Consumers are finally waking up to the health benefits of frozen food - with a little help from the manufacturers. It's about time too, says Anne Murphy, general manager of Birds Eye UK and deputy chairman of the Food and Drink Federation's frozen food group.

"Frozen food, which uses nature's preservative to lock in nutrients and taste, has always been perfectly placed to deliver within the health trend," she says.

"Through communication campaigns, manufacturers will continue to emphasise this natural advantage."

Action will include clearer labelling to highlight the specific health benefits of foods.

More manufacturers will also follow Birds Eye's lead with its Eat Positive range of light meals and launch new healthy eating ranges, she predicts.

Many companies also continue to reduce salt, fat and additives.

"McCain's recent 'It's All Good' advertising, for instance, has done a fantastic job of emphasising the natural goodness of frozen food, as well as the lower fat content of its oven chips," Murphy adds.

"The 6.4% year-on-year growth within the frozen potatoes market is testimony to the enormous efforts McCain has gone to in driving its category."

Health's counterpart, indulgence, is also driving the market, says Amanda Walker, marketing director at Heinz Frozen UK.

Walker cites TNS data that suggests the health issue has generated 9%, market growth while indulgence is responsible for a 7% increase.

"At the same time, almost 50% of the UK population is overweight or obese and more than a quarter have been on a diet in the past 12 months, an increase of 4% from last year's TNS figures," says Walker.

"With these statistics in mind, we are seeing a strong demand from consumers for higher-quality ingredients."

However, more needs to be done to imitate the excitement and variety offered by fresh food.

Findus has tried to do that with its stir-fry range, relaunched in February. "The vegetable mixes tap into health and convenience needs, while indulgence can be added through sauces or spices," says Findus managing director Vidar Engen.

One category also benefiting from health and indulgence trends is, surprisingly, ready meals. After two years of serious decline, sales have begun to steady (see left), thanks to premiumisation and meal revamps that capture the interest of those looking for healthy, convenient options.

Close to a quarter of consumers have bought a reduced or low-fat ready meal in the past year [Key Note]. n