While consumers were already snacking more throughout the day, this was escalated even more while people were working and nesting at home during the pandemic. 46 percent of consumers said they were snacking more during the pandemic and 58 percent of consumers said snacking with be part of the post pandemic “new normal.” While consumers did snack on healthy items, research by Farm Rich notes that in a year of quarantining and social distancing, many Americans have chosen to eat like a kid again and nostalgic food has made a big comeback.

As people begin to emerge from the pandemic, health and wellness will be top of mind and consumers will want to experience new foods and flavors. This will drive an increase in better for you, plant-based, and authentic ethnic options in the frozen snack and appetizer category.

Market data

With the increase in snacking it is not surprising that the frozen appetizer and snack category experienced another year of double-digit growth, up 14.6 percent to $3.1 billion based on the latest 52 weeks ending May 16, 2021, per IRI, Chicago. The frozen appetizer and snack category is comprised of the following segments: frozen appetizers and snacks, frozen pretzels, and frozen breaded vegetables. The frozen appetizer and snack segment also experienced growth up 13.5 percent to just shy of $3.0 billion. Nearly every company in the top 10 experienced growth during this period. Here are the highlights:

  • General Mills was up 5.7 percent driven by the performance of Totino’s Pizza Snacks, which grew 5.6 percent to $721.6 million
  • Rich Products Corp (Farm Rich brand) was up 13.8 percent to $206.0 million
  • All three of the Kraft Heinz brands demonstrated growth:
    • Bagel Bites grew 4.7 percent to $202.2 million
    • Delimex grew 12.9 percent to $182.3 million
    • TGIFriday’s increased 11.4 percent to $139.2 million
  • Schwan’s Pagoda brand continued its upward momentum increasing 56.8 percent to $58.2 million
  • Two additional standouts include Morningstar Farms’ plant-based Veggitizers, which grew a phenomenal 960 percent to $35.3 million, and CJ Bibigo Korean inspired appetizers, which jumped 179.6 percent to $34.2 million

The frozen pretzel segment had another strong year, increasing 20.6 percent to $95.1 million, per IRI. Growth was driven by the market leader, J&J Snack Food Corp., which has almost an 85 percent market share; the company was up an impressive 21.6 percent growing to $79.9 million. The company’s signature line of products, the SuperPretzel, was up 16.1 percent to $50.8 million and the Superpretzel Soft Pretzel Bites grew an impressive 75.4 percent to $9.0 million. The company’s Auntie Anne’s line also had a strong performance increasing 61.5 percent to $7.7 million.

Looking back

“The demand for ready-made frozen foods and authentic international flavors is soaring and continuing to grow as the need for convenience, flavor variety, and satisfaction has become the top priorities to consumers,” notes Carl Motter, chief sales officer, Van’s Kitchen, Dallas, TX.

In response to the growing demand, the company is preparing fans for the ultimate treat with the launch of the newest addition to its signature line, the Chili Lime Chicken Egg Roll. “Chili lime is an up-and-coming flavor profile. Restaurants are seeing this trend grow as well. Over the past 4 years this flavor experience has increased on menus by 48 percent, mostly in national chain restaurants. This bold product blends the familiarity of traditional Asian fusion with zesty and explosive ingredients for the most mouth-watering egg roll yet,” shares Motter. The new product will feature white meat chicken, fresh thinly sliced cabbage, sweet carrots and aromatic onions with a zesty chili lime seasoning in a crispy, crunchy wrapper. The product will be available nationwide this summer.

Sensient Flavors and Extracts notes that new product introductions in the frozen snack and appetizer category are focused in a few key areas: flavor and taste from around the world, health and wellness for body and mind and sustainability with both ingredients and packaging. Mathias Bohn V., product portfolio manager North America, Sensient Flavors & Extracts, Hoffman Estates, IL notes that consumer taste expectations are not universal and shares some of the flavor and seasoning trends he is seeing in the category:

  • European vacation: after years of scouring the world for flavor inspiration, we’ve made a return to exploring some of the most classic flavors and cuisines of Europe. Regionality is also trending as consumers realize each country’s cuisine isn’t homogenous.
    • Examples: basil, mozzarella, tomato along with Mediterranean claims for profile or ingredients
  • Asian ascension: Asia is an unexplored area for many consumers, with many different regions with their own unique ingredients and flavors. Korean has finally started hitting the mainstream, Japanese is rising because of the upcoming Olympic games, and Indian and Thai are being more fully explored.
    • Examples: black garlic, specific curry callouts (coconut, red, green, etc.), yuzu, furikake seasoning, kimchi
  • Middle Eastern makes waves: All over the world people are moving; some by choice, others under duress. By celebrating their rich heritages and cuisines, refugee populations are making culinary connections with their new home countries. The Middle East is now at the top of their list.
    • Examples: za’atar, harissa, baharat, saffron, ras el hanout
  • Loving Latin America: While many are familiar with the standard Mexican fare, there are many other Latin flavors that have begun to trend. The tropical influence of South America has captured interest as well.
    • Examples: churrasco, mole, aji amarillo
    • Examples of some countries of interest: Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Chile
  • Additional taste profiles to look for:
    • Adults Only: example bourbon smoked peach
    • Fusion Frenzy: example hot honey or Hoisin BBQ
    • Inspired Indulgence: example caramelized onion loaded baked potato
    • Classic with a Twist: Hatch Chili-loaded nachos
    • Regional Resurgence: like Kentucky Black or Memphis Rub BBQ

International flavors, led by Hispanic flavors, are driving innovation in the frozen snack and appetizer category notes Nicole Armstrong, director of marketing, Food Solutions, QualiTech, Chaska, MN. “Consumers’ taste for heat is deepening but they want depth of flavor to drive that heat. Chipotle flavors are no longer hot enough! Flavors like Aleppo Peppers and Carolina Reapers flavors are driving purchases.”

Proper flavor and seasoning are critical especially with frozen foods, since the flavor can dissipate when the food is heated. Mark Zoske, founder and CEO, Saltworks, Woodinville, WA, knows and understands this well.

“We work directly with R&D teams to help them identify the right salts to elevate the flavor of their frozen food concepts, whether they are looking for on-trend flavors like our Fusion Black Truffle Salt or want to create an authentic smokey flavor profile using our smoked salts. With our unique Perfect Smoke technology, our smoked salts are activated when heat is applied, creating a deeper, smokier flavor when the frozen food is properly heated.”

Michael Buononato, senior vice president, Creative Food Solutions shares some examples of the new flavorful and exciting products that have helped transform the frozen food aisle and are now available on the market. Trader Joes, for example, has items such as Pastry Pups, which are elevated pigs in a blanket with a Parmesan crust and hints of garlic. Whole Foods Market recently launched a Potato & Pea Samosa, an item with spicy green chili, cilantro, and turmeric.

According to Farm Rich, 2020 was the year of the comfort food comeback. Typically in uncertain and stressful times, people seek out food for comfort and solace. In research conducted by OnePoll in conjunction with Farm Rich the study showed that two in three Americans were reverting to childhood food favorites and eating more comfort food during the pandemic. 69 percent said that post-pandemic, they’ll continue to enjoy the same amount of comfort food that they eat now.

The elevated stress and anxiety levels consumers experienced as a result of the pandemic had consumers reaching for comforting flavors when snacking. “While snack food flavors have trended toward bolder flavors, the pandemic also has people seeking familiar nostalgic flavors. Related to comfort seeking consumers, indulgence is a major factor in consumer product choices. Over the top flavors continue to rise in popularity,” shares Armstrong.

Consumers are also looking for more bite-size and shareable snacks and appetizers that appeal to the whole family but are also suitable, quick and convenient for hungry kids. “Finding flavors for the whole family can be tricky, but nostalgic flavors like Mac N Cheese—as well as new more sophisticated cheese flavors like Gouda and Cotija—are driving trial,” shares Armstrong.

With consumers having more sedentary lifestyles during the pandemic, coupled with an increase in snacking throughout the day, this is driving consumers to focus more on permissible indulgences including plant-based options. This offers the comfort of traditional flavors but with less guilt. Other nutritional benefits being sought by consumers include natural, organic, non-GMO and clean label ingredients. “Consumers are seeking increasingly creative efforts from food companies that provide the flavor and texture they want, while also supporting their overall health and wellness goals,” shares Armstrong.

Health and wellness continue to impact all areas of the food industry, including frozen foods. “Consumers continue to seek out better-for-you foods that are made with real ingredients, feature less artificial ingredients, less sugar and less sodium. We’ve seen a surge in plant-based offerings, as well as frozen foods that align with certain diet trends like the Paleo, Keto, and Whole30,” notes Zoske.

Buononato notes the frozen snack category has been booming with creative concepts, healthier ingredients and on-trend applications. “There’s been an influx of alternative plant-based meats such as plant chicken nuggets and veggie burgers. Power bowls, a huge trend in the last year, offer everything you need including a source of protein, veggies and grains.”

Some additional plant-based products that recently hit the market include Nasoya Vegan Korean BBQ Dumplings, which combines a range of sweet, savory and smoky flavors. The product is certified organic and vegan and is filled with Nasoya’s Super Firm high-protein tofu, vegetables and spices and are packed with 9 grams of protein per serving. Nestle launched Meatless Lifestyle Buffalo Style Cauliflower Bites under its LIFE CUISINE brand. These buffalo-style cauliflower bites are made with cauliflower florets which are breaded and tossed in a mild buffalo sauce, and they’re also a good source of Vitamin C.

Looking forward

Even with the country beginning to recover from the pandemic, there will still be a number of people continuing to work from home or who don’t feel comfortable traveling. These people will want be able to experience new foods and flavors. “I think people want to be transported somewhere other than their own home and had the urge to travel and explore; our egg rolls and Asian flavors gave them that. According to Datassential’s research, ethnic foods are the most missed by restaurant consumers, with Asian and Mexican foods, topping the list,” states Motter.

The majority of the companies interviewed for this article shared a similar viewpoint that creating or partnering with leading foodservice or restaurant establishments to bring the restaurant experience to the frozen food aisle is a growing opportunity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased consumer awareness of how diet-related diseases might put them at an increased risk of the disease and is causing people to pay greater attention to the nutritional content of their diets. In consumer minds, plant-based products are healthier by a wide margin, and that the future lies in a plant-based diet. As health and wellness continues to be a focus, plant-based options that are veggie-forward should capitalize on the inherent health-halo of those ingredients. However, education, taste and variety will be very important, if consumers are to move to a plant-based lifestyle,” shares Bohn.

The importance of health and wellness and the plant-based movement is another area where the majority of the companies are in agreement, and see this driving growth in the frozen appetizer and snack category.