Frozen foods amp up freshness factor

New technology and types of introductions could bring some heat to the frozen food category. Frozen food sales have been flat to declining for the past few years, according to a recent study from Packaged Facts, with nearly all dollar sales gains coming from higher prices or new products rather than increased consumer demand.

A preference for fresh foods is the top reason shoppers cite for not buying frozen foods in the last three months, according to Packaged Facts. Yet there's no denying the convenience factor of frozen foods, and manufacturers are looking for ways to tempt consumers back to the category.

One way that frozen food marketers are stepping up to the plate is by emphasizing freshness, according to David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts. Smaller boutique brands — such as Amy's, Evol and Cucina Fresca — are "pushing the envelope on taste and health and wellness cues," said Tamara Barnett, an analyst at the Hartman Group. "Even private label is catching up, with Target's Archer Farm and Trader Joe's offering more customized options."

ConAgra Foods' Healthy Choice Baked Entrees and Marie Callender's Comfort Bakes use a new technology that deliver a baked taste without the oven. New packaging allows for more even cooking, eliminates the need for stirring and minimizes burnt edges. The new technology is credited with giving the Callender brand a 20% boost in incremental sales.

Nestlé's new Lean Cuisine Salad Additions, which features such premium ingredients as grilled white meat chicken, crisp vegetables, culinary-inspired dressings and satisfyingly crunchy toppings, is designed to be served over fresh lettuce. The product is billed as being the first of its kind on the market.

Nestlé is even taking the product beyond the frozen aisle. The company designed a temperature-controlled refrigerator-freezer display case that can be used to display the product near produce and is cross-marketing the product with Fresh Express salads.