Full of Flavor

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Full of Flavor

By Anna Wolfe - 02/23/2017

When it comes to a quick-to-prepare meal that's certified organic, gluten-free or inspired by street foods from afar, it's hard to beat the new generation of specialty frozen entrées.

Specialty frozen entrées rank no. 7 of 61 specialty food categories purchased at retail, ringing up $1.9 billion in 2015, according to the 2016 edition of the State of the Specialty Food Industry Survey conducted by the market research firm Mintel and the Specialty Food Association. In fact, sales of specialty frozen entrées increased 21.4 percent from 2013 to 2015, outselling refrigerated entrées and prepared meals, the survey reported.

The new generation of specialty frozen entrées are meeting the requirements of the most discerning shoppers — in most all cases they're clean or all natural. "Frozen food is not 1950s frozen anymore," says Jonathan Clinthorne, manager of scientific affairs for Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, based in Longmont, Colo. "In a frozen mac and cheese, you'll see a mac and cheese with smoked gouda, or a truffle parmesan mac and cheese." Vitamin Cottage's customers "are not looking for bland. They're looking for a gourmet meal," he adds.

With 132 natural food stores in 19 states, Natural Grocers' customers have various definitions of healthy eating. "We have customers who are looking to eat as healthy as possible," says Clinthorne. "Everyone has their own philosophy as to what that means. They have own food sensitivities. We work hard to have products in our store to meet people where they are."

In its frozen foods sections, Natural Grocers has added more gluten-free and grain-free items that are made with tapicoa starch and almond flour. Frozen pizzas, for example, are made with nitrate-free meats, and chicken nuggets are made from chickens that were not treated with antibiotics. "A good portion" of Natural Grocers' customers are interested in the Paleo diet, which recommends eliminating grains and eating high quality sources of animal protein.

Differing Definitions of Healthy
For customers of Top Chef Meals, the definition of healthy eating varies depending on the customer. Those 45 and older are seeking low sodium and low fat, while for its younger customers, Paleo and protein are the most sought after product attributes. Meeting these various needs is the specialty of the Elmsford, N.Y.-based subscription service that offers gourmet frozen meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner that can be ordered in portion sizes that will feed one to eight people. Meals are prepared fresh daily, taking into account allergies and preferences, and shipped direct to customers.

Despite the large number of meal kit services on the market, they're not the best choice for many consumers. "I believe people want to cook, but they are time-challenged," says Paul Ghiron, founder of Top Chef Meals. "They can spend 45 minutes to cook a meal kit, but that doesn't include clean-up time. And in many cases, they don't have capacity or kitchen skills or inclination to do so."

Top Chef Meals offers more than 50 entrées as well as sides. "We have a polarized customer base," Ghiron says. "Sixty percent of our clientele is 45-plus, and they're buying for themselves or their parents who can't cook anymore" and are living on their own. "They're not looking for fancy spices or foie gras. They're seeking comfort foods."

On other end of Top Chef Meal's customer base are consumers who are 25 to 45, millennials and Gen X. Paleo items have been "fabulous" sellers, and barbecue dishes are popular year-round. In general, these consumers are looking for protein, Ghiron says. "There's an extreme focus on protein content right now. We make sure all meals we put out have protein and have protein listed on them."

Millennials are "very health-conscious and very concerned where their food is coming from," he adds. They're asking questions: is it free-range chicken? Grass-fed beef? Certified organic? They're not focused on the format or the sodium content of the food, he adds, but they are looking for protein and Paleo-friendly meals.

Today's health-conscious consumers are increasingly thinking about how their products are being made and sourced, agrees Jack Acree, EVP for American Halal Co. Inc.. The Stamford, Conn.-based specialty food brand is known for its Saffron Road line of snacks and specialty frozen entrées that are certified Halal, gluten-free, non-GMO and made with meats that are grain-fed and certified humanely-raised on family farms.

"The whole definition of healthy has changed," says Acree. "Today's consumers, when they're looking at nutrition facts panel, they're looking at the ingredients (not the nutritional breakdown). That's the new definition of healthy — what's in it." They are seeking great tasting foods made from real ingredients — nothing artificial.

A World of Flavor
Consumers are becoming more exposed to global flavors — when they travel, dine out or watch cooking shows. As a result, they're seeking out global flavors when they buy frozen entrées.

"Very mainstream brands are now making chicken tikka masala— that would have been unthought of five or 10 years ago," Acree says.

Saffron Road continues to "up the ante on ingredients and authenticity," Acree says, keeping in mind there "is a price threshold for frozen entrées."

Recent additions include Mexican entrées, which were created with Mexican food authority Gabbi Patrick and made with authentic ingredients such as non-GMO corn. At the Winter Fancy Food Show, the company introduced eight varieties of World Cusine meals in the on-trend bowl format. Four of the bowls are made with wild Alaskan caught fish.

When it comes to exotic flavors from parts unknown, "sometimes the consumer is not ready," says Acree. Back in 2014, Saffron Road introduced a line of Korean dishes — a tad ahead of consumer demand. "Our Korean items took a bit of time to catch on," he says.