The Joy Of Not Cooking

5/1/2011

Frozen fruits and veggies are gaining new fans among busy consumers.

Cindy is a blogger. She's a wife, a mother of four and a grandma, too. She works a full-time job and helps her husband run three businesses from their home. Being busy, she says, “is an understatement.”

Recently, on her blog, “How Cindy Sees It…,” she wrote about frozen foods. Actually, her topic was “Gotta Love Frozen Food Month at Martins!”

“I like frozen foods...a lot,” she wrote. “Love the convenience of them as well as the variety of options.” She explained how she took advantage of the National Frozen Food Month promotion at Martins, where if she purchased S100 worth of frozen products, she would get a $25 Catalina coupon to use on her next supermarket shopping trip. She described how she combined other coupons to end up getting her $100 worth of frozens “way cheaper” than that.

But this story isn't about how Cindy could buy all kinds of frozen food products for less than $50, with $35 coming back to her for her next two purchases. It's about how frozen fruits and vegetables are meeting the needs of consumers like Cindy — shoppers who are “understatedly” busy and seriously need convenience, but who still want to provide nutritional foods for their families.

Nutritionist Janis Jibrin, author of “The Supermarket Diet,” recently wrote in Good Housekeeping that “many frozen fruits and veggies are actually more nutritious than their fresh counterparts.” She pointed out that studies show that heat and light destroy nutrients, but “frozen fruits and vegetables get around this problem because they are flash-frozen, right after picking.”

Her favorites, she wrote, are Trader Joe's Haricots Verts, all of the Cascadian Farm berries, boxed Green Giant spinach and Birds Eye New Baby Peas. Then she directed visitors to www.goodhousekeeping.com for a complete list of nutritional highlights for 10 frozen fruits and vegetables.

Quality and Health

“More and more people are acknowledging that they need to have healthier diets, and not just during certain times of the year — that's the key,” says John Sauve, president of Food & Wellness Group, a Portland, Maine-based marketing firm that represents the Wild Blueberry Association in its efforts to promote frozen wild blueberries across the nation. “The strategy behind our effort is to increase awareness of the frozen food category as a place consumers can go to get high-quality, nutritional fruit,” he says. “We're convinced that American consumers are open to this new direction, given shoppers' growing health consciousness and their increasing support of sustainable agriculture. We want to put frozen fruit on people's minds and in their menus.”

Sauve says the frozen fruit category has shown strength over the past 18 months. “The movement, the awareness, is building,” he contends. “Consumers are discovering that frozen fruit is just as nutritional as fresh.”

Actually, according to Nielsen research, frozen fruit sales in retail outlets, including Walmart, increased by 2.4 percent from March 21,2009, to March 20,2010, to $500.3 million. However, as of March 19, 2011, sales of $486 million were off 2.9 percent; unit sales were up during the same period in 2010 over the previous year, but dipped 1.1 percent this year.

“Now and in the days ahead, frozen fruit will increasingly be a solution people will look toward when increasing their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO of the Hockessin, Del-based Produce for Better Health Foundation.

Steamables

When it comes to vegetables, new microwavable steamed technology appears to be helping to drive growth, providing shoppers with the convenience they so seriously need.

“You can put the bag in the microwave, and you don't have to mess up a lot of pans in the kitchen,” says David Brown, director of retail sales at Aliens Inc., one of the nation's largest packaged vegetable companies. “If you do any cooking at home, it's really all about convenience, trying to get a meal on the table and then getting on with your evening.” Siloam Springs, Ark.-based Allens has three frozen vegetable plants in New York state, as well as operations in Wisconsin and Georgia.

While Nielsen numbers show a 3.3 percent increase in frozen vegetable sales to $4.75 billion for the year ended March 20,2010, over the previous year, overall frozen vegetable sales declined by 0.8 percent to $4.71 billion as of March 19,2011. Unit sales followed a similar path, but dollar and unit sales of breaded vegetables skyrocketed by more than 18 percent as of March 20,2010 and increased about 8 percent this year. Those prepared in a sauce did even better.

Allens has capitalized on consumers' need for such enhanced products, Brown says, by offering innovative sauced items both in the company's own brands as well as the private label products it provides for a large customer base. “Retailers are doing a great job of displaying and merchandising these products,” he notes. “I recently saw a tie-in with steamed vegetables with frozen entrees. It was an end display and provided a total meal solution. It was very easy for the store to execute and was effective. A lot of retailers are offering recipes at the shelf to help consumers who are looking for new ideas so they can be more creative at home.”

A number of suppliers are capitalizing on microwavable steamed technology, and usually the product is more than just vegetables — as in the Healthy Choice steamer products from ConAgra Foods that offer a variety of beef and chicken dishes prepared with sauces and a starch. Birds Eye, a brand of Mountain Lakes, N.J.-based Pinnacle Foods, is offering six varieties of new Steamfresh products such as Steamfresh Brown & Wild Rice with Broccoli & Carrots.

Balanced Vegetarian

Meanwhile, as the nation increasingly embraces various ethnic cuisines, Tandoor Chef, which offers a wide variety of Indian vegetarian frozen products, has developed a new line of all-veggie Balanced Vegetarian items. “We've elevated protein and fiber content, reduced sodium, and use olive oil in these products, providing a complete meal for consumers who eat vegetarian,” explains Mike Ryan, VP of marketing at Tandoor Chef, a brand of Union, N.J.-based Deep Foods. “Each has three components, a starch, beans and vegetables. It is a nicely balanced vegetarian meal, gives you everything you need and tastes good, too.”

Like Cindy the blogger, who loves frozen, today's U.S. consumers are incredibly busy, sometimes frantically so, and the convenience - and healthfulness - of frozen fruits and vegetables can help meet their needs while providing healthful and nutritious meals for their families.

“I think,” says Aliens' Brown, “that consumers are beginning to get it.”

Steaming With Enthusiasm

With folks increasingly looking for healthy foods in the right portions, Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods unveiled new research findings at presstime indicating that portion-controlled frozen meals can support weight loss and improve dietary quality.

Noted cardiologist Dr. James Rippe, founder and director of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute in Shrewsbury, Mass., led two 30-day ConAgra-sponsored research studies exploring how weight loss using portion-controlled Healthy Choice meals affected dietary quality and quality of life.

In addition to reinforcing that fact “that portion control is fundamental to successful weight loss,” Mark Andon, ConAgra's VP of nutrition, says a particularly exciting result “is that study participants enjoying portion-controlled Healthy Choice frozen meals for lunch or dinner not only improved the quality of their diets, they also reported an increased sense of well-being, having more energy and feeling healthier after just 30 days. And they said it was easy to do with the range of delicious Healthy Choice varieties.”

As part of a reduced-calorie eating plan incorporating walking for physical activity, study participants replaced at least 10 meals per week with Healthy Choice frozen meals. One study focused on eating the meals primarily for lunch and the other mainly as a dinner replacement, both with similar results.

Participants lost an average of six pounds and reduced waist circumference by about one inch. Additionally, despite the decrease in calories, participants significantly improved the quality of their overall diets by increasing dietary fiber, reducing saturated fat intake by 50 percent, and consuming 30 percent less cholesterol and sodium.

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