Pandemic Trend: Frozen Food and Related Packaging Spike in 2020

Pandemic Trend: Frozen Food and Related Packaging Spike in 2020

2020 was a fine year for ice cream and other frozen food items in grocery stores, as consumers found themselves nesting at home more than ever before during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • With many restaurants closed, consumers began cooking more, driving up sales of convenient, healthy ready-to-heat frozen dinners (especially single-serve meal bowls), seasoned vegetables for a quick and easy side dish, and other frozen specialties like pizzas.
  • Additionally, as a result of the supply shortages seen early on in the pandemic, many consumers began stockpiling their freezers in anticipation of future shortages – with items such as frozen meat, poultry, and seafood and baked goods like bread among popular purchases.
  • Seeking comfort in a fraught time, many consumers began making more indulgence purchases, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, which saw among the largest sales increases of any frozen food category in 2020.

The spike in consumer frozen food sales in 2020 corresponded with a 5% increase in demand for related packaging from 2019 levels, according to a new Freedonia Group analysis. Additionally, heightened sales of frozen foods are expected to carry forward beyond the pandemic – supporting packaging demand – as consumers become increasingly accustomed to the convenience of frozen foods and as they become more familiar with the quality and variety of frozen dinners, entrées, and other available items.

Which types of packaging benefitted most from these trends, and what are their prospects for the long term? Below, we highlight some of the key findings from our research.

Tubs, Cups, & Bowls, Ever-Popular for Ice Cream, Continue to Carve Strong Niche in Frozen Specialties

Tubs, Cups and Bowls

Demand for frozen food tubs, cups, and bowls – the most used packaging type for ice cream, as well as for premium desserts like gelato – grew at a slightly above average rate in 2020, and is expected to remain strong throughout the pandemic as demand for frozen desserts remains elevated.

Additionally, demand growth for frozen food bowls will continue to benefit from the rapidly rising popularity of single-serving, ready-to-heat frozen specialties such as frozen dinners and breakfast food bowls due to their:

  • convenience
  • ability to provide easy portion control
  • the increasingly wide range of flavors and healthy options that is available

A caveat to bowls’ rapid growth, however, is that frozen food bowls are most widely used in applications where the contents are intended to be mixed together (e.g., curries, stir-fry, pasta dishes, soups, stews, risottos). Bowls are less amenable to compartmentalization without additional packaging than trays, which can easily be pre-formed with compartments. As a result, bowls will not make strong inroads over other rigid packaging such as trays in applications where separation of foods is required.

Pouches to Post the Fastest Long-Term Growth as Frozen Food Applications Expand

Pouches (including flat and stand-up types) will continue to be the fastest growing frozen food packaging type through 2024 due to their performance, source reduction, and resealability advantages, with gains coming at the expense of both bags and boxes.

Solid opportunities for stand-up pouches will be driven by such factors as their superior graphics capabilities, tear resistance, freezer burn protection, and microwavability. Other factors driving demand for stand-up pouches include:

  • the greater usage of higher-value laminated and coextruded films with stand-up pouches, as these films are more amenable to sophisticated printing techniques and provide increased stiffness, which is necessary to enable pouches to stand up at the low temperatures of freezer cases
  • technological innovations in self-venting films that enable steam cooking of frozen foods in their packaging
  • the stiffness of stand-up pouches, which makes them well suited for the upright freezer cases of supermarkets and other food stores

Stand-up pouches see more extensive use with products such as frozen chicken wings, nuggets, and sides. Stand-up types are expected to find increased growth opportunities among higher value, premium frozen foods, where suppliers hope to attract consumers based on enhanced billboard space and visibility in store freezers. Such food items include:

  • ice cream bars and other frozen desserts
  • ready-to-blend smoothie and cocktail mixes
  • frozen sides and entrées (e.g., ravioli, gnocchi, bread rolls)
  • microwavable steam-in-bags of vegetables

Sustainable Packaging Grows in Importance as Healthy, Premium Frozen Food Brands Proliferate

Negative perceptions about the sustainability of plastic have increased interest in eco-friendly alternative packaging materials, including paper, molded pulp, and bioplastics. These value-added materials are especially popular with high-end frozen food brands emphasizing healthfulness and environmental responsibility (which often go hand-in-hand in the clean-label market). For example:

  • In March 2020, Sonoco Products introduced a 100% sugarcane-based fiber bowl for refrigerated, frozen, and prepared foods. The bowl is sold under the Natrellis brand and was developed through a partnership with packaging company Tellus. Natrellis bowls will be used as the primary packaging for PRIMAL KITCHEN frozen bowl and skillet meals.
  • In January 2020, Perdue Farms began packaging some of its frozen meat products in compostable foam packaging made from cornstarch that disintegrates under running water. The packaging will initially only be used with meats purchased online and shipped directly to consumers.

In addition, many companies – including major frozen food brands and large grocery chains – have pledged to meet specific sustainability goals through the increased use of recycled post-consumer content in their packaging products. Such pledges will continue to reshape the material mix in the frozen food packaging industry in the years to come.

Want to Learn More?

Frozen Food Packaging is now available from the Freedonia Group.

About the Author:

Peter Kusnic is a Content Writer with The Freedonia Group, where he researches and writes studies focused on an array of industries.

  Consumer Goods      Industry Studies      Packaging