Increasing health concerns, costs are affecting prepared meal and entrée formulations.

There are few things more comforting than macaroni and cheese. The combination of melted cheese, warm pasta and buttery texture is the culinary equivalent of curling up under a blanket in front of a roaring fireplace. And in times like these, who doesn't need a little comfort?

But what consumers often feel they don't need are the fat and calories that come along with "comfort foods" such as macaroni and cheese. So when Helen's Foods Inc., Irvine, Calif., set out to create a frozen version of the classic dish, the organic food company knew it would have to tweak the traditional recipe.

"The problem with many comfort foods we love is that, by definition, a comfort food must contain carbohydrates and fat, which makes it rather unhealthy - that's why we love eating these foods so much," says Stephen Moore, Helen's chief executive officer. "What we have done is give your traditional carb comfort foods a healthy and delicious twist."

Helen's Foods added broccoli and tofu steaks to give its Mac & Cheese entrée a vegetable and protein, steered clear of powdered cheese and instead opted for real asiago and cheddar cheeses and used certified organic and fiber-rich, 100 percent durum wheat pasta. To round out its Comfort Meal offerings, Helen's also added Hearty Bean Chili with vegetables and tofu steaks to the line.

Similarly, when Kraft Foods re-branded its South Beach Diet brand as South Beach Living last December, it launched three comfort food entrees in conjunction with the name change - Chicken Santa Fe Style Rice and Beans, Roasted Turkey and Meatloaf with Gravy. Like Helen's "comfort" entrees, these too were packed with more atypical healthy components emphasizing vegetables, whole grains, protein and fiber.

The health solution

Of course, Helen's and Kraft aren't the only food processors making frozen entrees healthier - a number of large food processors say they will emphasize health and wellness this year as well.

At the Reuter's Food Summit this March in Chicago, Kraft, General Mills, Sara Lee, ConAgra Foods, Unilever and Danone, said they would focus on healthy products this year. Most cited added nutritional value as a way to justify higher retail costs and attract new buyers in order to offset commodity and price hikes and rising transportation costs.

"Seventy-five percent of our research and development is [directed] into health and wellness, where we have a robust pipeline," said ConAgra Foods Chief Executive Officer Gary Rodkin, according to a Reuters report.

When the Consumer Analyst Group of New York held its annual conference in February, Rob Moskow, of Credit Suisse, spoke about the importance of food companies zoning in on one industry niche or goal - for many companies - health and wellness.

"Focus is definitely the buzzword today," Moskow said, according to a Food Business News report. "The food industry is getting tough. By that I mean it is getting tougher to market brands and brand value is what matters. The consumer is more fragmented than ever. There is more interest in ethnic foods and organic foods, for example."

In its 2007 Industry Report on Health and Wellness, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) also noted that 90 percent of the food and beverage companies it surveyed were incorporating healthy lifestyle messages into marketing and advertising campaigns, while 96 percent had plans to launch products with healthier formulations [see p. 30 for more statistics from the GMA report].

More proof lies in the results of Clear Seas Research's 8th Annual New Product Development Study - trends expected to sustain the most attention from prepared food processors this year are "natural" and "healthy" according to the 318 food and beverage processors surveyed.

"Processors are mindful that consumers, more than ever before, desire 'healthy' products," the study report says. "Across nearly all categories, fruits will lead the ingredient charge in addressing these requirements on the flavor size."

Fruit and veggie flavor

One company already capitalizing on the sweet and healthy characteristics of fruit is Pittsburgh's H.J. Heinz. Hitting retail store shelves earlier this year were Weight Watchers SmartOnes Fruit Inspirations frozen entrees, each of which "incorporate real pieces of fruit," the company says.

According to Heinz, 90 percent of women say they don't get the recommended four servings of fruit per day, says Stephanie Ackerman, public relations coordinator, Heinz NA.

"Consumers recognize that they aren't getting enough fruit in their diet so we have responded to that demand," notes Stephanie Ackerman, a Heinz public relations coordinator.  "Our approach is to give consumers more of what they like, and for some of our varieties, that means adding more fruits and vegetables." Fruit Inspirations come in four varieties, each of which has at least a half-serving of fruit. Heinz also has boosted the nutritional content of other SmartOnes entrees.

Heinz Project Manager Brian Carman says, "Consumers have responded very positively to more fruits and vegetables [in frozen entrees]. Our Weight Watchers SmartOnes Pasta Primavera, for example, now has more vegetables and is doing very well."

Heinz plans to continue to bolster its frozen entrees with healthy ingredients."Whether it is a traditional comfort food or a brand new ethnic flavor, we believe it's important to enjoy all the foods you love in a way that satisfies taste and helps maintain a healthy lifestyle," Ackerman adds.

Another company fortifying its frozen entrees with more fruits and veggies is Nestlé Prepared Foods, Solon, Ohio. Nestlé's Lean Cuisine SpaCuisine line features five entrees that have twice the vegetable servings of the brand's other meals.Nestlé says these meals also incorporate new and different vegetables such as edamame, snap peas, red peppers, cherry tomatoes and asparagus. Each variety - Butternut Squash Ravioli, Ginger Garlic Stir Fry with Chicken, Hunan Stir Fry with Beef, Grilled Chicken Primavera and Sesame Stir Fry with Chicken - also is made with 100 percent whole grain, the company reports.

Not to be outdone, Helen's says its No. 1 seller, Thai Yellow Curry, also has a colorful array of vegetables.

"There is no question that increasing our fruit and vegetable intake over more processed sweets and high fatty foods will improve your health," adds Moore. "Having a frozen dinner entrée that is packed with vegetables, makes it easier for the consumer to achieve their required dietary intake of fruits and vegetables."

Side bar: Communicating with customers

In order to make the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables apparent to consumers, processors need to make sure that their health and wellness messages are clearly communicated. One common and increasingly popular way to do this is slapping it right on the front of the box, says Mona Doyle, consumer researcher and head of the Consumer Network, a research firm that operates a national shopper panel.

"The new front panel calorie and nutrition numbers on frozen entrees are generating interest and buzz, and I suspect, sales," she says.

 Doyle notes that Kraft (South Beach Living), Kellogg (Kashi), Bellisio Foods (Michelina's Lean Gourmet) and Tyson Foods all have nutrition facts on their products' front panels.

It's not surprising meanwhile, to learn that consumers - more than ever - appear interested in the inherent functional benefits of food. Moreover, they are more likely to accept health and nutrition claims if the perceived benefit comes from a natural or "whole" food source, says  The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consumer researcher.

Notes Hartman's latest report, Functional Foods from a Consumer Perspective, "Consumers are likely to view foods as functional because of ingredients with naturally occurring health benefits."

These foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts and proteins such as fish and chicken.

According to Doyle, front panel labels communicate this type of information faster and more effectively than other methods.

"Hard numbers on the front of a package make more of a connection than verbal claims of 'less fat,' etc.," she adds.

Side bar: Widespread Wellness

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says it surveyed 49 food and beverage companies (representing approximately $250 billion in annual domestic sales) for its GMA Company Health & Wellness Initiative Survey. GMA found that ...

  • 92 percent of respondents have introduced or reformulated more than 10,000 products and sizes offering many nutritional improvements including:
  • Saturated fat reduced or eliminated in 3,644 products and sizes;
  • Trans-fat reduced or eliminated in approximately 4,202 products and sizes;
  • Calorie reduction in 1,323 products and sizes;
  • Sugar and carb reduction in 1,208 products and sizes;
  • Vitamin and mineral fortification in 886 products and sizes;
  • Sodium reduction in 695 products and sizes.
  • 77 percent of respondents are conducting customer health promotions in communities.
  • 94 percent of companies use multiple media to communicate healthy lifestyle messages.
  • 5,405 products and sizes offer more nutrition information on the label.