May/June 2021

Pandemic adds fuel to already-blossoming frozen food category
By Melanie Epp, contributing writer

Since COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, it has shaken up all food categories, including the frozen category, which has seen tremendous growth. 

While many shoppers have and will continue to return to their traditional buying habits as life returns to normal, experts believe some of that growth is permanent. Adrienne Seiling, Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications at the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) shared the results of their research in a recent interview.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the essential role frozen foods play in the supply chain. Sales increased by double-digits last year, up 21% in dollars and 13.3% in units, said Seiling. 

AFFI estimates nearly 90% of meals were being prepared at home at the height of the pandemic.

“The entire food supply chain rose to the challenge to feed Americans while protecting its essential workforce,” said Seiling.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, frozen food retail sales still remain highly elevated at plus-21.1%. Looking specifically at frozen fruits and vegetables, dollar sales are up 26% compared to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Unit sales are up 18.5% and volume sales are up 20%. 

There are several factors driving growth. According to AFFI’s Power of Frozen Research, the greater number of at-home dinners is driving 82% of consumers to purchase more frozen food items. Some 55% of sales are for lunch items, 43% for snacks and 42% for breakfast. 

Seven in 10 shoppers are interested in meal entrees with more fruits and vegetables. Fifty-eight percent are interested in vegetable-based carb/starch alternatives, and blended meat/vegetable items (52%) have higher and greater cross-population interest than plant-based meat alternatives (43%), said Seiling. 

There’s more good news for the frozen category, as much of this growth is expected to remain. According to AFFI’s April 2020 report, while some shoppers returned to normal shopping patterns, 57% still purchase more frozen foods, and 58% purchase different kinds of frozen foods than they did pre-pandemic, including different brands. 

“All of our data suggests frozen will remain a category heavyweight for months and years ahead, as the category attracts new and returning customers who are relying on a variety of frozen foods to make catering to everyone’s needs and preferences easy,” said Seiling.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are performing well with sales up 26% in the category. Seiling said consumers are drawn to the category for a variety of reasons. Frozen produce helps reduce food waste, and the variety of fruit and vegetable offerings in the frozen aisle make it easy to incorporate them into any meal occasion. 

“As a mom of two small kids, I rely on the variety of frozen fruits and vegetables to incorporate them into any meal occasion,” said Seiling. “Spiralized and riced vegetables are commonplace now. We’re seeing the next round of innovation in frozen vegetables with family-sized vegetables for roasting or grilling and new varieties with global sauces and seasonings.”

Beyond the shift from eating out to dining in, frozen fruits and vegetables meet growing demand for plant-based foods, immunity-boosting foods and personalized nutrition. They also help consumers beat at-home cooking fatigue by reducing shopping trips and prep time. 

Frozen produce a nutritionally sound option

And while frozen fruits and vegetables lack the allure that the fresh category does, New York City-based registered dietician and chef Abbie Gellman said they’re a nutritionally sound option. Gellman advises health professionals and consumers, food brands and commodity boards on how to make nutritious food taste good. 

Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at peak ripeness and frozen within hours. Valuable nutrients are trapped during flash freezing, said Gellman. 

“So you’re not losing anything, nutritionally by having frozen versus fresh,” she said. “And in some cases, it might even be more nutritious because fresh fruit and vegetables might be traveling a long distance or sitting out for a long period of time.

“The older the fruit and vegetable gets, fresh-wise, you’ll lose nutrients there, versus the frozen, they’re kind of locked in.”

Another draw of the frozen category is that it allows consumers to purchase favorite produce that is seasonally unavailable. Not only that, but they will be nutritionally better frozen than shipped fresh from somewhere afar. 

Gellman said a lot has changed in terms of quality over the last decades. While frozen vegetables once had a reputation for softening during the cooking process, quality has improved considerably. Using frozen vegetables is easy, said Gellman.

“You can open a bag of frozen chopped broccoli, and roast it the exact same way you would roast fresh broccoli,” she said. “And you’ve cut out that prep time.”

Frozen vegetables can also be added to soups and stews in the same way that fresh produce can. Frozen fruits are easy to add to baked goods, oatmeal, yogurt and smoothies, Gellman said. 

In the past year or so, Gellman has seen a growing number of options in the frozen healthy snack category, including frozen yogurt treats with berries, mango and even bananas.  

“The snack-sized, fruit-based stuff is a good trend that I’m enjoying,” she said. 

Like Seiling, Gellman expects the frozen category will continue to grow as consumers realize its benefits.

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