May/June 2019

Modernization driving frozen food industry

If the produce section of the grocery store’s freezer aisle seems to have a new look, that’s because it does — on a regular basis.

Driven by consumer demand for more better-for-you options, convenience and modern choices that mirror what’s hot in restaurants or, say, the latest weight-loss trends, produce processors are rolling out new frozen products at a fast pace.

Birds Eye's cauliflower fries.
Birds Eye’s cauliflower and potato fries.

According to data from a Conagra 2019 Investor Day presentation in April, total sales in the frozen fruit and vegetable category were $6.4 billion in the year through February 2019, an increase of 2.5% over the previous one-year period. Conagra’s sales in the category were $1.1 billion, up 5.4%. Conagra’s Birds Eye is the largest frozen vegetable brand in the U.S.

“Today, frozen is a vibrant area, driving total store sales,” said Darren Serrao, Conagra co-chief operating officer, in that presentation to investors.

He noted that frozen overall is growing faster than any other department because it represents a convenient time-saving solution. Besides offering healthy options, it provides shortcuts for home cooks with minimum cooking skills while “empowering” them to produce more creative meals than if starting from scratch. It’s a better value than dining out or buying fresh, he said. And millennials, as they form families, are expected to rely more heavily on frozen.

Adrienne M. Seiling, vice president of strategic communications for the American Frozen Food Institute, said frozen foods enjoy high household penetration. Vegetables are among the top three, with a penetration of 79%.

“Those vegetables for roasting are definitely a hot trend right now in the frozen food aisle, along with spiralized vegetables and cauliflower — whether it’s roasted, riced or pizza crust,” Seiling said. “I’d also note that bowls are hot right now — protein bowls, grain bowls.

“The frozen food aisle accentuates these culinary trends, and in some cases, starts the culinary adventure. They can be part of a meal — as a side or ingredient — or the total meal solution.”

The key, Serrao said, is combining the right attributes with the right combinations. Simply put, it starts with the food.

“You can modernize great brands, but you have to do so my modernizing and contemporizing the food,” he said.

Jordan Greenberg, executive vice president and chief commercialization officer for B&G Foods, owner of Green Giant, said items like veggies with cheese have been pretty popular in the past.

“Now consumers are gravitating toward clean veggies with no sauces or seasonings,” Greenberg said.

Also important is contemporary packaging that clearly communicates messaging with a modern design.

RELATED: Five tips on attracting young consumers to frozen fruits and vegetables

What’s new

Birds Eye OvenRoasters Sheet Pan Vegetables come pre-seasoned and ready to bake on a sheet pan. Varieties include broccoli and cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and carrots, red potatoes and onions, sweet potatoes and carrots and red potatoes.

“All you have to do is open the bag, put them on a baking sheet and cook them according to the package cooking instructions,” Seiling said. “Being the mother of a 2-year-old, this is a huge time saver and convenient side dish option that has become a staple in our family’s meal rotation.”

PictSweet Farms also offers a line of Vegetables for Roasting in at least eight combinations, a red potatoes, carrots, onions and zucchini mix and sweet potatoes, red potatoes, carrots and butternut squash medley among them.

Birds Eye recently rolled out a Mac & Cheese in its SteamFresh Veggie Made line, combining comfort food with a serving of vegetables in the form of 100% vegetable pasta. Other new varieties include Chicken Flavored Riced Cauliflower, Riced Broccoli & Cheese and Family Size Riced Cauliflower.

Veggie Made Tots & Fries are now available in broccoli and cheese, cauliflower and ranch, broccoli and cauliflower. According to a news release, each has a similar taste and texture to regular tater tots and fries, but delivers a full serving of vegetables in each serving.

Green Giant's Riced Vegetable medley.
Green Giant’s Riced Vegetable medley.

Green Giant rolled out Riced Veggies in September 2016.

“When we first introduced Riced Veggies … we were harvesting five acres of cauliflower for the product,” Greenberg said. “Within a year, Green Giant was harvesting 35 acres of cauliflower per week for the Riced Veggies line.

“Currently we’re harvesting 150,000 heads of cauliflower per day for our Riced Veggies line.”

Other veggies represented in Riced Veggies include butternut squash, beets, broccoli and kohlrabi.

Greenberg is excited about these and other Green Giant Veggie Swap-Ins, which the company calls its products that provide an opportunity to swap veggies with other ingredients and that he said have been “an incredible hit with consumers.”

The company’s Veggie Spirals come in several varieties. Its Veggie Tots are available in two new varieties that swap out potato with corn and sweet potato/cauliflower.

Its Little Green Sprout’s Organics offer new, organic versions of the company’s most popular Green Giant Veggie Swap-Ins, zucchini spirals, squash spirals, riced cauliflower, riced cauliflower medley and mashed cauliflower among the options.

“We’ve eliminated the prep work, clean-up and waste that goes into ricing, spiralizing and mashing veggies on your own,” he said. “We believe that consumers really want to eat their veggies in this way, but they simply don’t have the time to prepare the veggies themselves.”

Based on the thought that “the bowl is the new plate,” Conagra’s Healthy Choice line launched Power Bowls in 2017 that feature whole grains, mixed greens, vegetables and natural proteins — Adobo Chicken, Korean-inspired Beef, Cuban-inspired Pork and Chicken Sausage and Barley. Now the line has expanded into new “day parts,” Serrao said, referring to morning bowls that serve as breakfast options, along with vegan, vegetarian and low-carb offerings.

Green Giant’s Harvest Protein Bowls include California, Asian, Southwest and Italian themes. Each has 12 to 14 gram of protein and is vegetarian.

And pizza crust made from vegetables is all the rage.

Spinato's Pizza
Spinato’s Pizza

Green Giant’s two new varieties are made from more than 80% cauliflower.

“Pizza crust is a great example of a product that was developed to answer a consumer demand of more vegetables, but in an easy, convenient format,” Greenberg said.

Michaela Raner, director of marketing for Arizona-based Spinato’s Fine Foods, says the pizzeria group launched a gluten-free crust pizza at retail in response to customer demand. Spinato’s has now expanded to include a broccoli crust with four different topping options. The product has gone national and is in major retailers including Whole Foods, Safeway and Albertsons. Raner says it’s sold in 500 stores as of April and should be in 1,500 by September.

“People not only want it to be healthy, but it has to taste good,” Raner said. “This tastes like I’m at a pizzeria. You can’t tell it’s broccoli.”

Crazy about cauliflower

Cauliflower tends to be a common theme throughout many of these products. Trader Joe’s representatives discussing the frozen aisle during a March Trader Joe’s podcast said the chain was the first to roll out riced cauliflower.

“It’s really proven to be the perfect substitute for high-carb foods, so if you’re watching your calories, your carbohydrates, you can use riced cauliflower as a base instead of rice,” said a Trader Joe’s frozen product developer during the podcast.

Trader Joe's cauliflower gnocchi
Trader Joe’s cauliflower gnocchi

Trader Joe’s also offers a cauliflower pizza crust. And in 2018 it introduced Cauliflower Gnocchi, a runner-up for overall favorite in its 10th Annual Customer Choice Awards.

According to the Trader Joe’s website, “Our Italian supplier, who specializes in regular gnocchi, uses the cauliflower they’ve grown in their own fields to create soft-textured bites that are easy to prepare.”

In fact, Trader Joe’s brings much of its frozen cauliflower from Italy, the product developer noted, adding, “They’re the one country that’s been able to produce the volume we needed at the right cost.”

On the fruit side, Earthbound Farm is offering a Frozen Organic Mango Peach Carrot Smoothie Kickstart, ready to blend with juice, yogurt or milk into a smoothie.

Dole’s Acai Bowls come in three flavor combinations, mixing the acai berry with fruits and granola for a healthy snack.

“Innovation in the frozen fruit and vegetable categories are bringing consumers expanded choices that weren’t previously available,” said Julie Henderson, vice president of communications for the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association. “Convenience is still paramount and frozen foods offer the ultimate in convenience.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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