You might not know it, but frozen foods have a long history in grocery retail. In 1924, Clarence Birdseye developed the technology to freeze food, and that technology became the basis for frozen foods as we know and love them today.

During World War II, frozen foods gained popularity as other foods were rationed, but the category started seeing a downward trend in interest after the war. New innovations in the 1950s renewed interest in frozen foods, and that interest kept growing well into the new Millennium.

Fast forward another 20 years to March 2020, when frozen foods became one of the hottest topics in grocery retail due to the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the ensuing pandemic. Suddenly, grocery shelves were down to bare bones due to consumers’ rush to panic buy and stock up on essentials as seemingly the entire country went under stay-at-home orders. No category was left unaffected, including frozen foods. And since then, interest in frozen foods has increased among consumers, and the frozen foods suppliers have responded, tapping into consumer trends and expanding their innovation. There has also been a rapid rise in the number of frozen food suppliers that have joined RangeMe–from the end of 2019 through April 2021, suppliers of frozen meals and sides grew 131%, frozen meat grew 80%, and frozen vegetables grew 101%.

Let’s take a look at three of the top trends we’re seeing in what is becoming a dynamic category.

1. Consumers are cool with frozen foods

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people shop and what they’re shopping for. Frozen foods are a perfect example of that, as it’s a rapidly rising category over the past year with sales spiking 21% in 2020 and growing more than 13% in volume for the same time. At the end of 2019, there were 3,290 frozen food suppliers on RangeMe, and that number has jumped to 5,243 as of April 2021–a growth of almost 60%. 

Why the increase in popularity of frozen foods? Much of it has to do with the fact that more Americans eat at home these days, and cooking fatigue sets in fast. Consumers are reaching for frozen foods across breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as frozen foods provide relief from the rinse and repeat cycle of making three meals a day for a family. With pre-prepped ingredients that consumers can easily toss together, or in some cases, fully prepped meal kits, frozen foods are taking all the guesswork out of creating a meal beyond pulling out the one you want from the freezer case. What’s more, consumers are purchasing products that meet their needs and values, and frozen food manufacturers are listening, which leads us to the second trend we’re seeing.

2. Frozen foods are innovating faster than you can say, “Freeze!”

The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) predicts that frozen foods will continue their upward trend well into 2021, based on several key factors, including that frozen foods manufacturers are providing offerings that meet consumers’ dietary needs. From plant-based foods to immunity-boosting foods to personalized nutrition, innovation in frozen food shows consumers that there is something for everyone in the freezer case and speaks to the varied lifestyles of consumers today.

3. Frozen food safety is on the rise

Food safety across categories has been a topic of note in the past year, as consumers are taking a deeper look at how their foods are processed and packaged, and wanting to ensure that what they’re eating is safe. In March 2020, in-person food inspection shut down, though technology gave rise to virtual audits later in the year to keep food safety in check. Government agencies, academic labs, and trade associations have guidelines and best practices that manufacturers need to adhere to, and the AFFI notes that there are three essential programs that manufacturers should engage with to keep their products safe:

A) A Listeria control program, which brings together seven key areas to control risks around Listeria in food manufacturing facilities and offers recommendations and resources for manufacturers

B) Employing a robust cleaning and sanitation program to prevent cross-contamination, spoilage, and foodborne pathogens

C) Establish a microbiological sampling and testing program to identify microbiological hazards within production and also helps verify a food safety program’s effectiveness.

Following these programs, AAFI notes, will “help manufacturers…create, implement, and continuously improve upon food safety practices, and that ultimately will help foster consumer trust and loyalty.

The future is frozen

While the frozen food category has boomed over the past year, it doesn’t look like it has any plans to slow down. Not only has the ongoing pandemic played into that, but before the coronavirus became a daily word in our lexicon, research was showing a new generation of frozen food shoppers coming up. Millennial interest has helped, as a CB Insights report noted that this generation spends 9% more on frozen foods than other age demographics, and Gen Z is not far behind.

Combine these factors with the trends discussed above, and it’s clear that frozen food is the latest category to shine in grocery retail.

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