Frozen food sales increased by 3.2% last year, according to Kantar. Supermarket freezer aisles used to be seen as the graveyard of the supermarket, but those days are over. From high-end ready meals to cleaned-up classics, and serious snacks to eco-packaging, the frozen sector has become a hotbed of innovation, targeting time-poor, experience-hungry, health- and waste-conscious consumers.
Here’s what’s happening with frozen food now, and what to expect next.
1. Finest frozen
We no longer see frozen food as inferior. In fact, statistics show quite the opposite, with consumers looking for more premium, more convenient meal solutions in the freezer aisle. In May, we reported on the launch of Waitrose’s own-label frozen meal range, as a response to this gap in the market. High-end frozen brand Cook increased sales by 15% last year and is investing £10m to open a second production site to keep up with demand. Even family favourite Birds Eye has elevated its core offering with new veggie bowls and vegan innovations, appealing to customers with more of a refined palate. Who’d have thought the nostalgic potato waffle would (or could) get a makeover? Today’s version is made from more nutritious rainbow ingredients: beetroot, sweet potato and peas.
2. Ready steady cook
Savvy frozen food producers are wooing cooks looking for smart shortcuts to make cooking easier, more enjoyable and more affordable. From portioned-out frozen vegetables, prepped fruit, cooking bases, sauces and soup kits, there’s a growing demand for frozen quick fixes that don’t compromise on quality. The new M&S Food trial store in Hempstead Valley showcases the biggest freezer space in the business (75% bigger than standard stores) and stocks over 291 lines. NPD includes convenient ingredients such as chopped onions and herbs and bulk 1kg formats.
3. Sub-zero snacking
With the ongoing growth and evolution of snacking, it’s no surprise that more convenient bites are popping up in the frozen aisle. Strong Roots flew to fame in 2015 after launching frozen ripened avocado
halves and oven-baked sweet potato chips; the Irish start-up recently launched in the US with snack-ready products like ‘spinach bites’ finger food. On the sweet side, healthy snacking brand Kind has recently entered the frozen category with the release of frozen bars, and Ben & Jerry’s has ‘freed the dough chunks’ by launching them as a moreish snackable frozen treat.
4. Waste not
Frozen food producers have long been singing its merits as a more sustainable alternative to fresh, but it’s only now that the penny’s finally dropping. With conscious consumers becoming more aware of food’s footprint, people are looking for more responsible ways of buying and consuming their favourite foods. As reported in a plastic-free push, retailers have responded with bulk buy ‘pick your own’ frozen stations, portion-controlled formats and innovative waste-less packaging. The new plant-based ice cream range from Holland & Barrett is packaged with a resealable lid, for example, to eliminate the need for a wasteful separate one.
5. Ice ice baby
There’s been plenty of innovation in the frozen children’s category already this year. After its successful launch into
the frozen aisle, Ella’s Kitchen expanded its Big Kids range with four new products, including frozen Cowboy Bean Burgers and Bolognese Bakes. Over in the US, frozen meal brand Kidfresh has broadened its offering to include breakfast products such as waffles and savoury egg bites, and the brand has put a healthier spin on children’s favourites by adding more vegetables and upping the protein content. It seems to have worked: the company ended last year with 49% year-on-year growth.
According to a recent report by the consultancy firm AT Kearney, 60% of meat in 2040 will either be grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products. This isn’t a distant future, as consumers are already reducing their meat consumption, or cutting it out of their diets completely. Veggie-friendly alternatives are launching in droves, and a significant proportion sits within the frozen sector. Meat-free brand Quorn is the best-selling brand after ice cream favourite Magnum, and has opened the world’s biggest meat-alternative production facility in the North East. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s has just launched a vegan version of the famous chicken Kiev made with soya protein, a coconut-based cheddar filling and a hint of garlic.
7. Sensory overload
Frozen food innovators are developing theatrical, one-time products to grab the attention of experience-hungry customers. We’re talking eccentric creations, out-there colours, complex textures and plenty of
surprising frozen foods. Asda recently revealed an Elf ice cream for Christmas; bright red and green with the flavours of raspberry and candyfloss, and sprinkled with multicoloured candy cane sugar pieces. On the savoury side, American food lovers’ supermarket of choice Trader Joe’s has recently launched the ultimate Mac & Cheese Bites, which are perfectly crisp on the outside and unctuously gooey on the inside. More is more.
The explosion of the direct-to-consumer channel reflects a huge shift in our shopping and eating habits. From subscription boxes to bespoke meals, we want it all in the palm of our hands. Brands like byRuby deliver a comprehensive range of ‘all-natural’ frozen meals directly to customers’ doors, whilst vegan ready-meal delivery business AllPlants now sells to office workers direct from bespoke self-service fridges. Customers use an iPad to scroll through the range then swipe a payment card to open the freezer. A working lunch has never been easier.
9. Healthy indulgence
Ice-cream deserves a special mention. The hectic rate of ‘healthy-ish’ innovation has been hard to keep up with, and new benefits and ingredients are appearing on a weekly basis. Following in the footsteps of Halo Top, Morrisons launched an own-brand ‘high protein’ range earlier this year, and then there’s the reduced-calorie versions of favourites such as Jude’s Lower Calorie. Brands are using a broad range of ingredients to naturally sweeten ice cream or as a dairy alternative: Yellofruit uses banana as the base for theirs; Gol uses dates as a natural sweetener; Fravocado is made from (you guessed it) avocado; and Little Bean uses the humble chickpea to produce ‘unintentionally vegan’ ice cream. The definition of ice cream is being stretched to the extreme. What would the Italians say?
10. Trim the fat
Our favourites will always be our favourites, and today we’re demanding cleaned up versions of previously processed or artificial frozen foods. From good old Yorkshire puddings to nostalgic milk lollies, consumers are putting pressure on manufacturers to re-engineer their frozen products without affecting the familiar eating experience. Producers are focusing on more ethical alternatives like sustainable fish sources, unrefined sugars or organic ingredients, to play catch-up and meet the lofty desires of the modern consumer.
Frozen sales, for both retail and foodservice, are set to exceed £10bn by 2025. We predict that bricks-and-mortar shops will need to work harder to compete with direct delivery services, producers will be looking to meet hyper-individual needs, and innovation will peak in premiumisation, health and waste-free frozen foods.