Omega-3 fish fingers are the star of frozen

Never has frozen been so cool. In 2007 Sexy French Celebrity chef Jean Christophe Novelli got into bed, as it were, with Findus. This year David Beckham, Paul McCartney and Delia Smith all joined the party, albeit to mixed effect.

Delia was busy talking up frozen potatoes. The doyenne of British cooking promoted a raft of frozen potato products in her How to Cheat at Cooking series and book launched back in February.

Overall the potato sector grew only 2% in value to £522.7m with Aunt Bessie's Homestyle Chips proving the biggest beneficiary, up 8% in value to £25.6m. "The frozen potato category continues to grow as it becomes more relevant to today's consumers," says McCain marketing director Simon Eyles. "There was a perception that frozen products were over-processed and full of additives but what Delia demonstrated and what we've manage to promote with campaigns such as It's All Good is that actually what consumers are getting is good, simple, natural food."

This shift, also supported by campaigns such as Birds Eye's Good Mood Food, has helped the category move towards being accepted as a source of ingredients rather than just a category of quick snacks and ready meals. This is demonstrated by the decline of Micro Chips, down 11% to £21.9m, but also the fall of the frozen ready meal category, down 2.4% to £433m this year.

Young's experienced the biggest drop in this sector, down 3.6% over the year, and Birds Eye didn't fare much better with a 2.9% slide in its ready meal range. However there was some good news, with both Findus (no doubt helped by its Novelli-endorsed range) and WeightWatchers posting solid growth, up 19.3% and 11% respectively.

Heinz, which makes the WeightWatchers frozen meals, puts this down to its new focus on taste and quality rather then just the low-calorie message. "We've spent a lot of physical and financial resources this year on communicating the taste benefits of WeightWatchers foods," says Ian McCarthy, marketing manager WeightWatchers from Heinz. "We still deliver on health, which is inherent in the brand, but by increasing the focus on taste as well we are bringing new consumers into the range and category."

Meanwhile, Paul McCartney was busy extolling the virtues of frozen vegetarian food, not least the Linda McCartney range. "We're going all out to make sure people know frozen is out there and tasting better than ever before," he told The Grocer in June.

Pie fans will be hoping Northern Foods' acquisition of both the McDougall's and ­Uppercrust brands in January will translate into similar innovation in frozen, down a dismal 6.5% even as, at the premium end posh Higgidy Pies, Pieminister and their ilk go from strength to strength in chilled. Northern also owns piemaker Holland's (down 3.1% to £8m) and has announced investment in this brand for next year.

The best category performance was fish, up 5.9% to £737.5m, driven not by Beckham's foray into omega-3 fish fingers (which were launched in October so have no bearing on these figures) but by Birds Eye's omega-3 offer, which posted a 930.4% rise in value to £19.9m.

"There is no doubt the story of the year was omega-3," says Birds Eye trade marketing manager Pete Johnson. "We are very pleased our strategy to focus on this trend has paid off. "

Other fish fingers under the Birds Eye umbrella fared less well. For example Oven Crispy Fillet Fish Fingers, which experienced a 4.1% decline in contrast to last year's 34% rise. However, the company insists its omega-3 launch hasn't cannibalised sales from existing brands. "Our research shows that 60% of omega-3 purchases are incremental to the category," Johnson says. "That growth is coming from increased frequency. The health benefits of omega-3 have given consumers the green light to eat fish fingers more regularly, but also a rise in fish consumption in general is having an effect."

Top Launch - Chicago Town Edge to edge Pizza (Dr Oetker) 
The number one pet hate of pizza fans according to Schwan's is not having enough topping on their pizzas - an issue the

company has tackled with its Chicago Town Edge to Edge pizza, which it claims has 20% more topping than its rivals. Since the

September launch of the thin-base pizzas, which come in New York deli, Manhattan chicken and California cheese flavours, Schwan Food Co has been sold to German company Dr Oetker.
The frozen pizza category also performed strongly, and it was doubtless Chicago Town's growth that prompted Dr Oetker to acquire the brand, together with Schwan's European pizza operations, earlier this month. With just two serious players now in branded pizza, it will be better equipped to cope with the growth of own label, which is up 9.1%.

Own label dominates still further in the declining frozen and ice cream desserts category. The once-great Viennetta was down again in value, to £15.2m, a fall of 10.1%. But there were exceptions. Heinz WeightWatchers desserts posted an 18.1% rise to £11.1m in a category that fell 0.3% overall. Its eclairs also grew in value, up 7.7%, a result that saw them move from seventh to fourth in the chart. Aunt Bessie's Hot Pies was another winner, up 51.4% to £5.3m.

"People don't associate indulgence as much in the frozen category as with chilled desserts but when you get the proposition right, such as the healthy indulgence of WeightWatchers or the traditional comfort puds of Aunt Bessie's, people will buy into it," McCarthy says. "It just goes to show how we have to keep innovating as the category changes. What consumers wanted two or three years ago isn't necessarily what they want from frozen now."

View The Grocer's definitive Top Products 2008 survey