Demand for healthy eating drives frozen ready meals revival

The battle between the chilled and frozen food categories has heated up recently as frozen has started to make a comeback. But while consumers may be coming round to the idea that freezing vegetables and fish preserves their natural goodness, they appear to be less convinced about the benefits of frozen ready meals.

Birds Eye, the leading brand in frozen food, is hoping to change that with the launch of a new range called Eat Positive (MW last week). The ready meals aim to build the Birds Eye brand’s healthy credentials by offering products that will focus on healthy eating rather than weight loss.

Each of the products in the four-strong range offer specific health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, as well as providing one of the five required daily portions of fruit and vegetables. It is hoped that the launch will tap into the growing consumer interest in nutrients such as Omega 3, as well as bringing value back to the segment, which has been hammered over recent years by multi-buy promotions.

Frozen food sales were up by 3% over the 52 weeks to September last year (IRI Infoscan), but Birds Eye marketing director Ben Pearman is still cautiously optimistic. He describes ready meals as the “problem child” of the frozen category.

He adds: “I don’t think we have seen it [increased frozen sales] coming back from chilled, and ready meals are still struggling, although it is flattening out.”

Healthy strand

The four key strands in the £80m frozen ready meals market are roast dinners, traditional ready meals (such as lasagne), ethnic and healthy. The only segment that is showing growth, according to the latest 52-week data from IRI, is healthy. It saw value sales increase by 5.2% over the period, ahead of the 3.1% increase for the market overall.

Analysts say that the demographics of the UK population, such as the higher number of single households, should help to increase frozen ready meals but perceptions of frozen products as laden with fat, salt and sugar have been reinforced by “buy four for £1” offers driven by supermarkets. According to Mintel research, the value of the frozen ready meal category plummeted by 13% in value terms in 2005.

Pearman says promotions have “pushed trust out”. He adds: “We have got to get value back in the category. We think holistic healthy products are a good way of restoring trust.” Eat Positive will be supported by a £1m TV campaign as well as press and posters that aim to position the range as “good news for the category”.

Meanwhile, rival brand Findus is putting its faith behind premium lines. Lynn Saul, the company’s marketing director, says Findus has focused on “cleaning up the recipes” of its core products, including crispy pancakes and French bread pizza, while developing its healthy and premium lines.

Celebrity chef

The brand, which was acquired by private equity group CapVest in 2005, has signed celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli to front a premium range of frozen ready meals. The products are recognisable frozen meals such as lasagne but with a “Novelli twist” such as Camembert sauce. It is currently supporting the range with a £1m ad campaign.

Much has been done by the branded manufacturers to drive consumers back down the frozen aisle, but new product development and advertising spend will be wasted if the supermarkets continue to undermine such efforts with low-cost promotions that will further erode consumer trust.

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