After years of dining out, consumers are returning to their home kitchens, and one reason is the increased demand for a more nutritious diet.

Nearly all consumers say the food they eat at home is healthier than the choices they make when dining out, according to U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2007 from the Food Marketing Institute.

However, consumers are as time-starved as ever, which means an expanding audience for healthful entrees that require little or no preparation.

Processors already are sensitive to consumers’ health issues. Of the 1,756 prepared entrées introduced between June 2006 and June 2007, 619 have some form of health claim. That’s 35 percent of frozen dinners, meal kits, pizzas or noodle dishes with some specific health aspect.

There’s no one definition of “healthful” foods that meets everyone’s needs or expectations. Processors will face both challenges and opportunities as they cater to the wide-ranging health issues of their consumers including fat, calorie and sodium reduction; more nutritious whole grain foods; more vegetables and fewer additives. In addition, the aging baby boomer population is very influential in its demands for lower-sodium food products.

Obesity also continues to be a top health concern for adults and especially for families with children. Calorie and fat counts are prominent in new product introductions as the U.S. population struggles with overweight complications.

Almost 50 percent of consumers are extremely concerned about their total fat intake, according to Technomic’s Nutritrack study of 2,500 adults. Technomic Inc. is a Chicago company that provides research and consulting to the foodservice industry.

Consumers also are very aware of trans fats, which have garnered news in recent years.

“Trans fats have really risen high on radar screens; with 45 percent of consumers [concerned]; up from 34 percent in 2004,” says Chris Malone, lead researcher on Technomic’s Nutritrack study.

Malone credits much of consumer awareness of trans fats to media coverage.

In the area of trans fats, retail leads foodservice. Packaged food processors have mostly eliminated trans fats from their products. Last year 66 new entrée introductions boasted low, no or reduced trans fat, according to the Mintel Group.

Processors also are taking note of nutrition experts’ campaign to get Americans to eat more vegetables. Nestlé’s Lean Cuisine expanded its Spa Cuisine line of frozen entrees to include five new entrees with twice as many vegetables. For example, Sesame Stir Fry Chicken has broccoli, edamame, red peppers and shoe-string carrots, with whole wheat vermicelli thrown in for good measure.

Another sign of health-conscious consumers? The demand for vegetarian entrees is skyrocketing. Sales of frozen vegetarian entrees and side dishes rose 203 percent between 2001 and 2006, according to Mintel. 

Consumers also are becoming more adventurous when it comes to preparing in-home meals. Healthy frozen entrees are appearing in Latin, Indian and Asian flavors.

Natural frozen ethnic foods are seeing rapid growth. Kohinoor Foods, a U.K.-based food company new to North America, is moving its frozen natural vegetarian entrees into supermarket distribution.

Ethnic food in restaurants tends to be higher in fat, says Ankush Arora with the family-owned Kohinoor, whose U.S. headquarters are in Houston.

“Eating healthy frozen ethnic entrees at home makes sense for people who are health-minded,” says Arora.

For a growing number of consumers, “fresh” means healthy. “Fresh” convenient foods are a trend, say researchers for Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based division of Market Research Group, LLC.

Now, companies are blending fresh and healthy, designing foods that meet nutritional standards for various health concerns.

Harry’s Healthy Bistro is a new contender in the refrigerated “fresh” category. The line of prepared heart-healthy, chilled entrees is designed to meet the expectations of restaurant diners.

Rod “Harry” Harris, founder and owner of Harry’s Fresh Foods in Portland, Ore., says his emphasis is holistic, offering products that any consumer, not just a weight-conscious shopper, would be interested in.

“What Harry’s brings is a heart-healthy approach, not a calorie approach,” says Harris. “We’re hitting anyone who wants convenience and good-for-you fresh quality. There are a lot of convenience foods, but not that are good for you.

“This segment serves up that menu choice of healthy foods,” says Harris, who markets to hospitals, health care facilities and shopping clubs as well as supermarkets.

The products, which follow the guidelines of the American Heart Association, come in the following varieties: Teriyaki Noodles; Fettuccini Alfredo; Burgundy Mushrooms & Beef; Pasta Primavera (vegetarian); Spaghetti Bolognese; Chipotle Rice & Beans and Homestyle Noodles & Chicken.

Consumers continue to define “healthful” broadly - choices could be made in terms of nutritional value or environmental impact. Shoppers are ready for foods that are convenient, nutritious and a sophisticated alternative to restaurant dining.

However, processors must listen to their audience, says Nancy Childs, professor and chair of the department of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

“Consumers aren’t asking for lycopene. They’re asking for healthier diets. By deconstructing products down to ingredients food companies are making mistakes,” she says.

She predicts that a combination of approaches that emphasize personal health and a “holistic, whole-world sense” will be important to consumers and processors should pay attention to that.

Editor’s note: The preceding article was excerpted from the September 2007 issue ofNew Products Magazine.

Pass (on) the salt and sugar

Processors can reduce sodium and sugar in prepared foods with flavor modifiers.

With sodium earning a bad rap because of links to high blood pressure, heart problems and kidney disease and sugar being blamed for the obesity epidemic, how can processors continue to provide high-quality, flavorful entrees – without adding these offending ingredients? Following are thoughts from Mariano Gascon, vice president of R&D for Wixon Inc., a St. Francis, Wis., manufacturer of food and beverage ingredients, including lines of salt and sugar substitutes and salt and sugar substitute masking agents.

R&FF:How are flavor modifiers being used in refrigerated and frozen foods to reduce sodium?

Gascon: Because sugar, salt and fat have a functional role in freezing point, osmotic regulation, ice nucleation and crystal growth inhibition or formation in frozen and refrigerated foods, the challenge to reduce sugar, sodium or even fat is to do it without changing the keeping quality of the product.

Food developers have tons of tricks to simulate the textural changes but for the taste changes of reducing sweetness, saltiness and fat content, they rely on high intensity sweeteners, salt replacers and fat replacers, respectively. However, all of the above are associated with lingering effects - metallic taste in sweetners, off-tastes in salt substitutes and mouthfeel in fat replacers.

R&FF: What are the biggest challenges in flavor modification for wellness?

Gascon:With the low sodium challenge that we are facing, metallic and off-notes associated with potassium chloride – the most well known salt replacer – is the most common issue. We offer a line called Magnifique that contains customized solutions to overcome these common problems.

R&FF:What trends are you seeing in flavor modification? Why?

Gascon:The low sodium challenge is here to stay. Our Kclean Salt is an innovative technology to replace salt. This product provides 50 percent less sodium with all the functional benefits of salt.

R&FF:What are Wixon’s newest developments in the wellness arena?

Gascon:We are working extensively on low sodium and reduced sugar applications. Right now, it is all about lowering salt and sugar – this will be the main concern for a while. Anything from frozen vegetable seasoning with the latest ethnic flavors to ice cream mixes.

Industry Insights

“Consumers aren’t willing to sacrifice flavor in good-for-you products.  However, many functional ingredients have inherent off-tastes. Adding flavors helps processors with the challenge of removing or reducing sugar or sodium from their products.

Flavor modifiers can be used to bridge the gap in sweetness or salt perception. But they have to fit processors’ needs - easy to use, cost effective, oven and microwave stable - and meet regulatory/labeling mandates.

The biggest challenge in making better-for-you products acceptable to consumers is masking off-tastes without changing the original flavor profile.  Driven by the increased consumer desire to eat healthier, refrigerated and frozen food processors are looking for alternatives such as using flavors to increase the “salty” perception while masking metallic notes of sodium substitutes, as well as reducing the green, waxy notes inherent in healthier oils such as palm oil.”

- Sheri White, Cargill Flavor Systems, Cincinnati