The frozen segment is the Antarctic in the world of packaged foods: It’s a big, cold market. The global market for frozen foods is estimated at $113.1 billion in 2010. With a compounded annual growth rate of 3.7% during the period 2006 to 2015, frozen foods are projected to reach $136.5 billion by 2015. That’s according to the report, “Frozen Foods - A Global Market Overview,” published in June 2010 and available through Global Information Inc.

The frozen ready meals products category is the leading sub-segment, accounting for about 30% of the market, reports “Frozen Food in North America to 2013,” a study published by Datamonitor. It notes that the leading players in the North America frozen food market include Nestlé Foods, H.J. Heinz Co. and ConAgra Foods. We’ll take a look at examples from each of these leaders that show the diversity in which frozen foods can be heated and made ready for good eating, thanks to packaging.

Clear, steam-vent lidding provides the cooking convenience for ConAgra Foods’ Healthy Choice microwave entrees.

A clearly different look

The latter of the Big Three in the category rolled out nationwide in September a new line of Healthy Choice frozen entrees with enhancements to the packaging’s functionality and appearance. ConAgra Foods’ latest Healthy Choice offerings feature a steam-release vent in the tray’s clear flexible film lidding that allows the product to cook in about four minutes with no need to peel or poke the cover or stir the contents.

In other words, the packaging helps further substitute convenience for mess.
  
ConAgra feels that the steaming entrees will “raise the bar for microwavable frozen meals.” That marketing hyperbole is paralleled with a boost in functionality and appearance anchored by a clear polypropylene tray that brings literal clarity to the steaming entrees and to the category. “This enables consumers to see the large ingredients and the vivid colors of the vegetables, which are frozen at the peak of freshness,” according to ConAgra.

The impact of the clear tray is left largely to the in-home experience because the tray is packaged in the printed paperboard sleeve. With the exception of two cutout corners, the inner tray is otherwise not visible inside the sleeve. The tray bottom is symmetrically curved to impart a pleasing S-shaped look.

The product’s impact starts in the aisle where the brand’s new vertical carton, unusual for frozen entrees, stands out on shelf.

“You can see the difference as soon as you pick up the tray,” says Jonathan Gray, ConAgra Foods’ manager of research and development. “Unlike other frozen meals, the clear plastic meal tray and unique steaming film allow consumers to see every ingredient before steam-cooking in the microwave.”

The new line is available in eight varieties with suggested retail prices from $2 to $2.79.


Consumers’ placement of the product in conjunction with the packages’ susceptors determines whether the texture is softer or crisper for Smart Ones Grilled Flatbread from Heinz North America.

Custom cooking with susceptors

Microwave susceptors-used to harness microwave energy for browning and crisping of foods and typically comprising metalized polyester laminated to paperboard-are benefiting from engineered structures that harness microwaves as never before. Heinz North America, another of the Big Three of frozen foods, recently debuted product packaging using susceptor technology.

In this award-winning application, the susceptors permit consumers the choice of enjoying Weight Watchers Smart Ones’ Artisan Creations Grilled Flatbreads either crispy or soft. In April, the product’s creativity, based on Focus Inset Susceptor Technology from Graphic Packaging International Inc. (GPI), was recognized by the Association of Industrial Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators with a Technical Award in the “Food Packaging Category” of AIMCAL’s annual industry competition.

“In the Smart Ones Grilled Flatbread line, each sandwich is grilled to perfection, offering oven-baked flavor in just minutes in your microwave,” says John Bennett, director of the Smart Ones brand.

The products were introduced in June of 2009 in four flavors.

“These healthy flatbread sandwiches wrap together rich strips of meat, fire-roasted vegetables, and tasty sauce in a flatbread dough that features real grill marks and a bakery-fresh taste,” explains Bob Babich, manager of market development for GPI. 

“However, some people like their flatbread crispier and some like it softer-so we let them cook it just right, simply based on how they position the product and the package in the microwave.” 

 For a crisper texture, the food is placed on a susceptor plate and heated on top of the box using two layers of susceptor with the product uncovered. For a softer texture, the food is left on the susceptor plate inside the box using a single layer of patterned susceptor with the product covered. 

The susceptor plate is a special aluminum pattern laminated to paperboard so that it can absorb microwaves and convert them into heat, according to Babich.  At lower temperatures, the food browns; at higher temperatures, it broils.  

GPI believes that this package also simplifies inventory management by eliminating the need to stock different cartons for soft and crispy products.

“Susceptor technology is transforming the food industry because it crisps, browns, eliminates hot and cold spots, and creates textures similar to conventional cooking,” says Babich. “It’s creating a variety of exciting new packaging and marketing options for convenience foods such as these flatbread sandwiches, as well as pizzas, burritos, pies, and other hand-held snack foods.”

Further improvements in susceptor techniques are in the offing, according to Babich. “As we make susceptor technology even more sophisticated-combining it with improvements in paperboard design, forming, and laminating–we can expect to even more dramatically rethink and reshape all types of food packaging, whether it’s boxes, cartons, trays, or sleeves.”

The microwave preparation for Nestlé Foods’ Lean Cuisine Market Creations relies on a steam-release valve on the back of the stand-up pouch.

Full steam ahead

There is no doubt that packaging technology has driven many a food category to higher convenience and higher sales. A feature in the September issue of BrandPackaging, a sister publication of Food & Beverage Packaging, entitled Decade of Design, recognized a steam-in-bag application as one of the 10 packages that made the biggest consumer impact this decade. It specifically recognized the pioneering effort with the launch of Birds Eye Foods Steamfresh products in 2006.

Today, the convenience of steam-in-bag is commonplace for a range of frozen foods, though consumer package goods companies continue to put their own spin on this popular format. This summer, the final member of the Big Three, Nestlé Foods, offered its version when it introduced eight varieties of Lean Cuisine Market Creations in 10½-ounce stand-up pouches. The steaming pouches lock in nutritious ingredients and unlock flavor, prompting Nestlé to boast that “you’ve never had frozen food like this before.”

Typical to steam-in-bag products, the package has a preferred “this side up” orientation for the bag’s back. Atypical to steam-in-bag packaging is that the backside features a “steam release valve” rather than the usual engineered seal-failure method of steam release. A clear film patch applied over a perforated hole in the bag film creates the venting. The cooking time is five minutes in a 1,100-watt microwave oven.

“Lean Cuisine Market Creations offer high quality steamed entrées that can be plated for a premium dining experience,” says Christine Dahm, VP of marketing for the brand.

From the Big Three to the rest of the industry, packagers are cooking up new ways to deliver and prepare frozen foods. For consumers and their microwave ovens, it’s a convenience-driven bon appétit. 

For more information

Datamonitor
312-416-2850; www.datamonitor.com

Global Information Inc.
866-353-3335; www.the-infoshop.com

Graphic Packaging Intl.
770-644-3000; www.graphicpkg.com