Kids, convenience, healthiness—all have been guiding forces in the development of new food and beverage products over the past year. Consumer buying power has been focused on these areas for some time, and food and beverage companies have responded. In fact, some of the more successful companies even managed to meet multiple trends in their new products.

This year's selections for the top 10 new food and beverage items proved that perhaps a product can target several types of consumers and still meet the key ideals of any new product— novelty in taste or flavor, nutrition and value. The importance of those factors has remained constant, but they must be considered in light of recent trends, including a move to functional foods, a focus on ethnic foods and beverages, and kid-friendly, fun elements.

These factors all played a role in R&D departments throughout the industry in the past 12 to 18 months, and they also were essential when Prepared Foods' editors evaluated the wealth of new product introductions during that timeframe. Sales success, of course, was an important criterion, but other factors came to the fore as well, including formulation and packaging technology, innovative marketing strategies, creation of a new category, and relevant line extensions.

Boston Market Homestyle Meals

H.J. Heinz Company, Pittsburgh, Pa.

H.J. Heinz Company's Boston Market line may have met with problems during its development, but it would go on to rank among the company's most successful product introductions and boost an already strong category.

The HomeStyle line initially launched 16 SKUs, each with side dishes and individual meat portions. However, developing the line had its surprises. During the Boston Market Frozen Meals project, the licensor, Boston Chicken, Inc. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. That left Heinz with a conundrum—abandon the project or proceed aggressively. Heinz chose the latter, and that risk proved quite successful.

Sales of Boston Market HomeStyle Meals and Boston Market gravy surpassed $130 million during its first full year, exceeding the company's expectations. “Robust sales of Boston Market made the product line the undisputed growth leader in the dynamic North American frozen meals category,” says Neil Harrison, president and CEO of Heinz Frozen Food. “This product launch has proven to be one of the most successful in the history of Heinz and one of the biggest ever in frozen meals.”

Chicken of the Sea Tuna Salad Kits

Chicken of the Sea, San Diego, Calif.

In another demonstration of how a successful foodservice career can segue over into the grocery shelves, Chicken of the Sea brought its tuna salad kits to retail consumers looking for an easy, convenient way to prepare tuna salad.

The four-SKU shelf-stable salad kits come with three pre-measured ingredients: a premium no-drain tuna in a vacuum-packed foil pouch, dry seasonings and the flavors of salad dressing/sweet pickle relish, smoked flavor, mayonnaise/onion and reduced-fat mayonnaise. The vegetables and a packet of bread crumbs add texture to the mixture. The line follows on the heels of a successful foodservice channel launch in 1999.

The product is suitable for consumers looking for a tuna salad lunch, without the worry of keeping the mayonnaise-based dressing cold. The company certainly exhibits confidence in the product, offering a money-back guarantee to consumers who do not believe it is the best-tasting tuna salad.

Dulce de Leche M&Ms

M&M/Mars Inc., Hackettstown, N.J.

The Latino market in the U.S. has a purchasing power of $325 billion. It should come as no surprise that companies have begun to cater to this demographic segment, which is expected to become the second largest consumer group in the country by 2010, accounting for nearly 15% of the total U.S. population. To that end, M&M/Mars introduced a dulce de leche-flavored M&M, inspired by the traditional Latino caramel sweet.

M&M/Mars researchers swirled dulce de leche with chocolate, wrapped it in a candy shell and created their newest flavor of M&M.

The company has a multi-million sales target for the first year, according to Roberto Garcia, ethnic marketing manager for M&M/Mars. “Dulce de leche is a well-known flavor with a successful track record among all consumer groups,” says Garcia, “so although the new M&M's variety was designed with Latino taste buds in mind, everyone is sure to love the rich and creamy combination.”

Demographic studies suggest that more than 40% of all new consumers over the next decade will be Hispanic, a group that tends to be very brand-loyal. “Through this unique new flavor, the M&M's brand will aim to strengthen its relationship with the increasingly influential Latino community,” concludes Garcia.

Heinz Purple EZ Squirt

H.J. Heinz Company, Pittsburgh, Pa.

With the success generated by green ketchup last year, most experts knew it was only a matter of time before Heinz launched another hue of the kid-favorite. Sure enough, Heinz added the new color to its ketchup palette after “literally thousands” of kids and parents clamored for a third color of ketchup, company officials said.

Several colors (including orange, hot pink and yellow) were up for consideration, but Heinz settled on purple, saying it's a “bold, fun color that brings a hint of mystery and magic.” Don't be surprised if the other hues find their way to store shelves in coming years, but for now, kids will have to make do with a three-color palette—red, green and purple.

The green version burst onto the scene around the middle of last year and proved an immediate hit with children. Heinz sold more than 10 million bottles of the emerald hue and pushed total sales up 5.4% (and its total share of the American ketchup market from 55% to 59%).

“Purple is one of the hottest colors for kids right now (particularly in the age of the Harry Potter phenomenon). In an era when children can't get enough monsters and wizards, the bold, powerful, color purple has reached new heights of popularity,” explains Jay de Sibour, president of the Color Marketing Group, a not-for-profit international association of designers. “It's consistently a kid favorite.”

It's Pasta Anytime!

Developed by Borden Foods Corp. (Recently purchased by Kraft Foods), Northfield, Ill.

Borden Foods Corp. launched It's Pasta Anytime in April of last year, and the six-SKU line went on to post $36 million in revenues in its first year. That success prompted Kraft Foods Inc. to acquire the convenient-meal business It's Pasta Anytime! from Borden Foods Corp. in August of this year, as Borden sold the last of its food lines.

Certainly, convenience played some role in the line's success, as the items require no refrigeration and go from microwave to plate in about three minutes. It's Pasta Anytime! is packaged in a “Smart Cooker” heating tray; sealed pasta and sauce packages are mixed together in the tray and heated for three minutes.

The It's Pasta Anytime! line includes six varieties of single-serve meals, each with individual pouches of pasta and sauce in a microwaveable tray: penne with tomato Italian sausage flavor sauce, spaghetti style pasta with tomato beef flavor sauce, penne with tomato mushroom sauce, thin spaghetti style pasta with sautéed onion and garlic sauce, and elbows with tomato cheese sauce.

Notably innovative about this product is the packaging of meal components. The dimpled-bottom design more evenly distributes heat during microwave cooking. That design was a main reason for Kraft's interest in acquiring the line from Borden.

C. Robert Kidder, Borden chairman, said Kraft was attracted by “the potential of the patented technology utilized to manufacture” the product.

Pepperidge Farm Goldfish

Pepperidge Farm Inc., Norwalk, Conn.

The demand for convenience has hit the snack category, and Pepperidge Farm responded with the launch of its popular Goldfish crackers in a handheld plastic tube. Indeed, the package is much of the story of this product's success. The “blaster pack” tube is curved and features indentations to make the container easy to hold. In addition, the flip-top lid makes the Flavor Blasted Goldfish easy to re-close, and the container is also suitable for cup holders in automobiles.

The packaging proves useful after the snack has long disappeared, as the plastic tube may be used for storage. Kids, however, may have other ideas, as children have also dressed the package up as homemade dolls and have even used the canisters as bowling pins.

Still, the strongest selling point has been the Goldfish themselves, and the convenience this package offers.

P.J. Squares

P.J. Squares, Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Basically, P.J. Squares are a thin layer of peanut butter spread that is attached to a thin layer of fruit juice spread. Individually wrapped slices of peanut butter and grape or strawberry jelly (they are sized and shaped like cheese slices), they help to make the easiest of sandwiches—peanut butter and jelly—simpler still.

The developer of the squares says the vision for the product came after he witnessed his son making a PB&J using the same knife between ars. With peanut butter on one side and strawberry or grape jelly on the other, the squares are a convenient way for kids to make a quick sandwich and are easy to pack for camping trips or car trips.

Clearly, adult convenience is not the only target here. Parents looking for a snack for kids to make by themselves have found in these a solution to sticky, gooey fingers and messy counters.

The newly-formed Glen Ellyn, Ill., company thus has distributed the slices in a number of Midwestern states.

Smucker's Uncrustables

The J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio.

Smucker's had already witnessed the success of its Uncrustables line before the product ever hit a grocery shelf. Uncrustables helped propel the company's foodservice sales up 10% last year, as sales of the thaw-and-serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches increased in schools and in traditional foodservice establishments. In addition, the foodservice item garnered the Best New Food/Beverage Product award at the eighth annual New York Restaurant & Foodservice Show.

The round-shaped sandwiches feature Smucker's peanut butter and grape jelly and are a breeze to prepare —simply take them out of the freezer 30 to 60 minutes prior to eating. Plus, they also eliminate a constant kids' complaint about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—the crust. The round crustless sandwiches look like a little pie made of white bread.

The individually wrapped sandwiches, found in boxes of 10 in the freezer section, also do not leak strawberry jam or grape jelly. The jam/jelly is sandwiched between a top and bottom layer of peanut butter, insulating and preventing against most leakage.

Take Heart

Quaker Oats Company, Chicago, Ill.

To meet consumers' appetites for health-promoting foods, The Quaker Oats Company and Novartis Consumer Health SA launched Take Heart, a line of functional foods featuring Reducol, a cholesterol-reducing ingredient from Forbes Medi-Tech Inc., a Vancouver biotechnology firm. Reducol is a powdery by-product of wood pulp that, when added to food and combined with a healthy diet, has been proven to reduce LDL cholesterol by as much as 24%—without changing the food's flavor or appearance.

The plant sterols and stanols in Reducol have been clinically proven to lower blood cholesterol levels by inhibiting the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine.

Consumption of an additional 1 to 2g of phytosterols such as Reducol on a daily basis helps block cholesterol absorption in the intestine and lowers blood cholesterol levels significantly. At the recommended dose, Reducol does not disturb the absorption of vital, fat-soluble pro-vitamins such as carotenoids. Reducol is also calorie-free.

Uncle Ben's Mini Bowls

Uncle Ben's, Vernon , Calif.

Uncle Ben's brought the meals-in-a-bowl concept to children with its debut of Uncle Ben's Mini Bowl, but as often happens, consumers found additional uses beyond the suggested audience for the items—this time, as a small meal or snack for adults. Designed as 8-ounce frozen meals for children, the line includes a variety of flavors—chicken and veggie, cheesy mac and cheese, cheeseburger! cheeseburger!, crazy cartwheel and meatballs, and pepperoni pizzeria.

The line satisfies both kids' and adults' appetites and also delivers the essentials of taste, nutrition and convenience that both appreciate. Ready in five minutes, the bowls are suitable for a light meal or snack, and are simple for children to prepare. Uncle Ben's also met parents' concerns by providing a high supply of the daily requirements of protein, carbohydrates and calcium.

“Consumers are demanding convenient foods that not only taste good but are good for them. Uncle Ben's pioneered this trend with the introduction of Rice Bowls and continues to find innovative ways to meet consumers' needs,” says Alice Nathanson, a company spokesperson. With that in mind, Uncle Ben's Mini Bowl products are well-balanced and follow the guidelines of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, with an emphasis on complex carbohydrates for energy.