead of conventional flour to create the bread dough. Only a handful of bakeries in the country make baked goods using such a process, says pres/CEO Jenny Marino.
“Sprouted wheat is very healthy," she says. "It doesn’t lose key nutrients and vitamins through milling or refining, so it’s nutritious, but it also tastes good." And the labels are clean.
Ducoco, a 35-year-old, Brazilian company with more than 100 coconut-based products, launched its Ducoco coconut milk beverage in 1.08-qt. aseptic brick-style cartons. The non-GMO juice in original, unsweetened, vanilla, extra coconut, chocolate and cafe latte flavors is made from coconuts grown on farms in Ceara in northwestern Brazil. The coconut juice is high in vitamin D and B12 and has no artificial sweeteners.