Consumers in various markets across Europe significantly increased purchases of frozen foods during the coronavirus pandemic (SARS-CoV-2), looking to stock up during the initial stages of lockdowns, amid the uncertainty of how long the situation would last and how supply chains would hold up. As purveyors of long-lasting, healthy foods, producers of frozen vegetables and fruits were well placed to benefit from rising demand.
As stockpiling eventually dissipated, a couple of key factors continued to work in this category’s favor. According to Euromonitor International, one was the growing appreciation of how important a good level of base health was in avoiding the worst effects of Covid-19. The second was the increase in cooking. As eating occasions massively shifted to in-home, people had to work from their households, and restaurants, bars, cafes, etc. closed (or, where open, were subjected to restrictions in terms of hours, indoor seating, and/or the number of customers).
“While consumers have ably had the importance of health demonstrated, which should help keep these foods popular, a big challenge is that the foodservice sector is returning. This means those eating out occasions that moved into the home will be shifting back to some extent,” said Tom Rees, Euromonitor’s food and nutrition industry research manager. “The pandemic has had other effects, of course, and one is that the true economic impact has been somewhat delayed in many markets, thanks to government stimulus schemes. This is gradually having an impact, with food producers in general now facing higher costs for ingredients, labor and transportation. All of these could force an increase in prices, which, to a consumer base in a worse economic position than pre-pandemic, could be a significant challenge.”
Germany Remains Leader in Europe
Europe is the second largest market for the frozen fruits, vegetables, and herbs products, after North America, accounting for nearly 32.4% of the global share. According to research from MarketsandMarkets, consumption of frozen fruits, vegetables and herbs is further expected to grow at a CAGR of ~5% during the next five years. The increasing consumption of frozen fruits and vegetables in Europe is majorly driven by the growing consumer demand for convenience and faster-to-prepare foods. With the highest per capita consumption of frozen food, Germany still stands tall as the leading European country in terms of imports of both vegetables and fruit.
According to the Deutsches Tiefkühlinstitut (dti), the coronavirus pandemic has driven frozen food consumption throughout Germany, especially the product groups which are ideal for self-cooking, such as potato products (+ 18.2%), vegetables (+ 16.3%) and fruit, a category which also saw an above-average increase of 16.7%.
“The home delivery service also recorded a significant increase in demand, as the service of having frozen products delivered directly to the doorstep experienced a renaissance and was able to win over many new customers. This demand was driven by customers, who preferred to avoid going to the supermarket, to reduce the risk of infection,” said Dr. Sabine Eichner, managing director of dti.
Value-added Ingredients and Healthy Products a Priority
Vegetable and herbs producers contacted for this article say that they are optimistic in regard to the future of these categories. This is mainly because consumers are driving the trends and are interested in both “superfoods” and healthy products. For example, pulses, grains, and grilled vegetables are on top of the list and there is an ongoing revival for ingredients that are often used as an alternative for meat.
According to Ooigem, Belgium-headquartered Crop’s NV, people fall back on specific ingredients that will allow them to get proteins fibers, and other nutritional benefits out of functional ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans. Moreover, Crop’s representatives say that grilled vegetables remain a product group with huge potential.
“The grilling aspect of a veggie elevates it to the next level in terms of quality. Grilling vegetables enhances the natural taste profile of the vegetables and is also the perfect base to use for summer dishes. We offer a complete range of such products. For instance, our facility in Belgium cooks and freezes pulse ingredients and grains, following the cooking requirements of the different markets. The grilled vegetables are coming from our production plant in Spain, where the focus is on grilling and frying Mediterranean vegetables,” said Marie Meguerba, vegetables category manager at Crop’s.
A second trend that producers point out is health and the interest in locally sourced products. According to Crop’s, depending on the country, consumers want to get closer to the product and prefer buying local or getting insights on the provenance of what they eat. The company’s latest investment in a new facility in France is a good example, as it offers French-origin vegetables to French consumers.
Producers need to bring the guarantee of a sustainable farm to fork lifecycle, along with the product to the shelf, according to Meguerba.
She remarked: “Topics like carbon footprint, water and biodiversity are rising quickly, and we believe that the ideas of regenerative agriculture will be key in our approach to respond to this. Our role in these trends is to be the early adaptor, trying new technologies and approaches and making them ready for large-scale applications. We want to be the accelerator for sustainable techniques in vegetable farmland and fruit orchards management.”
Moreover, health and prevention are not only about avoiding unhealthy products, but also a step forward to look for those that benefit the immune system. All recently introduced product lines, such as plant-based, veggie, clean label, natural fats, etc. are related to health and prevention. And this, along with sustainability, is here to stay.
According to the Virto Group, which owns Oerlemans Foods Nederland BV, the pandemic has pointed out more than ever the concern for health and prevention. Consumers and producers are looking for products that have a positive impact on the body.
“Since we produce frozen vegetables, we start from a good position. Our products are natural, healthy, and have many benefits by themselves. That is the reason why we always say we are producers of health. We are constantly working on new solutions to offer complete and balanced meals to consumers. The key point is to satisfy the customer by listening to the consumer,” said Eva Virto, director of business development and innovation department at Azagra, Spain-headquartered Virto Group.
Pointing out that the company bases its NPD on the principle of continuous improvement, she added: “We question and rethink everything to improve. This principle is well-known and put into practice within the whole Group, but it’s especially present at Virto Group Innovation Center. It is focused on developing new products and processes and improving existing ones. We are currently working on new veggie, nutritious and delicious solutions to satisfy both the clients’ and consumers’ needs.”
Ardo, which is ranked as Europe’s No. 1 producer of frozen vegetables in volume terms, agrees that today’s end-consumers pay more attention than ever to healthy meals, convenience and products with a long shelf life.
“Ardo fits perfectly in the trends of takeaway, food delivery, veggie, vegan and convenience. Our latest innovation, beet bacon, is a great example of this. These pre-fried crispy beetroot lardons are an ideal vegan alternative to bacon cubes, thanks to their smokey flavor. The beetroot bacon is gluten-free and delicious in salads or pasta, on a pizza, or with goat cheese,” said Tahnee Leroy, group marketing manager of the Ardooie, Belgium-headquartered company. “Ardo is constantly innovating. It all starts with our customers. We listen to their demands for products and constantly review their requirements and market trends.”
Ardo is committed to the frozen vegetable, herb, and fruit industry and is confident that the sector’s outlook is bright for providers of nutritious, affordable products that will help to assure food security and reduce food waste. The company is proactive in exploring and introducing more sustainable agricultural production methods, which have been translated into their MIMOSA program, which stands for Minimum Impact, Maximum Output, Sustainable Agriculture. Moreover, the circular economy is a keyword in Ardo’s production process.
Exotic Herbs on the Menu
In a similar manner to frozen vegetables, the market for frozen green herbs is still growing, as more and more consumers are getting to know the benefits of fresh frozen herbs. One of the main frozen herbs producers, Hulshout, Belgium-headquartered Herbafrost believes that more herbs are used to give dishes aroma and taste in a healthy way, which is why the demand for exotic herbs is also increasing.
“The main trend is that people are using more exotic herbs. We see an increase in demand for fenugreek, Thai basil, coriander, kaffir lime leaves, marjoram and ginger,” said Managing Director Peter van Asten.
The company supplies sustainable products that are processed ecologically, and works with growers near production areas, using its water purification station, heat pump, and solar panels. In addition, the company also has access to several storage areas in Spain, Italy and Germany, which means that remote transports can be reduced.
“In terms of innovation, Herbafrost recently introduced Herbal Drops, a unique combination of compact shape, fiber-free enjoyment, and extremely intense taste,” said Van Asten. This modern product can be used differently, due to its compactness and the dosage is very easy: they come as ready-for-use in 5g or 20g portions, in practical 300g resealable bags, or 10kg boxes. This makes them very popular even with consumers, completely following the trend of healthy convenience and can be used in ready meals, soups, pesto, pasta, dressings, salad dressings, marinades, spreads, juices, sorbets, cocktails, or smoothies, as their natural aroma improves the nutritional value of all preparations.”
Frozen Fruit? Try Smoothies!
Frozen fruit producers say that smoothies represent one of the main trends this year. Alongside smoothies, they say that three factors are driving frozen food trends: one is the rising popularity of frozen foods in general; another is the pandemic effect, which positively influenced the entire frozen segment; and the third is the increasing interest in dietary and lifestyle changes.
“Frozen fruits bring convenience and the health factor to consumers,” said Bert Synaeve, sales and marketing director at Lummen, Belgium-based Dirafrost, a member of the Agrana Group. “We’ve noticed that our frozen fruits also fit perfectly in today’s most popular diets and healthy lifestyles. Dirafrost launched a range of smoothies in retail for people to also enjoy a high-quality smoothie at home, knowing that recent trends above will continue in 2021-2022.
The company has built up more than 30 years’ worth of expertise and decided the time is right to present these healthy snacks in retail, directly to the end consumer, under the Belgian DIRA brand. The fruit portions are packed in 150g bags, for homemade smoothies or milkshakes, ready for use.
“Our R&D department explores all options and possibilities as we are continuously looking for ways to improve our product range and packaging materials, to emphasize sustainability. Dirafrost used to be a pure IQF-focused company, so we produced our fruits, sourcing, and supply on a global scale. We’ve been moving towards added-value products and foodservice, and as such, we needed different products,” said Synaeve. “Today we also offer fruit mixes, smoothies, fruit purees, and coulis. Over the past few years, we also started focusing on the bakery and ice cream markets, and we are currently working on new developments in that convenience portfolio. Offering fruit solutions, and becoming a frozen fruit solutions provider has become one of our most important goals today.”
Smoothies seem to have captured the attention of other areas in Europe as well, including the Eastern European markets. One of the leading producers of frozen foods in the region is Macromex, with its brand Edenia, from Romania. Although the market in this country is underdeveloped, compared to its potential, Macromex/Edenia representatives believe that a growing number of consumers are increasingly interested in the value of frozen foods, once they understand the benefits.
“Edenia is a modern brand that intends to stay relevant for all consumer segments, via its diverse portfolio. Young consumers are much more ready to consume frozen foods, especially fruits, to reduce the time spent in the kitchen. For us, fruit smoothies represent a category with a strong upwards trend in Romania, but also in other Central and Eastern European countries. Edenia offers a range of three different types of smoothie mixes, ready to drink in just 30 seconds,” said Camelia Manoil, the company’s senior brand manager.
Macromex, under the Edenia brand, is mostly present in retail and e-commerce with its portfolio of smoothie mixes, but also IQF vegetables, soup mixes, and ethnic ready meals.
European Markets Remain Highly Competitive
With the growing number of consumers turning to frozen foods, the strong demand for healthy convenience products, including frozen fruits, vegetables and herbs is here to stay. In the United Kingdom, for example, 51% of shoppers claimed that they ate more fruit and vegetables than usual, during the first national lockdown, creating a real opportunity for the food and consumer goods industry to turn positive new habits into long-term changes to their diets.
“Frozen food is growing rapidly in several European markets. The lack of preservatives positions it as a healthy option and it’s viewed as a sustainable choice, given that frozens reduce imports and minimize waste for shoppers. As a result, frozen vegetable categories continue to expand, with a focus on quality,” said Jon Wright, Head of Retail Insight, EMEA, IGD.
Lastly, in countries that have a shortage of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, frozen products are preferred, as they are also devoid of any unwanted additives. Therefore, the market for these categories remains highly competitive in Europe as many large players are vying for market share, with the provision of better-quality, differentiated and nutritious products. — Reported by Dan Orehov