EXCLUSIVE WEB CONTENT: GROCERY: Frozen and Dairy: Work it out

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EXCLUSIVE WEB CONTENT: GROCERY: Frozen and Dairy: Work it out

By D. Gail Fleenor - 11/19/2008
Health and wellness remain top concerns in frozen and dairy departments, judging by the steady stream of new items addressing the trend across categories. For example, concerns about children's diets and childhood obesity have launched an assortment of new frozen kids' meals and foods. The boom in frozen ethnic foods, meanwhile, has sparked healthier versions of the same. And new dairy products with added healthy ingredients continue to roll out.

The trend is so strong it so far seems to be withstanding the opposing forces of the down economy and a general premium on space in dairy cases and behind frozen doors. Stocking up on good-for-you foods is a strong strategy for meeting customer requests and boosting sales in both departments, say industry players.

Case in point: Reports about childhood obesity and high-calorie kids' meals at popular restaurants keep parents concerned about providing quick yet healthy fare for their youngsters. New healthy frozen meals for children have sprung up in response.

Full Tank Foods, for instance, is one of many entrepreneurial suppliers seeking to meet the need. Owners Dr. Whitney Anderson, a pediatrician, and her husband, John Anderson, a food scientist, saw the need for healthy frozen foods for the 3- to-11-year demographic. Full Tank offers four "kid favorites": macaroni & cheese, pasta & red sauce, pizza fondue, and cheesy mashed potatoes in a pocket sandwich.

The Pittsburgh-based company is collaborating with the Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid program to spread the word about the importance of a healthy and nutritious diet for kids, and to fight childhood obesity. "Our nutritional panel says it all," c.e.o. John Anderson notes: "Lower sodium, zero trans fats, and extra vitamins from veggies. The meals are also good sources of protein, calcium, and fiber. We apply our vegetable enrichment process to turn unhealthy kid favorites into practical, healthy products that retain the original taste profile kids enjoy."

Natural and organic frozen food manufacturer Amy's Kitchen also has kids' and parents' needs in sight. "We developed Amy's Kids Meals in response to the many letters we receive from our customers," says Steve Warnert, director of quality for the Petaluma, Calif.-based company. "Many parents want tasty and nutritious food that is also convenient for their children." Amy's offers three kids meals: macaroni & cheese, gluten-/dairy-free baked ziti, and a quesadilla. "Each is a complete meal, with emphasis on nutritional balance. Flavor is derived from real food rather than artificial ingredients and fillers," adds Warnert.

Healthy food for babies was the reason Gigi Lee Chang founded New York-based Plum Organics. Chang's company recently added to its line by introducing four kids' meals that contain low sodium, high vitamin A content, lower total fat, and lower sugar content. Plum Organic also offers the only kids' meals fortified with DHA omega-3s, notes Chang.

Plum Organics' four dinners for children include bowtie pasta with sweet potato sauce, rainbow pasta shells with creamy parmesan sauce, pork Italian sausage marinara sauce over multigrain pasta, and cheese-filled spinach tortellini with marinara sauce. All have vegetable sides. Chang plans to grow the line beyond pasta in the future.

Earth's Best, also known for its infant foods, offers seven frozen kids' meals ranging from organic mini waffles to all-natural baked chicken nuggets to whole grain mini cheese pizzas.

"Unlike most children's frozen foods, Earth's Best frozen foods are made only from ingredients grown from the Earth -- no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives, no harmful hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides," says Kim McGowan, senior brand manager frozen foods for the Boulder Colo.-based company.

Mainstream moves

More conventional manufacturers haven't ignored consumer demand for quick meals for younger consumers. Heinz has introduced Ore-Ida ABC Tater Tots as an easy mealtime solution for toddlers. "Moms can feel good about serving [them] because they are real potatoes, and kids like [them] because they are fun to eat and taste good," says a company spokesman at the iconic Pittsburgh-based company.

Kid Cuisine, from ConAgra, offers 15 meal SKUs, plus three just out: Cowboy KC's Ham n' Cheese Ropers, Dip & Dunk Toasted Ravioli, and Fiesta Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas.

"Several Kid Cuisine varieties provide a serving of whole grains, and all varieties are portion-controlled meals that provide parents with a convenient, nutritious, and tasty choice for their children," says Roger Ghosh, category leadership manager for the Omaha, Neb.-based company.

When it comes to best practices for merchandising kids' meals, manufacturers advocate a door devoted to children's foods. Full Tank Foods' John Anderson suggests grocers create a "kids' door" in frozen as a destination for moms, with breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and dessert items targeting toddlers right up to teens.

Ethnic tastes

Bryce Ruiz, president and c.o.o. of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods, does his research. He points to a shift in consumer perception of food from a focus solely on taste, variety, and convenience, to include nutrition and health solutions.

"Ruiz Foods is known in the frozen Mexican food category as the leader and innovator....[N}ow our company is the first to offer a full line of frozen Mexican products that respond directly to the trend for foods that are healthier," he says.

The new line includes El Monterey All Natural Burritos, Quesadillas, and Soft Tacos, with whole wheat tortillas, no preservatives, and lower sodium. Flavors include Monterey jack cheese and green chili quesadillas; chicken, rice, and vegetable burritos; and chicken chili verde soft tacos.

Kahiki Foods also has plans to incorporate more good-for-you ingredients in its entrees and appetizers, according to Tim Tsao, v.p. sales and marketing for the Gahanna, Ohio-based company. Examples of the company's new initiative include the addition of brown rice, more vegetables, and flaxseed egg rolls to its line of frozen Asian food. The new products and ingredients rolled out in late summer 2008.

"Brown rice has much more fiber than white rice," notes Tsao. "By adding more vegetables, we know we're giving our consumers more of the good stuff."

Kahiki's new flaxseed egg roll, part of its Naturals line, is a first for the industry, and uses a package innovation called EasyCrisp. "These are the first microwaveable egg rolls that are crispy when you microwave them and ready in less than three minutes," says Tsao.

He thinks grocers might want to consider tying ethnic foods with healthy ingredients into any upcoming health-and-wellness campaigns. "We also believe the restaurant-quality appeal of our products bodes well with consumers right now, in that more consumers than ever are choosing to eat in."

Functional foods spread

The steady stream of new functional dairy foods may have slowed some in yogurt, but has branched out to include other products.

Sargento Foods, Inc. has added three new varieties to their line of reduced-fat cheese for both cooking and snacking: medium cheddar slices, sharp cheddar snack sticks, and Colby jack slices and snack sticks. The Plymouth, Wis.-based company says that along with these new products, Sargento's Reduced Fat 4 Cheese Italian shreds will see increased distribution "due to popular demand." The line has fewer calories and one-third less fat than natural cheeses.

Smart Balance, headquartered in Paramus, N.J., was founded on producing heart-healthy products. The company recently introduced several new dairy items, including Omega Buttery Spread and Omega Buttery Spread with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, plus light versions of both. Also new is Butter Blend Sticks in regular and unsalted varieties. All of these new items are fortified with the trio of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA.

"Research studies clearly show that omega-3 fatty acids have heart benefits," says Jamie Pope, registered dietitian/nutritionist, and instructor in nutrition at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn. "Incorporating these oils into your diet is very important for healthy people, as well as those who have, or who are at high risk for, cardiovascular disease."