The changing nature of the frozen food aisle

Frozen food has long gotten a bad rap, often relegated to the lonely TV dinner or mushy microwave vegetables. A new breed of frozen food is cropping up, though, and consumers, food retailers and CPG companies alike are taking notice.

Making a comeback

Over the years, the frozen food segment has seen sluggish sales, but 2018 brought both dollar and unit gains, according to a recent report by the American Frozen Food Institute in collaboration with the Food Marketing Institute. Among the largest frozen food categories today are dinners/entrees, ice cream, pizza, seafood and plain vegetables, the study found.

Not only is frozen growing at standard food retail, but research from the Specialty Food Association found that the frozen department had the fastest gains within specialty retail. Better-for-you desserts, including premium and plant-based options, is the segment that grew most quickly between 2016 and 2018.

In 2018, frozen food accounted for a staggering 9.8 billion in-home eating occasions, according to a study from the NPD Group. The company reports that shoppers are mainly turning to frozen food as a solution for main meals, with consumer trends leading the charge.

“Demographic shifts, like millennials moving into the busiest times of their lives juggling spouses, kids, and a career, are fueling a greater need for the convenience that frozen foods offer,” said NPD’s David Portalatin. “Manufacturers are also doing their part in increasing interest in frozen foods by innovating around contemporary food values and emerging flavor trends to provide convenience.”

New products on the block

Thanks to this renewed interest in the frozen aisle, startups and seasoned CPG players alike are injecting new life into the category with everything from sweets and treats to vibrant, healthful meals. Consumer interest in healthier, more convenient and personalized options has also given way to a bevy of new products. 

Matt Davis and Sam McIntire launched frozen-food startup Mosaic earlier this year, and the duo works to set the company apart by offering chef-prepared meals with unique, minimally processed ingredients. Their meals range from a peanut tofu bowl to a miso tempeh bowl. 

"Folks are thinking really critically about what they're eating and there's a lot of focus on diet, but people are also really busy," Davis told Forbes. "We almost think about our operation as being meal prep. We're cooking meals by hand, plating them up and freezing them, and our customers heat them up when they're ready for them."

Even for established CPG brands, finding new and exciting ways to present frozen foods has become a primary goal. Frozen aisle mainstay Stouffer’s recently released frozen meal kits that can feed an entire family, while Green Giant rolled out a line of heat-and-eat, plant-based protein bowls

Likewise, Tyson Foods’ Summer Trends report cites better-for-you offerings such as air-fried chicken strips, breakfast sandwiches and spiralized vegetables as prime examples of what today’s consumers are craving in the frozen aisle. According to a blog post from the company, “The increased popularity of flash frozen vegetables, smoothie mixes and acai bowls are among the attractions, along with new pizza flavors – think cauliflower crust – and healthier frozen entrees and proteins.”

 

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