Americans are warming up to frozen foods.
Consumers are eating more vegetables and protein, and their reservations about eating frozen foods — long dubbed an unsatisfying diet option or loaded with artificial ingredients — are starting to thaw. Meanwhile, frozen food companies are revamping their products to include more healthful, flavorful options. And while dishes like Mango Edamame Power Bowls or Sweet and Spicy Harissa Meatballs add an inventiveness to the freezer aisle, one of frozen foods’ chief attractions has stayed rock solid: convenience.
“Frozen food manufacturers have figured out that, ‘hey, we can give consumers a path to having authentic and wholesome ingredient meals at home with a high level of convenience,’” said David Portalatin, food industry adviser for The NPD Group. “Let’s give them the clean label, organic or non-GMO. Let’s put the quality back in.”
Consumers are eager for options to simplify cooking, yet few meal-kit services “have shown a capability to turn a profit,” a recent RBC Capital Markets report notes. That has analysts wondering whether people are willing to pay steep prices for what is ultimately a more laborious and time-consuming way to prepare food.
As the RBC report put it: “Isn’t a frozen dinner just a meal-kit that costs less without the work?”
The report showed that that the frozen food market has grown for the first time in five years, growing 1 percent in the 12 weeks leading up to March 10. As millennials seek out nutritious and well-rounded meals without sacrificing convenience, frozen vegetables, fruits and prepared foods present a relatively cheap and easy-access option. That’s true for younger people and families who are less interested in eating out — whether that’s because they’re working from home or having dinner with a side of Netflix.
In the backdrop is consumers’ dwindling stigma against the freezer aisle, often pitted against the outer perimeter of grocery stores stocked with fresh proteins and produce. Experts say frozen foods are now more commonly understood to not necessarily contain added salts or sugars and can find their place from breakfast to dessert.
Frozen foods can also claim some nutritional and environmental advantages over fresher fare. Frozen foods are often flash frozen after harvest or preparation, locking in nutrients that fresh foods gradually lose in the time it takes to reach a grocery store or kitchen. With an estimated 40 percent of food wasted in the United States each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, freezing extends the lifespans of ingredients that people may be too quick to toss.
“We all love to purchase fruits and vegetables at their peak of freshness … but often our lives are busy and it’s challenging to manage the meals that we need to prepare for our family,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Freezing can be a great complement to fresh foods so that people can have what they need on hand, and then it’s available when they need it.”
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The RBC report highlighted Conagra Brands — which includes Healthy Choice, Banquet and Marie Callender’s — as a leader in the overhaul of frozen foods. The company cut back on deep discounts on some products, boosted the protein content of its meals and modernized its packaging.
Among the top 20 frozen prepared foods brands in the country, Healthy Choice is posting the fastest year-over-year growth — up 21 percent in the 12 weeks leading up to April 3, according to the RBC report. Falling in line with popular food trends, the company nixed artificial ingredients and hard-to-pronounce words on its packaging and highlighted protein and fiber contents. Weight Watchers sales dropped the most, by 23 percent.
Sonia Vora, an equity analyst at Morningstar, said Conagra has benefited by moving away from a focus on dieting and toward broader health and wellness.
“That wouldn’t just be in terms of ‘sugar free’ or ‘fat free,’ but giving way to things that are more natural or wholesome,” Vora said.
Portalatin compared millennials — many of whom are now working and raising young families — to baby boomers who first looked to restaurants and prepared meals as a way to outsource cooking. Now, as baby boomers age, millennials are the new generation looking for easy and simple solutions to meal preparation.
“They want to eat at home. They want a pathway to some form of purity in the quality of the food at home,” Portalatin said. “But yet they still want convenience because we’re still busy, we’re still in the career and family formation life stage, and we still value convenience.”
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In November, Healthy Choice tweeted about its Adobo Chicken Bowl, highlighting pepitas (“a fancy way of saying pumpkin seeds”) and poblano peppers as inventive flavors for frozen food.
“Not your average frozen meal ingredient,” the brand said.
Put another way: frozen meals are no longer your average frozen meals.