Processors use microwaveable steam packaging technology to reinvigorate sales.
“I’ve got steam heat ...,” These famous lyrics are sung at a pivotal moment in the hit 1950s Broadway show “The Pajama Game.” In the musical, the lyrics refer to romance and intrigue. In the food industry, however, “steam heat” takes on an entirely different meaning.
Microwave steam technology has inspired more than 300 new refrigerated and frozen products globally in the last year and 98 new products in the U.S. alone, according to Mintel’s Global New Product Database (GNPD), which monitors product innovation in consumer packaged goods markets worldwide. Despite the fact that the technology has been around for decades, steam cook microwaveable frozen and chilled products have significantly grown in popularity in the last five years.
“[Frozen fruit and vegetable] manufacturers continue to launch new and unique products including more convenient and easy-to-use formats,” said a recent GNPD category review. “Steam-in-the-bag vegetables that can be microwaved are increasingly popular and it seems most major manufacturers have introduced a product with this technology,” the report continued.
And the trend doesn’t show any signs of abating. The newest innovations in this arena mimic other trends in the industry: individual and to-go packaging sizes for convenience, organic and clean labels and premium ingredients that enhance flavor and quality.
Birds Eye Foods, Rochester, N.Y., for one, added to its Steamfresh vegetable line last summer with Steamfresh Singles - 3.25-oz. packages of frozen vegetables designed for individual consumption.
“The convenient size is ideal for occasions when a smaller amount of vegetables makes more sense,” says Josh Weinstein, senior brand manager of Steamfresh for Birds Eye Foods, citing lunch and snack occasions as examples.
Steamfresh Singles are packaged four bags to a box and come in three varieties: Super Sweet Corn, Baby Brussels Sprouts and Sweet Peas.
ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers also are designed for individual consumption. These entrees utilize a unique “steam cooker” to heat sauce, vegetables, starches and protein. Each of 12 varieties is packaged as one serving.
“With new Café Steamers, consumers get fresh and flavorful meals with the added bonus that they are convenient and healthy - in a fraction of the time. The steaming technology helps the naturally-fresh flavors of each ingredient come through in every bite,” says Genevieve Mazzeo, ConAgra Foods’ product publicity manager.
The fact that steam cooking offers a “cleaner” way of heating is important to today’s consumers. Three-quarters of U.S. consumers are making an effort to eat healthier this year according to a recent Information Resources Inc. (IRI) report.
“These changes are surfacing in such areas as increased spending on fruits and vegetables and ‘light’ products,” the IRI report says. Microwave steam cooking offers one of the healthiest options for frozen vegetables - and increasingly entrees as well.
The rapid heat created by steaming is one reason experts say steamed vegetables are healthier than boiled, sautéed or otherwise prepared veggies. The faster the food is heated, the more nutrients and vitamins it retains, says Aaron Brody, Ph.D., president and CEO Packaging/Brody Inc., Duluth, Ga. Additionally, steaming requires no fats or oils, so no calories are added to the vegetables, says Birds Eye.
The Simply Steam line from General Mills’ Green Giant brand is another example of clean label steam cook microwaveable vegetables. All Simply Steam varieties have 80 calories or less and several “no sauce” varieties are available.
Simply Steam products also received Bob Greene’s Best Life seal in early 2007. Greene, an exercise physiologist and personal trainer who has gained national acclaim working with Oprah Winfrey and authoring several diet and lifestyle books, developed Best Life seals to indicate foods that are good sources of essential nutrients and are also mindful of fat and calories.
Health-conscious consumers also have other concerns.
Says a recent GNPD category review: “The organic trend is expected to continue to impact the sub-category [fruits and vegetables] as consumers increasingly believe organic foods are better for health and are particularly drawn to organic staples such as vegetables.”
In fact, after “convenience” and “microwaveable,” “organic” was the third most popular new product claim during third quarter 2007 according to GNPD.
In this sub-category, Cascadian Farm, a General Mills line of organic products, launched Purely Steam Organic Vegetables last August. The certified organic frozen vegetables are packaged in “steam seam” pouches. Each variety has 60 calories or less and is sold in 8-oz. packages that include two to three servings each, depending on the variety. Varieties include: Broccoli and Carrots with Garlic and Herbs, Garden Vegetable Medley with Garden Herbs and Petite Sweet Peas.
Another organic contender is VIP Foods’ SteamWorks product line, which includes an organic line launched in 2005. This Tulsa, Okla., processor offers organic sweet corn, organic sweet peas, organic mixed vegetables, and organic broccoli cuts - all available with or without butter sauce.
In addition to health and convenience, consumers also crave premium ingredients.
Mann Packing, Salinas, Calif., introduced a steam cook line of chilled vegetables packaged with branded sauces for added flavor last year. Ready, Set, Steam comes in three varieties: Broccoli & Cheese includes Sargento cheese sauce, Veggie Stir Fry comes with Kikkoman soy sauce and Garden Medley & Herb Sauce has Green Garden dressing.
Ready, Set, Steam vegetables come in a sealed tray format that goes directly in the microwave with no opening or puncturing necessary. The product cooks in three minutes and makes four servings per 13.6-oz. container.
Another processor that has taken steam cooking the gourmet route is Taylor Fresh Foods, Salinas, Calif. The company’s Steam Cuisine is a line of chilled entrees and side dishes made with raw vegetables, starches and proteins that have “no additives, colors or preservatives,” Taylor Foods says.
Included in the product line are Harvest Vegetables Sides, Seafood Entrees, Chicken Entrees and Veggie Entrees. All products steam directly in the package after two minutes in the microwave.
“So, in the same package the meat is juicy, the vegetables have a perfect bite, the pasta is al dente and the sauces are wonderfully smooth,” the company says. Since the components of the entrees and side dishes are packaged raw, the steam produced inside the package is cooking the product for the first time.
“From a chef's perspective, cooking really is done in two ways, moist heat and dry heat,” the company states on its Web site (www.steamcuisine.com). “With regard to moist heat, the most beneficial is steam. It is preferable for several reasons. The first is that steamed foods stay extraordinarily moist and tender. The second is that steamed foods do not lose much of their original volume through the shrinkage that typically occurs in dry-heat cooking methods. Flavor and food texture are the two key components in determining taste.”
Steam Cuisine varieties include several exotic entrees - Thai Green Curry Prawns and Chicken Breast Primavera for example - and side dishes such as Carrots with Honey Cinnamon Butter and Broccoli with Rice and Cheese.
As microwave steam packaged products such as these become more common in the freezer and refrigerated aisles of grocery stores, processors will continue to improve quality and be creative with product flavors and varieties.
And with consumers being encouraged to get their “five-a-day” servings of fruits and vegetables, there is little doubt that the convenience and health factor of frozen and chilled microwave steam products will continue to drive its growth.
Supplier flexes its packaging muscle
Last year, Flair Flexible Packaging Corp., a Calgary, Alberta, Can., packaging solutions company, introduced the Vapor Release Pouch, a triple layer stand-up pouch for use in microwave applications. Cheryl Miller Balster, general manager with Flair, tells R&FF about this packaging innovation.
R&FF: Tell us about Flair's microwaveable steam packaging.
Balster: Flair offers a stand-up microwaveable pouch called a Vapor Release Pouch. They are custom pouches and can be made to any size that fits in a microwave. We also customize the film structure to the product and can make them with high- or low-barrier properties. They can even be used in retort applications.
We see them used in frozen and in fresh applications for prepared meal items, soups, vegetables, meats, sauces and gravies. They are microwaved when sealed and have a small, sealed hole in the pouch that opens during the microwaving process allowing the steam to escape from the pouch. The precise location and size of the hole is determined by the size of the overall pouch and is engineered specifically for each size.
R&FF: What makes the Vapor Release Pouch unique?
Balster: The sealed hole concept is a patented application that is relatively new to North America. It gives the pouch a lot of versatility because it can go from the freezer to the microwave or from a brief case or a vending machine right into the microwave.
They [the pouches] do not need to be opened first, so they help eliminate messes in the microwave while allowing the product to be reheated or cooked. The pouches are even stiff enough to eat right out of once they are opened at the end of the microwave process. This gives consumers a huge amount of versatility and convenience.