With a healthy positioning plus ethnically diverse flavor options, ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Café Steamers found a positive consumer response. Sales were so strong, in fact, IRI named it the number-one selling new food product through mid-year.

Assessing a category as broad as prepared meals can be challenging, but the claims found in each segment paint a clear picture of the trends as manufacturers see them. “Microwaveable,” “time/speed” and “ease of use” all ranked at or near the top of claims (ranked by number of introductions) in virtually all segments in the category in the U.S. during 2008, according to an analysis of claims tracked by the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD). For that matter, at least one of the trio placed as the top claim in each of the segments, and manufacturers clearly recognize the importance of convenience across this category. However, that is little surprise; the category is “prepared meals,” after all.

Drilling beyond convenience, health emerges. In fact, “low-/no-/reduced-trans fat” tied with “microwaveable” in the pizza segment and registered a strong third place showing in the sandwiches/wraps area. The latter segment had a number of health positionings featured prominently over the year, with double-digit introductions claiming “whole-grain” content, “low-/no-/reduced-calories” and “low-/no-/reduced-fat.”

Trans fat, for that matter, continued its reign as one of the industry’s great evils. Comparing the number of introductions in 2004 vs. 2008 demonstrates just how much and how rapidly the issue emerged. Curiously absent from many of the segments’ top 20 claims, however, is the “low-/no-/reduced-sodium” claim so prevalent in other categories. It does appear in a respectable sixth place in the instant noodle, pasta and rice segment with 12 introductions, barely more than the 10 launches necessary to land it 20th among claims in new prepared meals. That latter segment has had something of a roller-coaster regard for low-sodium claims, surging to 18 launches in 2004, before a lackluster four in 2005, rising again to 18 in 2006, and back to five in 2007. Its growth in instant noodles, pasta and rice came literally out of nowhere; it had a total of three introductions making that claim in the previous four years combined, according to GNPD statistics.

That segment did see Snack Alliance introduce XGrindz Smart Noodles in savory chicken noodle, spicy Thai noodle and sizzling steak varieties, all promising to be low in salt. With the tagline, “Think healthy, Think smart, We X the Salt!” plus the image of a skateboarder on the package front, it clearly targeted younger people. Moms, on the other hand, were the audience for Mom Made Ready Meals from Mom Made Foods. These prepared meals featured a Cheesy Mac variety promising a side of organic peas and less than half the sodium of regular macaroni-and-cheese products. The line’s other option was Fiesta Rice, a gluten-free blend of brown rice, corn, kidney beans and green peppers. Both were USDA-certified organic.

Sodium was also largely absent from Let’s Grow, a line of all-natural food for toddlers. The 19-SKU Beech-Nut line promised not to contain unnecessary sugars or sodium and, as such, carried a “No Junk Promise” logo on the package. Beech-Nut’s line was an effort to bring parents back to store shelves for toddler foods, as the company believes parents have left the category due to a lack of nutritious toddler food options in the grocery. Information Resources Inc. (IRI) found, “Only 20% of households with children continue to buy toddler food by the time a child turns two.”

Beech-Nut rival Gerber likewise expanded its baby food offerings in 2008. Three new dinner purees with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) premiered, as did one new organic dinner puree. The organic option was Chicken with Country Vegetables and Rice, made with whole-grain rice and providing 2g of protein and a half-serving of vegetables. The DHA-enhanced items included Garden Vegetables with Whole Wheat Pasta, Vegetable Risotto with Cheese, and Macaroni and Cheese with Vegetables, all providing 18mg of DHA, a full serving of vegetables and 2-3g of protein.

On the Whole
As the Gerber introductions evidence, whole-grain claims could be found in 2008, though they were not as prevalent as previous years. In fact, total introductions touting whole grains were down in most segments, but still managed to surge in sandwiches/wraps, where 24 products made the claim in 2008, up sharply from seven debuts the year prior. Nestle introduced Garlic Chicken White Pizza Whole Grain Sandwiches under its Lean Pockets brand. Containing 0g trans fat and 270 calories per serving, the sandwiches featured grilled white meat chicken, mozzarella, Parmesan and fontina cheeses with creamy garlic sauce in a crust. Veering slightly out of meals, even soups boasted of whole grains. Frontier Soups’ Whole Grain Wheat Berry Chili Soup promised to be an excellent source of essential whole grains, in a line boasting such varieties as Washington State Squash & Lentil, Iowa Open House Grain & Pasta Potage and Montana High Plains Wheat Berry Chili soup, all containing no MSG, preservatives, salt or trans fats. Side dishes, too, joined the whole-grain bandwagon, as Kraft Foods reformulated its iconic Macaroni & Cheese Dinner to be made with 50% whole grains.

Kraft was also the source of a packaging changed aimed at helping the environment. Its Thin Crust Four Cheese Pizza under the DiGiorno Ultimate brand could be found in a 100% recyclable package with a new design. A similar environmental aim was at the heart of the packaging for Loblaws’ Campania Four Seasons Pizza in Canada. Its recyclable pack, however, also housed an attempt at an authentically ethnic offering. “Inspired by the traditional Italian method of making pizza,” it featured toppings “characteristic of Italy’s Campania region” and chosen to represent the four seasons: prosciutto for winter, Portobello mushrooms for autumn, roasted red peppers for summer and asparagus for spring. A Lombardia Cipolline and Proscuitto variety also was available, likewise in the environmentally friendly package.

Environmental friendliness made real waves in only two of the category’s segments, discounting the four introductions in instant noodles, pasta and rice. Meal kits saw 20 such launches, while 18 prepared meals made the claim. Kraft’s launch of Cheese Italiano Pasta under its Bistro Deluxe label was found in a package made from 100% recyclable fibers with a minimum 35% post-consumer content. Inside was a Parmesan, Romano and Asiago cheese sauce, and the promise of a good source of whole grains. A Sundried Tomato Parmesan variety combined pasta with sundried tomato and basil in a Parmesan cheese sauce.

In Canada, Schneider Foods offered an environmentally aware repackaging for its Smart Lunches brand. Dried fruit was added to the range, but the entire line was repackaged into reusable bags made from EarthFirst PLA film. Aimed at children and suitable as-is or heated in a microwave, varieties included Pepperoni Pizza Combo with dried cranberries and a Bagel Combo with dried cranberries.

Cranberries also were the subject of a U.S. study investigatingE. coliin ground beef. Writing in the journalFood Microbiology, researchers at the University of Maine discovered cranberry possessed antimicrobial effects at tested concentrations, with no significant negative impact on the color, flavor or taste of burgers. American cranberries contain a number of bioactive compounds with antioxidant, anti-mutagenic, anti-hypercholesterolemic and other beneficial health properties. Furthermore, “the inhibition effect of cranberry concentrate increased with time and concentration.” Such information could prove helpful to formulators, as burgers are a consumer favorite, a fact borne out in Technomic research this year.

The foodservice research group found an astounding 85% of American consumers eat a burger at least once a month, with only 6% never consuming them. Consumption does lag in the Northeast, and so-called “theme” burgers have the most appeal to Asian consumers, the study discovered.

The Pasta as Present
Virtually all consumers have suffered from the recent economic downturn; however, this fact is helping pasta to finally recover from the years-long malaise it has suffered since the low-carbohydrate fad. Research by American Italian Pasta Co. finds pasta sales in the U.S. (including frozen and refrigerated pasta, canned pasta, soup mixes and prepared dinners) increased 5% in 2008 to hit $6.4 billion. Granted, a portion of that jump was the result of a price increase stemming from the hike in wheat and other costs. However, similar commodity price increases did not hamper pasta sales, unlike other consumer goods. The Nielsen Co. says total U.S. pasta consumption increased 0.4% by volume, and that does not include Wal-Mart, where noodle numbers surged even more, believe industry officials. The 2008 pasta consumption numbers are the highest the industry has seen since 2003, and North Korean scientists may have found a way to make those noodles go even farther for the consumer.

The scientists developed a new kind of noodle that delayed feelings of hunger. Made from corn and soybeans, the new noodles boasted twice as much protein and five times the amount of fat as ordinary noodles, the scientists claimed.

Such tinkering is of no interest to a growing number of consumers, however. In fact, categories across the industry have seen a significant boost in all-natural and organic claims. New products boasting all-natural claims far outdistanced its more regulated counterpart of organic: 86 all-natural to 41 organic prepared meal launches, 31 to 18 in pizzas, 24 to 15 in meal kits, and eight to two in instant noodles, pasta and rice.

Put simply, organic certification proved challenging, but a number of companies went to those lengths, across the category. A USDA Organic certification appeared on The Fillo Factory’s Canadian introduction of Fillo Pocket Sandwich Classic Samosa, which was vegan, plus free of trans fat and cholesterol. In the U.S., Organic Cheese Pitza from Fotis & Son Imports likewise carried the USDA Organic label and further promised it was “free from trans fat, added MSG, preservatives, GMOs and bio-engineered ingredients.” Full Tank Foods, meanwhile, targeted children (or more likely, moms) with its Organic Meals for Children line. The Pasta & Red Sauce contained vitamins A and C, protein, fiber and iron; Macaroni & Cheese promised to be a good source of vitamin A, calcium and iron; Pizza Fondue, likewise claiming to be a good source of vitamin A, added C and calcium; and Cheesy Mashed Potatoes in a Pocket Sandwich were a good source of whole grains, vitamin C and iron. All were Oregon TILTH- and USDA Organic-certified.

All-natural launches likewise were aplenty. JB Brands Co. introduced Meatless Meals under its Taste Above label. The all-natural meals promised to be gourmet-style, 100% vegetarian and free of trans fat and GMOs. A vegetarian chef helped create the line: Thai Peanut Coconut Sauce with Veggie Chicken & Vermicelli Noodles; Tuscan Marinara Sauce with Veggie Chicken & Penne Pasta; and Zesty BBQ with Veggie Beef & Rice. A Meatless Burger Original variety is 100% vegetarian, low in fat and sodium, and diabetic-friendly.

All-natural was also the calling card for Taste of Malaysia Malay Chicken Curry from Hain Celestial Group. With no artificial ingredients, colors, flavors or preservatives, the product did boast white meat chicken in a coconut curry sauce, with sweet bell peppers and jalapeños over brown rice. The line included other such varieties as Kotopoulo Domato Ke Feta; Kaeng Kari Kai; and Gujarati Vegetable Curry. The same company also made one of the biggest launches in an emerging trend this year. Hain Celestial’s Gluten Free Café’s frozen entrées were all-natural, gluten-free and fortified with vitamins, minerals and inulin, to aid digestion. Sunset Grill’s Spinach and Artichoke Chicken Burgers were likewise free of gluten, but the all-natural product did feature a blend of mozzarella, Asiago, Parmesan and Romano cheeses.

Aiming Low
While gluten-free items did emerge, health-oriented introductions in 2008 tended toward the reduction of familiar negatives: calories, fat and trans fat. Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand launched a flatbread sandwich under its Deli Creations label. The Fajita Beef and Salsa Flatbread featured a four-cheese blend including reduced-fat natural Monterey Jack cheese, 2% milk reduced-fat natural Cheddar cheese, 2% milk reduced-fat natural Colby cheese and 2% reduced-fat natural mozzarella.

Bumble Bee Foods eschewed fat for its Fat Free Tuna Salad with Crackers, while the noodles in Encore Gourmet Food Corp.’s Chef Woo Stir Fry Kit were 98% fat free and had no trans fat. Similarly free of trans fat, Roasted Vegetable Lean Pizza joined Target’s Market Pantry line. The pizza was made with reduced-fat mozzarella, onions, and green, red and yellow peppers.

To its Signature Collection brand, The Fresh Market added Home-Style Chicken Pot Pie, with white meat chicken, handmade and free of trans fat. Similarly to pasta, pot pies may benefit from the economic recession, according toThe New York Times. The newspaper found sales of pot pies had increased 23% since the economy started its downturn late in 2007.

With the economic downturn, analysts expect consumers to trade down and a surge in meals made at home. This, plus a recent trend toward gourmet foods, has led the market to see a wealth of prepared meals with a premium positioning, as well as co-branding with chefs and restaurants or details on the ingredient source.

By and large, premium claims numbered in the top 10 claims for each of the category’s segments (the 11th-place finish in sandwiches/wraps being the sole exception). Nevertheless, a dozen new products in that segment boasted a premium claim, only a few shy of premium pizzas, which included a store brand from Wal-Mart. Its Sam’s Choice Ultimate Meat Pizza was a ready-to-cook pizza with “premium shredded seasoned beef, cooked Italian sausage, pepperoni and smoked bacon.” Made in Nature also added Gourmet Pizza to its organic line, in varieties such as Margherita; Chicken, Spinach and Mushroom; Roasted Vegetable; and Three Cheese. For Canadians, McCain Foods introduced Toscano Gourmet Classico Pizza, promising an authentic Italian thin-crust pizza. Featuring crust made from wheat flour, spring water and “the finest of olive oils,” the pizza was stone-baked in a wood-fired oven.

However, some companies opted to expand the notions of traditional prepared meals and offer upscale ingredients. Cuisine Solutions, for instance, launched Poached Lobster Tails with orzo and lobster sauce and Mascarpone cheese. The FiveLeaf label also featured Barbecue Pork Ribs; Chicken Portobello; Gorgonzola Burger; Tilapia Loin with Mango Salsa; and TroutBeurre Blanc. Meanwhile, promising “a restaurant taste and a homemade touch,” Bertolli complemented its Oven Bake Meals line with Stuffed Shells in Scampi Sauce, boasting pasta shells with a four-cheese filling in a shrimp scampi sauce, along with a cheese pouch for topping.

Target likewise joined the premium pack, though with a sandwich targeting a different daypart. Its Eggs Florentine Breakfast Sandwich was a chilled sandwich with light mozzarella cheese and spinach wrapped in flatbread, offering less than 300 calories and 27g of whole grains per serving. The line also included Chipotle Turkey Club and Roast Beef & Swiss Cheese variants.

As evidenced by the Target breakfast sandwich and similar launches, coupled with the continued assertion of breakfast as the most important meal of the day, prepared breakfast meals may well be among the next big trends to watch. pf

Much of the information in this article was derived from the Mintel Global New Products Database, www.gnpd.com , 312-932-0400.

Website Resources:

www.PreparedFoods.com -- Enter “convenience” in the search field to find the latest news on this trend from around the industry
www.gnpd.com -- The Mintel Global New Products Database
www.boingboing.net/2008/08/26/north-korea-claims-t.html -- Satiating noodles from North Korea
www.umainetoday.umaine.edu/issues/v9i1/cranberry-transcript5.html -- Antimicrobial cranberries

Going Global: Meals
Health-oriented items are just as popular outside the U.S., and Germans were afforded an attempt at a healthier pizza. Wagner Balance introduced the vegetarian Grillgemüse mit Leichter Joghurt-Crème (Grilled Vegetables Pizza with Light Yogurt Cream), marketed as having more fiber (2.3g) and less fat and calories than regular pizza. When it comes to health, however, Thai consumers saw the most-specific offering.

The Union Frozen Product introduced a range of prepared meals tailored to Thai consumers’ blood type (A, B, AB and O). Prantalay O Blood Group Meal in a fish noodle with seafood spicy basil sauce flavor claimed to be specially formulated for the needs of consumers with the blood type O. The line also featured Brown Rice with Stir-fried Asparagus and Ginkgo for people with blood type A; Brown Rice with Salmon, Black Pepper and Olive Oil Sauce for type B blood; and Brown Rice with Snapper in Stir-fried Basil and Curry Paste specially formulated for people with blood type AB.

Chinese consumers, meanwhile, could enjoy Baijia Messidor Instant Rice Noodles made from sweet potatoes. Manufacturer Sichuan Baijia Food Co. noted sweet potatoes promoted a healthy spleen, gut and circulation of the blood.

Many consumers around the world, however, were more concerned about the environmental impact from their foods. In the U.K., Marks & Spencer introduced a Bacon, Leek & Mushroom Quiche made with ethical free-range eggs, a feature common to Salmon & Watercress Quiche from Riverside Bakery’s Farmhouse brand and also found in the U.K.

Often, though, consumers simply wanted convenience, and Katadyn met those needs with Cheeseburger in a Can, a complete burger including bun inside a can with a pull ring.

More statistical information from Mintel’s GNPD on trends in pizza product health claims and on the top 20 claims of all types applied to instant noodles appeared inPrepared Foods’ March 2, 2009,E-dition. See the home page at www.PreparedFoods.com for a free subscription toE-dition.