Oprah Winfrey’s name is well known for everything from media to movies. Now it’s also connected to comfort foods. Last year saw Winfrey join forces with The Kraft Heinz Company to launch O, That’s Good, an eight-item line of refrigerated soups and sides. 

“I love healthy foods and eating from my garden,” said Winfrey. “When Kraft Heinz approached me for a food line, what got my attention is making nutritious comfort foods more accessible to everyone. This product line is real, delicious food with a twist.”

Why soups and sides? 

“Refrigerated products are on the rise and we saw an opportunity to drive excitement in this section of the store with convenient soups and sides made with real ingredients and easy preparation,” said Nina Barton, who last year (prior to a promotion) was Kraft Heinz senior vice president of marketing, innovation and research and development.

To Barton’s point, retail sales data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, show sales of most shelf-stable dry packaged sides and canned soups were down or relatively flat during a 52-week tracking period ended Dec. 31, 2017. Interestingly, however, dollar sales of refrigerated side dishes grew 8.56% to $2.8 billion with an accompanying unit sales gain of 5.58%. Within the refrigerated entrees category, refrigerated soups posted an 18.85% sales increase to $325.2 million with a 16.95% unit gain during the same time period. 

Sales reflect IRI InfoScan data from total US multi-outlets with grocery, drug, mass market, convenience, military and select club and dollar retailers.


Soup’s On

Again, what’s hot in soups—is cold. In fact, the refrigerated soup category has news on all fronts and from coast to coast.

Already known for soups in the restaurant and supermarket deli realms, Blount Foods, Fall River, Mass., followed restaurant “bowl” trends and developed four Blount Noodle & Rice Bowls. The refrigerated soups come ready-to-heat with separately packaged, shelf-stable noodles that consumers add to the broth for a meal in just three minutes. Varieties include Chicken Ramen, Hibachi Chicken & Rice, Coconut Chicken & Noodle and Asian-Inspired Vegetable & Rice.

Interestingly, organic frozen bone broth specialist Bonafide Provisions, San Diego, crossed the soup and juice categories with Drinkable Veggies, a line of refrigerated bone broth drinks featuring various pureed vegetable blends. 

Ready Pac Fresh Prep'd Chicken Tortilla Soup Kit

Remember the Salad Days? Refrigerated salads company joins soup market.

Another category competitor involves the bagged salads company, Ready Pac Foods, Irwindale, Calif. In its new single-serve Ready Pac Fresh Prep’d Soup Kits, all ingredients are prepped and separated to maintain a fresh, crisp flavor. To prepare the soup, consumers combine ingredients in the microwave-safe bowl, add water and microwave for three minutes. Soup kits (with spoon included) come in five varieties: Chicken Tortilla, Vegetarian Tuscan White Bean, Asian Inspired Beef, Italian Style Wedding and Chicken Noodle.

Last but not least, Mealtime Stories’ O, That’s Good line includes four refrigerated 16oz soups (Baked Potato, Creamy Butternut Squash, Broccoli Cheddar) that carry a suggested retail of $4.99 each. 

Within the larger, overall soup category, data from IRI show dollar and sales increases for broths and dry and ramen soups. Last year saw Pacific Foods (now part of Campbell Soup) introduce organic bone broths in two new varieties: Duck and Poultry (blend of chicken, turkey, duck). In a separate move, the soup restaurant chain, Zoup!, Southfield, Mich., started selling its own branded retail chicken broths in regular and low-sodium varieties.

Dry ramen and soups leader Nissin Foods, Gardena, Calif., took a health stance in 2017. It reformulated its Nissin Top Ramen brand to cut sodium by an average of 15% across all flavors, remove added MSG and remove all artificial flavors. Separately, it introduced Cup Noodles Very Veggie, which it says is the only instant noodle cup to feature one full vegetable serving. Varieties include Chicken, Spicy Chicken and Beef—and each features a different mix of edamame, carrots, broccoli, corn, green beans, cabbage, red bell pepper and tomatoes.


The Side Show

They say good things come in threes and that certainly applies to side dishes. Of course, grocery shoppers find numerous options across the shelf-stable, refrigerated and frozen departments. It’s also clear that health, comfort and foreign flavors are three key themes. Meanwhile, convenient packaging and quick preparation have become standard.

Staying in the dry aisle, there’s certainly no shortage of new products involving of grains, rices and pastas. 

Last year saw Drink Well Eat Well LLC, Lawrence, Kan., introduce Hilary’s Millet Medleys, a line of four organic, microwaveable heat-and-serve ancient grain blends. Offerings include Traditional Herb, Golden Curry, Savory Mushroom and Fresh Greek. Similarly, Quinoa Corporation, Boulder, Colo., launched Ancient Harvest Organic Quinoa in three 8oz heat-and-heat, pre-cooked pouch varieties:  Organic Quinoa with Sea Salt, Organic Quinoa with Chickpeas & Garlic, and Organic Quinoa with Lentils & Garlic.

Hilary's Millet Medleys
Ancient grain gets a convenient, flavorful new format.

Offering new foreign and fast rice-based sides are been LT Foods Americas, Cypress, Calif., and Riviana Foods Inc., Houston. LT Americas launched eight new ethnic and culinary-inspired sides in a Royal Authentic Adventures line—all featuring the company’s Royal Basmati Rice. Varieties include Mexican, French, Thai, Greek, Japanese, Moroccan, Indian and Argentine.

Want to go from foreign to fast? Riviana launched five new Minute Ready to Serve sides. They include three Minute Ready to Serve Organics, as well as a White & Red Quinoa, and a gluten-free Multi-Grain Medley. Minute Ready to Serve Organics include a Whole Grain Brown Rice, White Rice and Red Quinoa & Brown Rice. All three are USDA certified organic, designed for prep and eating in about 60 seconds and carry suggested retail price of $2.49 for a package of two single-serve cups.

Straddling the line between rice and pasta was Lotus Foods, Richmond, Calif., which created new Organic Pad Thai Rice Noodles, made with organic, heirloom and whole grain black and brown rice. 

Refreshing the dry pasta shelf are companies of all sizes—ranging from the likes of The Kraft Heinz Company and Barilla America to small players such Free to Eat Inc., Los Angeles, Upton’s Naturals, Chicago; and Pamela’s Products Inc., Ukiah, Calif.

Free to Eat launched Cybele’s Free-to-Eat Superfood Veggie Pasta in five varieties—all of which feature vegetable blends and are free from the top eight allergens. Each 3.5oz serving provides more than one full serving of vegetables, 23g to 25g of protein and is a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C. 

Upton’s Naturals introduced Ch’eesy Mac, a pre-cooked, vegan mac and cheese. Offering a cleaner and plant-based take on this classic comfort food, the new lineup includes original Ch’eesy Mac and Ch’eesy Bacon Mac varieties. Each comes with ready-to-eat, large and ridged macaroni noodles and a prepared pouch of nutritional yeast based cheese. 

Pamela’s Products, a gluten-free specialist, developed several new dried pastas and pasta meals made from white rice flour, sprouted brown rice flour and pea protein.

For its part, Barilla America launched Barilla Ready Pasta, a microwaveable, fully-cooked pasta. Made with just three simple non-GMO ingredients—fully cooked al dente pasta, a dash of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of sea salt—officials say Barilla Ready Pasta “allows people to enjoy the al dente texture they’ve come to expect from Barilla in just 60 seconds, without sacrificing taste.” An 8.5oz pouch makes two servings.

Kraft Heinz also turned to pouches for new Cracker Barrel Oven Baked Macaroni & Cheese. Three varieties are Sharp Cheddar, Sharp White Cheddar and a Cheddar Havarti. The product is ready after just 15 minutes (10 minute baking) and the 12.34oz pouches carry a suggested retail of $3.99.

Consumers looking for refrigerated fresh pasta options found four new Buitoni vegetable and herb infused pastas from the Nestlé Foods Division, Solon, Ohio. New non-GMO offerings include Roasted Garlic & Chive Pappardelle, Basil Pappardelle, a Parmesan & Black Pepper Ravioli and a Tomato & Mozzarella Ravioli.

Refrigerated pastas also were among those new items from Mealtime Stories (Oprah, Kraft Heinz). New sides from O, That’s Good include Creamy Parmesan Pasta (with white beans) and Three Cheese Pasta (with butternut squash). Two additional mashed potato sides are Original and Garlic—each with a “twist” of added cauliflower. All 20oz side dishes carry a suggested retail of $4.49.

Also refreshing the chilled mashed potato category was Michael Foods. Last year saw the Minnetonka, Minn., firm introduce Simply Skinny mashed potatoes with 40% less fat than traditional mashed offerings—and ready to serve in five minutes. They come in Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper and Roasted Garlic & Sea Salt varieties. In other news, Michael Foods added diced sweet potatoes to its regular Simply Potatoes line.

First known for its chef-inspired potato dishes, Conagra’s premium Alexia brand since has expanded. Last year brought six new gluten free, non-GMO Project Verified vegetable sides. Intended to replace starchy potato and rice dishes, the microwave-ready lineup (in 12oz bags and boxes) includes White Cheddar Riced Cauliflower, Riced Vegetable Pilaf with Sea Salt & Black Pepper, Butternut Squash Risotto with Parmesan & Sea Salt, Cauliflower Risotto with Parmesan & Sea Salt, Mashed Cauliflower with Butter & Sea Salt, and Mashed Butternut Squash with Brown Sugar. Ready to eat in 10 minutes or less, they also feature 100% organic dairy ingredients. 

Pinnacle Foods also took to the R&D drawing board to create new, healthier alternatives to consumers’ favorite starchy foods like pasta, rice and mashed potatoes. The innovative new line of Birds Eye Veggie Made products, which launched in 2017, includes a wide variety of veggie-based options that allow consumers to eat more veggies and fewer starches without sacrificing the taste and texture they love.

Birds Eye Veggie Made Cauliflower Fries

Want Fries with That? New frozen side dishes offer health appeal.

The company’s 2017 launch of 12 new items included a variety of Birds Eye Veggie Made Pasta, Riced Cauliflower and Mashed Cauliflower, all of which offer one serving of vegetables per serving and have no artificial flavors or preservatives.  These nutritious alternatives are made from actual vegetables, but look and taste just like regular pasta, rice or mashed potatoes. Varieties include, but are not limited to, Original Zucchini Lentil Pasta, Spinach Lentil Pasta, Original Riced Cauliflower and Savory Herb Riced Cauliflower. The new mashed cauliflower alternatives launched were Original Mashed Cauliflower, Sour Cream & Chives Mashed Cauliflower, Roasted Garlic Mashed Cauliflower and Mashed Sweet Potatoes & Carrots with Brown Sugar.

Pinnacle came back early this year with eight more items, expanding its Birds Eye Veggie Made platform to include four more Veggie Made Pasta varieties, such as classics like Spaghetti Style Marinara and Fettuccine Alfredo, as well as an entirely new line of Veggie Made Tots & Fries offerings made with cauliflower and broccoli. The new 2018 items are expected to start hitting shelves in April.

Still more giant category news comes from B&G Foods Inc Last fall saw this Parsippany, N.J. company introduce a range of Green Giant “veggie swap-in” side dish alternatives. They included Cauliflower with Lemon & Garlic Riced Veggies, Cauliflower Risotto Medley Riced Veggies, Cauliflower & Sweet Potato Veggie Tots, Corn Veggie Tots and Broccoli & Cheese Mashed Cauliflower. Debuting then this January were Green Giant Veggie Spirals, spiral-shaped vegetables billed as an alternative to pasta. They are initially available in Zucchini, Carrots and Butternut Squash varieties.

Originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Creative Comfort.