Frozen Snack Innovations Ignite Fast-Moving Category

The lines between snacking and mealtime continue to blur as the frozen section steps up noshing options
Barbara Sax
Frozen Aisle
Frozen snack consumption has risen as consumer eating habits have shifted.

Fueled by product innovations that are a direct response to consumer dining habits and health trends, the frozen snack category is having a strong year. Frozen snack consumption has seen nearly a 7% growth rate over the past year, according to data from Chicago-based IRI, as consumer eating habits have shifted and the lines between snacking and mealtime have continued to blur. 

“Millennials, particularly older Millennials, are the No. 1 accelerator for growth in the frozen snack category,” says Braelyn Davis, co-founder and CEO of San Diego-based frozen food maker Planet Based Foods, who notes that convenience and easy preparation are top priorities for consumers in this demographic “as they juggle work, family and active social lives.” 

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Dollar sales of frozen appetizers and snack rolls were up more than 12% for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 27, 2022, IRI data shows. Sally Lyons Wyatt, EVP and practice leader for client insights at IRI, observes, however, that while dollar sales in the segment remain strong, unit sales and volume are starting to decelerate.

Morning Star
More plant-based options are entering the frozen snack category, among them MorningStar Farms Incogmeato Mickey Mouse Shaped Chik'n Nuggets.

Beyond Borders

Wyatt notes that international flavors and foods are fueling category growth in handheld frozen snacks. “Unique flavors and brand-licensing flavors are really hot,” she says. “It’s all about exploration, and what makes frozen beneficial is it allows consumers to explore different cuisines without having to cook them or go to a restaurant and spend a lot of money. Flavors and cuisines in frozen snacks is really where it’s at.”

Products such as Bibigo’s mandu dumplings and Minh’s eggrolls “are growing like wildfire on unit sales,” adds Wyatt, pointing to double-digit sales increases.

Mintel research shows that 67% of U.S. consumers would like to see frozen snacks with more diverse, internationally inspired flavors, and 73% choose Mexican as the international cuisine of choice to eat at home or in a restaurant.

Speaking of Mexican food, this past summer, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz refreshed its Delimex line with flavor-enhanced recipes and nearly double the filling, as well as updated packaging. The changes were rolled out across the brand’s Beef Corn Taquitos, Chicken Corn Taquitos, Chicken and Cheese Flour Taquitos, Beef and Cheese Flour Taquitos, and Beef and Cheddar Rolled Tacos.

Among other types of food, seafood appetizers, which saw strong growth during COVID, have continued to be popular with consumers, according to John Baxter, VP of retail sales and marketing at Baltimore-based Phillips Foods & Seafood Restaurants. “We have seen continued growth in the category in 2022, and the many new options we developed during the past two years have led to more placements and a broader base of distribution,” says Baxter.

Baxter notes that younger consumers are more open to new flavors and cultural tastes, and new products such as the company’s Shrimp Potstickers, Clam Oreganata Flatbread and Shrimp Sriracha Flatbread hit that target. “We have tried to bring a little something different with each offering,” he adds. “We certainly have an advantage connecting with trends, due to our foodservice business.”

Restaurant-branded frozen snack products have long proved popular. In just one example of this, Columbus, Ohio-based fast-food brand White Castle and Bellisio Foods, in Minneapolis, recently teamed up to launch Castle Bites, bite-sized snacks made of 100% real beef and onions wrapped in a crispy golden crust. The product comes in hamburger and cheeseburger varieties.

Plant Based Foods has expanded distribution of its vegan, gluten-free taquito line made from hemp.

Well Planted

Millennial consumers are also a key driver behind growth in the plant-based segment of the frozen snack category. “Millennials are igniting demand for plant-based frozen foods because they are making values-driven choices and want products that deliver on sustainability and health claims,” notes Planet Based’s Davis. In response, more products featuring better-for-you and simple plant-based ingredients are entering the category.

For example, Planet Based has been expanding distribution of its hemp-based, vegan, gluten-free Southwest Taquitos and Original Taquitos, which debuted in November and are now available at 700 Kroger stores. Davis says that the company plans to add more hand-held items to its lineup and will launch hemp-based dairy products in the second half of 2023.

Category data from Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. indicates that the plant-based space is up nearly 2% as of July 2022. “Data shows us that mainstream people — led by Millennials and Gen Z — are eating plant-forward foods for many reasons, including taste, health, sustainability and more choice on menus,” said a representative of Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms brand.

Meatless chicken, according to MorningStar Farms, is seeing tremendous growth. The popularity of chicken among consumers makes it an easy entry point for flexitarians to enter the category. MorningStar has made it a priority to develop “chik’n” products that stand up to consumer expectations of taste. The brand’s line of meat-alternative products includes Chik’n Nuggets, Mickey Mouse Shaped Chik’n Nuggets and Chik’n Tenders, and MorningStar has recently added a Spicy Chik’n Filet, Plant-Based Chik’n and an Eggo Style Waffle Sandwich to the lineup.

With more segments of the population gravitating toward plant-based options, these snacks have earned a spot in the frozen aisle, but IRI’s Wyatt cautions retailers not to benchmark them against products with greater mass appeal.

“Plant-based products have a role in the category and are very popular with Millennials and Gen Z,” she says. “They are not, however, popular with the mass population, so retailers have to be smart and set expectations accordingly.”

Variety Drives Sweet Frozen Treats

If flavors and cuisines are driving snacks, variety and value are fueling the sweet frozen treat segment. Dollar sales of frozen novelties were up nearly 12% for the same time period noted above, according to IRI. “Frozen novelties is a category where you can maximize the value and minimize waste,” says Wyatt. “You can have a variety of flavors to appeal to a variety of people in your family.” 

Wyatt adds that in this category, shoppers are also gravitating toward restaurant-quality products that they can consume at home. While these products may be priced at a premium, they provide a restaurant-style experience without the expense of eating at a restaurant. 

After Pennsauken Township, N.J.-based J&J Snack Foods acquired Dippin’ Dots earlier this year, the company introduced a new mash-up product, Icee Cherry ‘n Blue Razz flavored frozen beads. J&J President and CEO Dan Fachner notes that the item is “the result of combining our expertise in frozen novelties to create new, exciting products for customers and fans to enjoy.”

Meanwhile, Unilever ice cream has launched 19 new products across its Breyers, Klondike, Magnum ice cream, and Talenti Gelato & Sorbetto brands. The multinational company’s ice cream brands had double-digit sales growth last year, according to Bentley King, head of U.S. ice cream operations at Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever USA. “A portion of this success can be credited to Magnum, a brand renowned for its indulgent offerings, which delivered positive volume growth this year, largely due to the introduction of new offerings like Duets, which combine two types of chocolate in one decadent bite,” says King.

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The company’s Talenti brand worked with chefs, mixologists and culinary creators to produce a lineup of pairings that borrowed trends from popular desserts and cocktails. “This mashup dessert experience is a quality Millennial and Gen Z consumers seek when it comes to desserts,” notes King.

Magnum also extended into a wider variety of plant-based offerings in response to more consumers’ exploration of or adherence to a nondairy lifestyle. It’s just one of many new plant-based sweet frozen snack products that offer consumers a variety of choices.

For its part, U.K. company Wicked Kitchen, whose U.S. headquarters is in Minneapolis, has launched a plant-based collection of ice creams and novelties made with the lupini bean — a first-to-market product line in the United States. The chef-crafted pints and handheld stick and cone novelties are currently available at Kroger, Dillons, Fred Meyer, King Soopers and a number of other chains.

Further, Montpelier, Vt.-based Wildgood, a first-of-its-kind plant-based frozen dessert made with extra-virgin olive oil, recently added a Caramelized Fig flavor to its brand. Wildgood is currently carried by Sprouts, Publix, ShopRite and select Whole Foods Market stores. 

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