Frozen can be the new fresh

Companies may be on the offensive to prove that the freezing process does away with the need for preservatives, but the industry has not always promoted such a clean cut image.
The now infamous Turkey Twizzlers, which were brought to the public&'s attention by campaigning chef Jamie Oliver, is just one such example of the PR problems the industry still has to overcome in order to convince people of the healthy profile of frozen products.
Add to this the fact that many frozen products advertised on TV tend to fall into the less healthy category, such as pizzas and cakes, and it is not difficult to see why the category has failed to convince people of its health credentials.
Frozen ready meals is one category that has been badly affected by ongoing health concerns.
According to TNS, sales in the category dropped 8.5% in the latest year, with consumers leaving the freezer aisles for the supposedly fresher and healthier delights of the chiller cabinets.
However, frozen companies are starting to fight back, and are investing in marketing and promotional campaigns to improve the sector.
The most high-profile attempt is from Unilever, which has invested £21m in its &'five-star food frozen&' campaign that it hopes will help push the healthy aspect of its products and dispel many of the myths around frozen foods.
It&'s all about education, according to John Farrell, Birds Eye category director. "This new campaign aims to educate consumers that Birds Eye does not need to use preservatives because the food is kept fresh by nature&'s own preservative - freezing.
"In fact, when you look on the back of a Birds Eye pack, all of the ingredients are what you would find in your kitchen store cupboard at home."
However, it&'s not something that can be done by one company alone, points out Jon Smythe, head of customer marketing at McCain.
"The entire industry needs to work together to change consumer perception and overcome this deception," he says. "Frozen food manufacturers need to recognise that they have the right products, they just need to communicate the healthy message better. The key is to oversell our benefits."
Indeed. McCain is launching a £1m poster campaign that will demonstrate the simplicity of its frozen chip products, with posters showing the short journey of its products from ­potatoes growing in the ground to becoming chips.
Smythe advises a bit of heavy-duty spring-cleaning for those companies that don&'t meet the correct healthy grade. "Those that don&'t are letting the industry down; they need to address the skeletons in their closets," he says. "As an industry, we have to work together to create new messages. Our consumers need to be reassured, and after all, fresh is not as fresh as it looks."
Farrell echoes this sentiment: "Freezing can preserve vitamins and nutrients too, and can be better than some chilled food that&'s been standing around for days."
However, it is not just talking up the freezing process that is needed, frozen products need to also become healthier, according to Unilever. The company has extended its SteamFresh brand, which includes products such as a veg & rice mix, that are steamed in the microwave to retain more of the vegetables&' nutrients.
Unilever is also investing in new products that it believes will further push the health credentials of the category. This month it launched Turkey Drumsters, a breaded turkey drumstick product, to rival Bernard Matthews&' Golden Drummers brand, and which it claims is a much healthier alternative.
According to Farrell, if all Golden Drummers consumers switched to Drumsters, it would take 280 tonnes of fat out of the category.
As consumer trust in own-label products continues to build, the retailers are also making moves to clean up their act and help the category.
Charles Way, category product manager at Sainsbury, says it is not only the major brands that are taking action. "We have improved our ranges in terms of ­ingredient cleanliness and quality," he says. "For example, all Sainsbury&'s own-brand frozen ready meals have had no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives since last October. And we are working on extending this across the category."
And that&'s not the only solution, according to Simon Baxter, marketing manager at Ardo, the largest processor of fruit and vegetables in Europe.
"Salt levels can be reduced but flavour maintained by adding more vegetables, herbs and spices to products," says Baxter. He adds that Ardo is currently experiencing huge success with its frozen fruits, which are stocked by Sainsbury. Together the two companies have worked to develop recipe cards to give consumers different ideas on how to use frozen fruits.
Another example of a company pushing the healthy aspect of frozen foods is Wensleydale Foods, with its handmade range of Beth Guy&'s Little Pies and puddings.
Made from local meat, vegetables and dairy products, the meals have been designed with children in mind and contain nothing but natural ingredients and seasonings.n