The frozen foods sector must be one of the few areas where you can still mention Jamie Oliver’s name without the danger of getting a school dinner over your head.
It crops up time and again as manufacturers discuss the health benefits of frozen food and credit him with bringing more attention to the need for healthy eating.
Simon Baxter, marketing director for Ardo UK, which produces a lot of own-label frozen fruit and vegetables, says that, since Oliver’s tirade against school dinners, people have become a lot more aware of what they are cooking with - and this has benefited the sector.
“We have seen fruit sales growing this year. Blueberries and grapes are really good sweeteners and contribute to the 5-a-day. People are becoming more aware that the ingredients in frozen
come from the same fields as fresh, but they’re treated slightly differently - in fact, our products end up being fresher.”
Another celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, has made frozen fish provider Young’s commercial director Jim Cane happy. “His Royal Hospital Road restaurant has 16 dishes - 10 of which are fish. Ten years ago, one or two fish
dishes would have been a surprise.” Cane reckons the endorsement of such opinion-formers is helping push people into the frozen seafood category, but he says that, much as consumers love the idea of fish and its high-protein, low-fat content, there is “a requirement for reassurance and frozen gives this”.
He believes the barrier is that people feel “a bit uncomfortable with fish” and worry about what they should do with it. The answer, he says, lies in making it as easy to deal with as chicken by providing it frozen in a variety of formats, and pushing the health benefits.
“Wherever you use fish you’re still starting from the basis of a healthy protein, so even fish ready meals are naturally low in fat,” he says.
Indeed, fish is one of the few categories in growth within frozen foods, up 2.8% year-on-year (TNS 52 w/e March 27, 2005) at £711m.
Also with its eye on the healthy market, Unilever launched its SteamFresh range of microwavable frozen vegetables. Trading director James Simmons says: “Consumers know they should eat more vegetables but preparing food can be time-consuming. SteamFresh is convenient, quick and easy to use and each individual pack provides one of the recommended 5-a-day portions.”
Meanwhile, Easycuizine’s James Cook says: “We use only fresh ingredients, fully traceable, and local. People are becoming more aware of what they eat.”
Manufacturers across the board are adamant they are taking steps to reduce salt and fat levels wherever possible. Nonetheless, the sector remains frustrating in terms of health issues, reckons Nisafreeze senior trading controller David Stokes. “You cannot get fresher than a frozen ready meal, pizza or dessert, but the consumer still feels that chilled is better for them. They tend to buy chilled products and put them in the freezer at home, thinking they will be fresher. This is simply not true,” he says.