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Frozen Foods Hold Greater Potential

Sept. 1, 2006
Americans love frozen dinners and entrees for their convenience, are impressed by the recent innovations in ease of preparation and are motivated to purchase new frozen products that look appealing in the store. With variety and healthier alternatives, this category holds greater potential.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

Americans love frozen dinners and entrees for their convenience, are impressed by the recent innovations in ease of preparation and are motivated to purchase new frozen products that look appealing in the store. That’s according to a Harris Interactive online survey of 1,718 adults, taken on behalf of the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), McClean, Va. In fact, each American chills out with six frozen meals per month.

What consumers seek
What do consumers look for when purchasing frozen foods for themselves or their family? A few look for new products (8 percent), 23 percent seek enhancements to existing products and 68 percent think both attributes are equally important. Exactly half choose a new product because it looks appealing at the store, according to survey by American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI). Asked about the most important frozen food innovations over the part 10 years, 27 percent declare it is ease of preparation, 26 percent vote for variety, 22 percent choose taste, 18 percent believe it’s product performance and quality after preparation and for 7 percent it’s nutrition.

Based on a technology developed by Clarence Birdseye, the first TV dinner debuted under the Swanson’s brand in 1953 as an shortcut for busy wives, who had begun flocking to jobs in increasing numbers. The dinner of turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes was a bargain at 98 cents and a joy to feast on it while watching “I Love Lucy” on a spanking new Philco television. Comforting new varieties, including fried chicken and Salisbury steak, were added soon. Granted, the food tasted and looked somewhat mysterious under that aluminum foil. But the idea that you could combine an entrée, vegetable and starch in the same, shiny three-part container, put it in the oven, cook it in a few minutes and serve it with no dishes to wash was a great convenience.

Convenience is still the No. 1 reason behind frozen dinners, which are ready (now in the microwave) in less than five minutes, according to AFFI. And, more than ever, they’re a quality choice, due to the combination of great taste (thanks to corporate chefs and specialized R&D teams), variety (everything from Southern to Malaysian), new technology and packaging that locks in flavor and freshness — plus healthier formulations, such as low-fat, low-calorie, vegetarian, low-carb and lower sodium.

In 2005, frozen foods reached $28 billion in sales, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com, Rockville, Md. (www.packagedfacts.com). Growth of 2.8 percent annually over the next few years — reaching $32 billion by 2010 — is predicted. Much of this growth will come from a renewed emphasis on premium fare with homemade freshness, natural/organic ingredients and “better-for-you” entrees catering to the needs of time-crunched families.

As the definition of “family” continues to evolve, so do the choices of innovative varieties in frozen food packaging. “Lifestyle marketing” has taken the industry by storm. Meeting the frozen food needs of empty nesters, DINKS (double income, no kids) and marrieds without children at home — today’s dominant household unit -- has become crucial to success.

New ethnic flavors accounts for most of the dollar growth in frozen foods.

Good-for-you meals for two are springing up in frozen food cases sporting greater varieties of organic-based and ethnic cuisines. Resealable packaging, individual portion sizes, multi-serve and portion-controlled packaging also have been introduced to meet the specific lifestyle needs of on-the-go Americans.

“Consumers are being bombarded with fresh food choices in retail, which is a huge challenge to frozen foods,” says Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts. “People want frozen foods to be quick, easy, and taste like restaurant quality as they seek to upgrade their home meals with world flavors, high nutrition and gourmet fare.”

Entrée view

Top Brands of Multiserve Frozen Dinners/Entrees
  Sales ($ millions) Market Share
Stouffer’s Family Style Recipes $197 17.0
Stouffer’s 186 16.1
Bertolli 111 9.6
Private Label 84 7.2
Banquet Crock Pot Classics 65 5.6
Stouffer’s Skillet Sensations 63 5.4
Birds Eye Voila 56 4.8
Contessa 43 3.7
Banquet 38 3.3
On-Cor Classics 32 2.7
Gourmet Dining 30 2.6
On-Cor Traditionals 28 2.4
Tyson 27 2.3
Freezer Queen 23 2.0
Swanson Hungryman XXL 23 2.0
Total $1.159 billion  
Source: Information Resources Inc. (U.S. supermarket sales for 53 weeks ended June 18)

The frozen dinner/entrée category, with sales of more than $8.6 billion in 2005, continues to be the largest within the frozen market, comprising roughly 31 percent of total retail sales. Within the category are frozen handheld entrees (non breakfast), multi-serve frozen dinners and single-serve items, the largest segment.

Frozen dinners have a big price advantage over take-out foods, their biggest competition, according to Packaged Facts. Fresh entrees are usually for immediate consumption, while frozen foods are purchased to eat at the consumer’s convenience on another day. Evidence suggests that frozen dinners/entrees sell best during cold weather, when consumers want a hot, hearty meal. Diet-oriented frozen varieties traditionally sell better at the beginning of the year, driven by consumers’ New Year’s resolutions to lose weight.

Dollar sales of frozen prepared meals rose 5 percent for the 52 weeks ended April 22, according to ACNielsen Strategic Planner. It’s notable that frozen dinners (they stopped calling them TV dinners in 1962), including three or more food items ala the Swanson model, fell 1.4 percent, but individual entrees and two-course items heated up the category.

Among one-item entrees, seafood soared 31.7 percent, Italian increased 10.4 percent, and Mexican rose 6.4 percent; Asian was down 0.1 percent. Numbers increased even more when two courses were included: seafood up 52 percent, Italian up 18.1 percent, Mexican up 11.9 percent and Asian up 23.8 percent.

Some 300 companies market frozen foods. Key players in traditional family style frozen entrees include: Nestle USA’s (Solon, Ohio) Stouffer’s brand; ConAgra’s (Omaha, Neb.) Banquet Home-style Bakes, Kid Cuisine, Crock-Pot Classics and Marie Callender’s; Luigino’s (Duluth, Minn.) Michelina’s and Budget Gourmet; On-Cor‘s (Northbrook, Ill.) two-pound Classic, Traditional and Dinner Partners; and Pinnacle Foods’ (Cherry Hills, N.J.) Hungry Man and Swanson. Incidentally, turkey is still the most popular Swanson TV dinner, except in Fort Worth-Dallas, where fried chicken is the favorite.

Nestle has extended the Stouffer’s brand in several directions with such spinoffs as Lean Cuisine One-Dish Favorites, Café Classics, Comfort Classics, Spa Cuisine, Dinnertime Select and Skillets.

Multicultural and healthy

Top Brands of Single-Serve Frozen Dinners/Entrees
  Sales ($ millions) Market Share
Stouffer’s $372 10.4
Banquet 283 7.9
Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics 261 7.3
Weight Watchers Smart Ones 246 6.8
Healthy Choice  209 5.8
Marie Callender’s Complete Dinners 149 5.8
Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Everyday Favorites 137 3.8
Kid Cuisine 121 3.4
Swanson Hungryman 118 3.3
Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Comfort Classics 104 2.9
Stouffer’s Homestyle 103 2.9
Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine One Dish Favorites 103 2.9
Weight Watchers Smart Ones Bistro 90 2.5
Healthy Choice Familiar Favorites 86 2.4
Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Spa Cuisine 81 2.2
Total  $3.587 billion  
Source: Information Resources Inc. (U.S. supermarket sales for 53 weeks ended June 18)

Frozen fare allows for ethnic flair. Gourmet Dining, San Antonio, Texas, targets individual demographic groups (Spanish, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican) within the Hispanic market. On-Cor engages Hispanic consumers with its Sonora-Style Enchilada.

With Thai foods’ recent popularity, it’s no surprise to find it in frozen boxes from Amy’s Kitchen, Schwan’s Asian Sensations, Birds Eye, Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine and even Heinz’s T.G.I.Friday’s. Ethnic Gourmet by Hain Celestial, Boulder, Colo., offers Vietnamese Thit Go Kho Tieu (chicken and vegetables) and Indian-styled Chicken Vindaloo.

Grace’s Kitchen, Seattle, expanded its gourmet frozen meals with Mustard-Crusted Ahi Tuna Nicoise. And, after two years of development, Unilever’s Bertolli launched Dinner for Two, a line of eight frozen, chef-inspired, restaurant-quality Italian dinners (in a bag) with easy, one-step skillet preparation. It’s the only frozen dinner to gain unprecedented recognition from the prestigious Federation of Italian Chefs of America.

If there’s a bigger demographic than any ethnic group, it’s Americans trying to eat healthy. Frozen dinners make it easy for consumers to watch portion size; few people eat more than one TV dinner at a time.

Healthier frozen entrees took center stage in 1985 when ConAgra Foods’ then-CEO Charles "Mike" Harper suffered a mild heart attack. Although he made a full recovery, he re-evaluated his eating habits. When his search for frozen foods that satisfied both his health and taste needs proved futile, he took it upon himself to bring to market the Healthy Choice brand.

Amy’s Kitchen, Petaluma, Calif., makes it simple to serve dinner to a vegetarian in the family. Birds Eye’s (Rochester, N.Y.) Voila entrees include anywhere from 2.5 to 6 servings of vegetables, along with varieties for reduced carb aficionados.

Kashi Co., La Jolla, Calif., recently forayed into the frozen food aisle with a line of frozen entrees. "Our All-Natural Entrees combine wholesome ingredients and a complete balance of fiber, protein and healthy fats to leave you feeling full and fulfilled," says Jeff Johnson, Kashi brand manager and nutritionist.

As if all the Stouffer’s spinoffs weren’t enough, Nestle is fortifying its healthier frozen fare with the recently announced deal to buy weight management firm Jenny Craig.

Similarly, other processors are teaming prepared meals with popular exercise and diet programs, including Dr. Sears Zone from Cedarlane Natural Foods Foods, Carson, Calif., and Heinz’s Weight Watchers Smart Ones. Last year, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., partnered with Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of The South Beach Diet, for a line of products under that diet’s name. Frozen entrees include Mediterranean Style Chicken with Couscous, Garlic Herb Chicken with Green Beans Almondine, Savory Pork with Pecans & Green Beans, and Caprese Style Chicken with Broccoli & Cauliflower.
For seniors, ConAgra offers Golden Cuisine, formulated by product development specialists and registered dietitians specifically to meet the needs of seniors.

Several marketers, including Luigino’s Michelina’s and Amy’s Kitchen, are testing dedicated vending machines for frozen foods installed in office buildings. Kraft recently launched three frozen South Beach Diet breakfast omelets for vending.

Among one-item entrees, sales of Italian dishes increased more than 10 percent.

According to Datamonitor’s Product ScanOnline, “quick” and “microwaveable” were the descriptors used most often for frozen entrees in 2002-2005, followed by “upscale” and “natural.” The term “fresh” moved into fifth place, followed by “organic,” and “no trans-fat.” It’s notable that more than 100 items in the Stouffer’s line now carry a “No Preservatives” flag.

“A recent AFFI member survey found that manufacturers emphasize the following health and wellness innovations: portion control, trans fat reduction or elimination, reduced saturated fat, reduced sugar and sodium and the addition of whole grains and fiber in new products,“ says Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of AFFI. “And ethnic cuisine continues to be a popular trend.”

But it’s not just about health. “In open-ended, small group discussions online, conducted by Harris Interactive, we found that participants consider the quality and taste of today’s frozen foods to be significantly improved compared with the products of several years ago,” adds Sarasin.

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