The Smart Ones line from Heinz and Weight Watchers introduced Southwestern Style Chicken Fiesta to its Artisan Creations line, boasting 310 calories and 7g of fat on the front of the package.

While its 2009 decline in U.S. introductions was not as precipitous as other categories, new meals/meal centers did not have a banner year, speaking strictly in terms of numbers. New launches in the category dipped roughly 25%, with declines in every segment. Looking at the numbers, convenience unsurprisingly proved popular, as “microwaveable” was by far the leading claim in every segment except salads, where all-natural was the preferred option. As seen in the chart “So It Says,” time/speed was among the leading claims, and “on-the-go,” while not in the top 15 claims among all the segments, also saw usage.

Though it failed to crack the top 15 overall, “co-branding” would have placed a healthy eighth, if the numbers were sorted by claims in meal kits. Indeed, a number of brands have crossed over from other segments into meals. Well-recognized in the grown-up drinks market, Jim Beam Bourbon made its way out of the beverage aisle, courtesy of a collaboration with Whitey’s, the chili division of Windsor Foods Inc. Jim Beam Bourbon Steak Chili promised to be a gourmet chili, featuring chunks of steak, tomatoes, onions, black beans and a splash of the namesake bourbon.

Jack Daniel’s Properties Inc. took its iconic adult-beverage brand name further into the meals category, by partnering with Completely Fresh Foods Inc. Jack Daniel’s ready-to-eat meat entrées included such varieties as baby back ribs, roasted beef brisket, pork loin, barbecue pulled pork and barbecue pulled chicken. The heat-and-serve items could be found in refrigerated cases and capitalized on the brand’s connection with barbecue. Their preparation included special slow-cooking for up to nine hours, the hand application of proprietary Jack Daniel’s flavored spice rubs and oven-glazing.

In a Home
The launch coincided with an increased consumer demand for high-quality, ready-to-serve entrées as home meal replacements. Datamonitor, in fact, estimated the retail market for refrigerated foods in U.S. grocery stores would hit $55 billion in 2009, which is not to say frozen entrées did not show distinct promise. In fact, a licensing agreement between Unilever and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro will lead to the development of a line of frozen Asian entrées for the U.S. under the P.F. Chang’s brand. The move was not the first for Unilever; a similar agreement led to the 2005 introduction of Bertolli Frozen Italian Skillet Meals.

Unilever was far from alone in its interest in bringing Chinese cuisine to the supermarket. General Mills introduced Wanchai Ferry Frozen Entrées, a line of meal solutions promising to go from skillet to plate in 14 minutes. Each pack contained all the ingredients required for a complete Chinese meal for two, including battered chicken or shrimp, jasmine rice or classic lo mein noodles, large cuts of vegetables and sauces. The five varieties included orange chicken, sweet and sour chicken, spicy garlic chicken, shrimp lo mein, and sweet and spicy shrimp.

As those introductions might suggest, a number of ethnic flavors are firmly in the mainstream, and more seem to be entering the market. The trend gathered momentum in 2009, when sales of ethnic foods would reach a record $2.2 billion, predicted Mintel. However, that could be just the start; the market research group forecast sales of ethnic foods will grow nearly 20% from 2010-2014. The largest segment of the market, Mexican/Hispanic foods, held a 62% share of 2009 sales, while Asian and Indian foods had driven the trend’s growth between 2006-2008, with 11 and 35% growth, respectively.

Demonstrating just how “mainstream” Mexican food has become, Mintel research found nearly six in 10 consumers had prepared the cuisine in the past month. Also of interest was the overall method of preparation for ethnic foods. Some two thirds of respondents opted to prepare their ethnic meals “from scratch,” and even the remaining third preferred ethnic foods requiring less time and preparation, choosing meal solutions or heat-and-serve meals. A new joint venture attempted to reach this audience with EVOL Burritos. The 11 varieties of hand-rolled, all-natural, frozen burritos capitalized on the expertise of the group that launched Bear Naked (which was sold to Kellogg in 2007) and included antibiotic-free chicken, pork, beef and chorizo sausage, as well as cage-free eggs, herb-roasted, skin-on potatoes and “house-made” salsas and green chilé; the company also was quick to note that “numerous ingredients” were sourced in Colorado, possibly a forerunner of the local sourcing trend into this category.

Other segments have seen early attempts at the notion, and several meal manufacturers likely see the writing on the wall. EVOL’s line, while promising to be “all-natural,” had a couple of offerings whose ingredients are largely organic: 80% of its Spinach Sauté ingredients and 70% of its Cilantro Lime Chicken.

Less is More
Natural, however, proved a more popular positioning, quite possibly due to the lack of regulatory control over the claim. Kashi Company added a pair of varieties to its all-natural frozen pizza line: Mexicali Black Bean Thin Crust and Sicilian Veggie, the company’s first vegan and cheese-less offering. The former featured a spicy black bean and tomato sauce blend, layered with mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses, topped with fire-roasted corn, tomatillos, poblano peppers and red peppers. The latter was a stone-fired pizza with caramelized onions, grilled eggplant, fire-roasted red peppers and kale atop a balsamic-infused white bean tomato sauce. Each contained at least 9g of whole grains, 4g of fiber, 11g of protein and 340mg of ALA omega-3s per serving.

Natural also proved the calling card for Mini Cheeseburgers from Ian’s Natural Foods. Promising 100% all-beef and a good source of calcium, the cheeseburgers had no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. An Egg & Maple Cheddar WaffleWich from the company was similarly free of colors and preservatives, but also boasted a lack of wheat, gluten and nuts.

All-American Sliders from Helen’s Foods may not have been an all-natural product, but it did likewise position itself as a time-saver. Released under the Ruby’s Diner brand, the product featured 12 mini-burgers with American cheese on Hawaiian-style buns and was ready to eat after a minute in the microwave. Similarly convenient, Barbecue Beef Sandwiches from Nestlé’s Hot Pockets brand required 90 seconds in a microwave but, according to the company, also contained eight essential vitamins and minerals. Its 0g trans fat was the same amount as in the brand’s Ham, Egg & Cheese Pockets, reformulated to incorporate premium ham.

Trans fat-free continued to see use. However, Grilled Chicken Salad with Apricots and Almonds from Tryst Gourmet, to be honest, was positioned much more as a premium/gourmet product than a trans fat-free one, while the selling point for Taylor Farms’ Mediterranean Snacker was its Old World influence, stemming, at least partially, from pita chips and Athenos hummus garlic dip.

Cutting fat and calories, meanwhile, may not have been the most popular endeavor, but in this obesity-conscious age, it could well prove an effective selling point. Sara Lee promised a third the calories and half the fat of leading breakfast sandwiches, as well as no trans fat, in its Jimmy Dean D-Lights Wholegrain Muffin with Turkey Sausage, Egg White & Cheese. Indeed, weight control may once again emerge on the trend-watching radar, as new introductions flourished in certain segments: Nestlé’s Breakfast Panini, under its Lean Cuisine brand, featured egg whites, sausage, Cheddar and reduced-fat mozzarella cheeses; in Canada, the same brand featured a Grilled Vegetables & Goat Cheese Panini, promising to be high in fiber; and, back in the U.S., the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Artisan Creations line from Heinz added Chicken Bruschetta, likewise with reduced-fat mozzarella cheese.

Salty Tales
What could be in the future for home-meal entrée options? If Mintel Menu Insights research is any indication, bacon will play a definite role. The restaurant trend-watcher finds the number of menu items of all types that include bacon has risen 26.5% at all quick- and full-service restaurants since 2005. Bacon-topped burgers have seen particular growth, up 35.8% in that span, but its use is by no means limited to that arena. Perkins Restaurant’s Chicken & Spinach and Honey Mustard Chicken Crunch salads boast bacon, as does its Smoked Bacon & Ham Omelette, while O’Charleys’ Prime Rib Pasta also features the flavorful protein.

Sadly, bacon has its drawbacks, namely a sodium increase, an area already on regulators’ radars. In fact, the National Salt Reduction Initiative has emerged with the goal of reducing the average American’s salt intake by 20% in five years. The effort has already drawn the support of 17 national health organizations and 25 other city or state health agencies, including New York City officials. The website for that city’s health department lists a call for significant sodium reductions: a 20% drop in peanut butter and a 40% decline in canned vegetables.

A 2009 evaluation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 70% of Americans exceed the daily recommended amount of sodium consumption. Companies ignoring NYC’s guidelines will face no penalties, officials assure; however, they “suggest” manufacturers should lower salt content gradually over the years, allowing consumers to reduce their sodium intake slowly and, perhaps, without noticing it.

Certain manufacturers have already announced sodium-reduction plans: ConAgra Foods Inc. has pledged to reduce the salt content of its consumer food products by 20% prior to 2015, including in its Chef Boyardee canned pasta meals and Healthy Choice frozen dinners. Early in the year, the company announced several changes in its frozen foods division, including meatless varieties of Healthy Choice frozen meals and steam-heated microwave meals under the Marie Callender’s banner, while a reworking of the company’s Banquet frozen meals was necessary to “keep the price at about $1.” The steaming technology employed in Marie Callender’s Italian-style pasta al dente was the same fueling the release of Healthy Choice Café Steamers. For its part this year, the Healthy Choice brand reinvented its recipes, remade its packaging and introduced Healthy Choice All Natural Entrées, a line featuring pumpkin squash ravioli and Mediterranean pasta varieties, made with “such ingredients as extra virgin olive oil, whole grains, pumpkin, tomatoes and premium cheeses,” but no preservatives and no artificial flavors or colors.

In facing the high-sodium conundrum, Tyson Foods created Skillet Creations meal kits, a line of “sensible sodium frozen entrées.” The five varieties (grilled chicken fajitas, grilled steak fajitas, grilled chicken Tuscany and penne, Asian-style orange chicken and stroganoff) promised to go from bag to skillet to plate in 10 minutes; more importantly, considering the company’s stated goal, they contained 45% less sodium than previous Tyson meal kits.

Sara Lee Deli likewise embraced the notion, introducing four lower-sodium meats: oven-roasted turkey breast, honey ham, oven-roasted chicken breast and roast beef, all promising to be “significantly lower in sodium than their non-reduced counterparts.” According to the company, the oven-roasted turkey breast has 40% less sodium than its non-reduced counterparts; the honey ham has 36% less, 42% less in the oven-roasted chicken breast and 41% less in the roast beef.

As Connie Diekman, R.D., and nutrition consultant, explains, “There’s a stigma that exists when it comes to trying lower-sodium foods…by lowering salt and replacing it with flavorful options, you’re actually enhancing your experience and enjoyment of food overall. I like to tell my clients to think of lessening sodium intake as a positive rather than a negative.” Regardless, if the efforts of the National Salt Reduction Initiative gather steam, lowering sodium may be a must, no matter how developers, or even consumers, regard the concept. pf

Website Resources: -- CDC report, “Americans Consume Too Much Salt” -- National Salt Reduction Initiative’s goals -- Predicting the top food trends, including restaurant meals at home, over the next decade, from Prepared Foods’ E-dition newsletter

Going Global: Meals
Video games have been used to advertise many products, but a food launch in Japan capitalized on the genre to inform consumers about its production method. Acecook introduced Kyushu Ichibanboshi Rich Pork Marrow Ramen Noodles and teamed with game-maker Sega to inform consumers about the production of the product in the game Ryu Ga Gotoku.

Similarly helpful, Knorr Cup Jok Green Instant Rice Porridge was one of a line of instant snacks centered around the notion of eating by color: green had broccoli, baby corn, pak choi, minced pork and jasmine rice, while orange, white and yellow varieties were also available, bringing a notion of healthy to a segment often regarded as nutritionally inferior.

Health, however, does not always have to be about what is initially included in the product, as Nippon Meat Packers demonstrated with its Beef Gut Hot Pot in a curry flavor in Japan. Consumers were expected to add “plenty of vegetables,” and beef or pork gut proved especially popular, as these are rich in collagen.

While ramen may have a reputation that is less than healthy, a pair of introductions fortified the instant noodles. In Japan, Nissin Food Products’ Snack Chicken Ramen boasted calcium and vitamins B1 and B2, while Egyptian consumers could enjoy vitamin- and mineral-fortified, and halal-certified, instant noodles in tomato flavor under the Jenan brand from BMN.

While additions can be healthy, for many consumers, so can subtractions, which has led to a boom in gluten-free products: Dr. Schar’s Bella Italian Gluten-free Pizza Salame in Germany: four varieties of premium gluten-free pizzas (including salmon, ham and spinach) under the Raffaele brand from Moilas in Finland: gluten-free, four-cheese pastries from Paila Sabroza in Venezuela; and gluten- and wheat-free sausage rolls under the DS Dietary Specials Brand from Dietary Foods in the UK.