Grocery Opinion Packaged Food

Frozen Food Is Shedding Its Reputation With Chef-Driven, Healthier Meals

“Frozen food is on fire.”

Photo: Mikey’s Pizza Pockets

These words from Sam Rockwell, CEO of frozen food brands Happi Foodi and WaffleWaffle, couldn’t be more true right now. While the freezer aisle of grocery stores has had a reputation of being processed and unhealthy, that image has slowly melted away. The numbers back it up, too: Data from Nielsen reveals that in 2018, dollar sales in the frozen foods industry jumped up 2.2%. That’s some of the best growth the industry has seen in the past five years. What is it, though, that’s causing consumers to come back to frozen food?

A lot of varying factors are at play here, but one of the big-picture keys appears to be that retailers are turning to frozen for growth. Companies like Amazon are dominating the food and fresh delivery space, but sending frozen food via mail in a similar fashion is still a struggle. Retailers like Walmart benefit from this, and are able to be that hub for consumers who are looking for different frozen foods.

To capitalize on that effect, though, big retailers have to ensure that their products are on trend. While larger food companies can take 3-5 years to innovate, according to Rockwell, a smaller firm can do the same thing in a fraction of the time. As a result, a lot of younger startups, including brands like Happi Foodi, are finding an increasing demand for their products on a national scale.

Photo courtesy of Happi Foodi

Happi Foodi has found success in its chef-driven meals and snacks that are best described as “frozen gourmet.” Items like Cuban Style Egg Rolls, Tequila Lime Chicken, and Whiskey Sauce Meatballs appeal to customers who see it as a way to break past the entry barriers they perceive exist to becoming a foodie. Many “foodie destinations,” places like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York City, seem far away to the rest of the country, and the fantastical foods that pop up on Instagram from there are dishes many can only dream of tasting. Frozen food helps makes those dreams reality because of the ease of storage, natural preservation of flavors, and ability to access from just about anywhere.

The frozen food industry can now take on this “foodie” appeal because brands like Happi Foodi are backed by chefs who have moved into the food industry. These chefs, or “culinologists,” as some call themselves, are changing how the industry thinks about everything from flavor to texture in our foods. The quality of frozen protein and the consistency, and taste of sauces has improved drastically as a result, rebuilding trust in the frozen food brands that deliver on all of these senses.

Recapturing public sentiment in the frozen food aisle has allowed the industry become creative and diverse. Everything from plant-based frozen dinners to microwavable burritos that swap out the cheap eggs and cheese for sweet potatoes and Forbidden Rice can now be found in that part of the grocery store. As we all crave and desire more ethnic flavors, especially those we aren’t as familiar with, frozen food producers are making those accessible to us.

Photo courtesy of Swapples

Freezing food, especially at the below-zero temperatures the industry uses, allows you to capture the freshness of that moment right after a chef plates their crafted meal and keep the dish there for a period of months. That long shelf life allows you to make higher quality meals that last longer, as well as tailor them to any lifestyle, whether it be Whole 30, Paleo, or allergen-free.

This is where companies like Swapples do best. A frozen yuca waffle maker, Swapples cuts almost entirely all sugar out of its batter while adhering to a plant-based and allergen-friendly diet. Founded in 2016, co-founder Rebecca Peress has seen her brand explode across the United States, and the health and better-for-you aspects of her waffles play a huge role in that.

“There’s way more to choose from now in the frozen section than there was 10,15 years ago,” Peress said. “You can find a natural version of almost everything. I think that’s where we’re at now. I think the next phase, which is where [Swapples] already is, is taking a look at the ingredients.”

Peress is talking about the clean label trend that has taken over the processed foods industry. Companies and fast food brands today are looking to remove preservatives, colors, and flavors out of food to meet consumer demands. Frozen food can do it a lot quicker and easier because their key preservative is temperature, rather than an ingredient like sugar or salt. It means that reformulation of healthier foods, is a lot simpler to pull off. That’s why you see everything from paleo pizza pockets to ice cream that helps you sleep better at night sweeping across stores nationwide.

Photo courtesy of Happi Foodi

Another key reason why frozen food is performing is the nostalgia factor. We all grew up on Eggo Waffles, frozen sausages, Hungry-Man dinners, and other products we could pick up quickly in the freezer aisle. In an era where everything has gone gourmet, there’s often a longing for the tried and true classics. Of course, the health awareness around these today has changed drastically, so we know to look for that taste of our youth balanced with the nutritional needs we’re looking for. Thus, we’re not just demanding that the food industry giants satisfy those needs — we’re creating the companies that meet them as well, whether it be Swapples, Happi Foodi or someone else in between.

Frozen food, in turn, has now become something that satisfies all of the trends we’re searching and makes them more accessible to everyone. As companies continue to innovate and grow, they’re bringing more nutritious, more creative, and more clean-label alternatives to the freezer aisle. That has drastically changed the industry for the better, allowing it to shed its reputation of heavily processed products that are bad for you. With all of that change and resulting demand, we’ll all be adding more and more frozen foods to our shopping bags as the category continues to skyrocket.

By Constantine Spyrou

Constantine's life revolves around eating, studying, and talking about food. He's obsessed with eggs, gyros, and the future of food.