Healthier options added to the frozen snack category.


On the ABC reality TV show, “The Bachelor,” one man is introduced to 25 women and has the opportunity to date them all. The idea is that one of these lovely ladies will turn out to be the woman of his dreams and - after a series of eliminations -  he will ride off into the sunset with her and live happily ever after.

Inevitably, the “Bachelor” becomes overwhelmed with this litany of choices and ends up getting confused, doubting the women’s sincerity, shedding tears and breaking hearts.

Fortunately, the world of refrigerated and frozen snacks, appetizers and side dishes isn’t quite this dramatic, but, here too, there are many choices and confusing scenarios.

Refrigerated and frozen displays are filled with options. In the freezercase alone, consumers can sort through frozen appetizers and snack rolls, chicken poppers, canapés and more. Or, if they’re looking for a side dish, consumers may select from chilled pre-made mashed potatoes, coleslaw and other meal accompaniments. Although the right product is somewhere in the pack (and the consumer doesn’t need to bear a rose ceremony to find it), anyone faced with this variety can become addled by the choices.

In fact, London’s Datamonitor, an online database and analysis service, reported this often is the case. Datamonitor found U.S. and European consumers said they seek out healthy snacks, but often have trouble identifying them. In a press release about its Healthy Snacking: Future Trends and New Insights report released last fall, Datamonitor observed, “More than 20 percent of consumers surveyed in Europe and the U.S. indicated they sought healthy options much more than previously when it comes to snacking. However the report says that [snack] manufacturers will need to work hard when it comes to building up trust between themselves and the consumer with regards to how ‘healthy’ their offerings are.”

It’s no surprise that this year had snack and side dish processors attracting attention from suitors (i.e. consumers) by putting their best feet forward - in this case, showcasing their healthy sides.

H.J. Heinz Co. took its Weight Watchers Smart Ones brand into the frozen snack category with Smart Ones Anytime Selections. These portable snacks come in quesadilla and calzone varieties and fit with the brand’s “eating smart” philosophy with six to seven grams of fat per serving.

Rich Products Co. expanded its frozen snack line this year with new varieties of Farm Rich Mini Stuffed Pizza Slices and new Farm Rich Mozzarella Bites. The Buffalo, N.Y.-based company notes that both frozen snacks are a good source of protein and calcium and that Pizza Slices are trans-fat free, while Mozzarella Bites are made with 100-percent natural cheese.

This March, Kahiki Foods Inc. added functionality and used natural ingredients in its new frozen snack, Kahiki Naturals Vegetable Egg Rolls with Flaxseed Wrapper.

“The wheat wrapper with flax is not only a good source of fiber, but also a good source of ALA Omega-3s,” says Tim Tsao, the Gahanna, Ohio-based company’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Consumers and trade buyers alike have voiced excitement at the nutrition and most importantly the taste of this product.”

The International Deli Dairy Bakery Association’s study, Snacking Trends: A World of Opportunity, indicated that 58 percent of American consumers surveyed said they want “healthier” snacks, such as low-fat and low-calorie items. But, the snack category - especially frozen snacks - has not typically been associated with health and wellness.

In another study, Frozen Snacks – U.S., the Chicago-based Mintel research firm found that frozen snack category sales declined from 2006 to 2007 - despite rising during the previous five years.

No matter what the product’s nutrition label says, another way consumers are using snacks and appetizers to eat healthier is portion control, according to a recent category review in Refrigerated & Frozen Foods Retailer (RFFR) magazine. Contributing Editor Denise Leathers writes, “The category owes much of its recent success to more consumers seeing these items as meal components rather than just snacks.”

Consumers are combining a portion or two of snacks and/or appetizers and making a meal of it.

Says Original Rangoon Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Greg Bukuras, “It’s really a reflection of what’s happening in the foodservice sector,” in terms of “tasting menus” and “snack-sizes.” The Norwell, Mass.-based company offers a line of frozen Asian themed appetizers and snacks, which capitalizes on another category trend as well - ethnic flavors.

Consumers craving ethnic flavors can find plenty of new options in the freezercase. This January, Blue Horizon Organic, Aptos, Calif., introduced frozen organic spring rolls in four Chinese and Thai flavor varieties.

“Consumers want something delicious, organic and easy-to-prepare; the new branded spring rolls speak to that demand with compelling flavor profiles,” said Blue Horizon President and Chief Operating Officer JaapLangenberg. “Blue Horizon is committed to bringing clean, hormone- and antibiotic-free seafood to the masses with a versatile line of value-added products.”

Elsewhere, Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., introduced El Monterey Southwest Chicken Taquitos. Made with chicken, cheeses, veggies and Mexican spices, these Mexican snacks have award-winning appeal and earned the ChefsBest Award in 2007, according to company President and COO Bryce Ruiz. Ruiz says the award was given to the taquitos based on the product’s taste, texture, aroma, feel and freshness. The taquitos come in four varieties and are trans fat-free.

Those looking for more typical restaurant-style fare also could turn to Tyson’s Any’tizers. Introduced last July, these frozen snacks come in a variety of flavors including Buffalo Style Chicken Wyngs, Cheddar & Jalapeno Chicken Bites and Homestyle Chicken Fries.

“Americans snack almost as often as they eat regular meals because of the fast pace and demands of their lives,” said Shawn Walker, senior vice president, Value Added Meal Solutions for Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark.

Also meeting consumers’ needs for faster prep time and convenience are chilled side dishes, such as those in Unilever’s Shedd’s Country Crock line.

In an R&FF interview earlier this year, Unilever’s senior marketing director, chilled and frozen, Brian Manning, said, “Although it is still relatively young, the [chilled side dish] category has seen explosive growth. Retailers have really embraced chilled sides and meal solutions as a strategic thrust to battle restaurant take-out.”

Earlier this year, RFFR noted that IRI data showed refrigerated side dish sales had grown 5.1 percent in the 12-weeks ended November 4, 2007.

“Families are busier than ever,” said Nancy Cowen, director of marketing-Food Products at Bob Evans in Columbus, Ohio, to RFFR in January. “We’ve learned that each generation cooks less than the generation before. … They prefer fresh cooked taste to fast food but don’t want to take the time in the kitchen.”

Bob Evans offers a growing selection of refrigerated side dishes including several varieties of flavored mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

For its part, Unilever now offers as many as 10 varieties of Country Crock Side Dishes with seasonal additions around the holidays.

Noted Manning, “The great thing about our side dish line is that consumers can use [its various offerings] with other convenience-oriented entrees or they are a perfect shortcut to complete the meal when cooking fresh meat.”

And although mashed potatoes are the category’s anchor, processors say consumers may be ready for new flavors. The Country Crock line’s newest varieties are Southwestern Rice, Cinnamon Apples, Chunky Tomato Pasta and Four Cheese Pasta.

Great American Appetizers told RFFR in January that it experienced double-digit growth owed to its refrigerated twice-baked and mashed potatoes. But the Nampa, Idaho-based company expects to see more variety drive growth (and perhaps drama) in the future.

Said Vice President Frank Benso, “This trend is not stopping. Convenience opens the case door. Variety and quality of the side dishes will keep them coming back for more.”