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Plant-Based, Organic Drives Mexican Food

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Conventional meals are dragging the Mexican Food category down. But tamales and jalapeno poppers are on fire.

With plans for international travel postponed until next year, many Americans are satisfying their wanderlust through “food exploration” instead. Their favorite culinary destination? Anywhere south of the border! But during the 12 weeks ended Feb. 21, sales of frozen Mexican entrees grew only 3% compared to a gain of 15% for the frozen entrees category as a whole, reports Chicago-based market research firm IRI (iriworldwide.com). Natural and organic meals (+7%) drove the growth, offsetting a 3% loss by conventional brands in the segment. Similarly, plant-based vegan and vegetarian offerings registered healthy gains while those made with animal proteins actually lost ground.

‘With many Mexican restaurants operating at limited capacity, consumers are seeking variety from local retailers…. But there’s an ironic lack of spicy and ethnic options in the frozen Mexican space.’

As a result, says Karen Jobb, chief customer officer at Petaluma, Calif.-based Amy’s (amys.com), “Our latest Mexican food innovations are focused on recreating top-performing (organic) items as vegan/plant-based.” For example, the company recently introduced Vegan Tortilla and Vegan Mexican Casserole bowls. And earlier this year, it rolled out what it says is the only plant-based bean and cheese burrito on the market (or, more accurately, bean and “cheeze”). “Throughout the pandemic, comfort foods are dominating across categories,” says Jobb. And nothing is more comforting than food smothered in cheese. “But there’s a lack of comforting vegan cheeze prepared meals on the shelf, so we’re answering the call with plant-based products that taste great and satisfy consumers’ craving for Mexican flavors.”

Glendale, Calif.-based Alpha Foods (eatalphafoods. com) only offers plant-based foods, but according to Justin DeBenning, vp of sales for grocery and mass, sales of its Mexican-style products have grown 25% during the past year, outperforming the frozen Mexican foods category as a whole (up about 18%). The newest addition to its lineup is a Tejano-inspired Steakless Ranchero all-day burrito with dairy-free cheddar and grilled steakless strips.

Alpha also offers frozen plant based tamales, though its version is handheld so consumers can eat it like a burrito. Among frozen Mexican food categories with at least $20 million in sales during the past 52 weeks, tamales registered the biggest gain (+33.1%), according to Byzzer by NielsenIQ. “Tamales are at the crescendo of many consumer needs right now: comfort, global flavors and convenience/ease of preparation,” explains Jobb, who says preparing tamales from scratch is both complicated and time-consuming.

CLEAN, SIMPLE INGREDIENTS KEY

Green Chile Food Co. (greenchilefoods.com), Richardson, Texas, offers a unique twist on traditional tamales with its Tamaritos (“looks like a tamale, eats like a burri-to”). They’re not plant-based, says CEO Matt Yost, but the hand-crafted lineup features simple, clean ingredients like chicken raised without antibiotics and authentic Southwest flavors. “We recognize that the consumer is paying more attention to ingredients,” he remarks, “but they’re also not willing to compromise on flavor.”

The second-biggest gainer among $20 million+ frozen Mexican food categories is jalapeno poppers and stuffed jalapenos, which comes as no surprise given the current popularity of both snacking and bold flavors. And while they’re not exactly health food, they do tap into the veggie trend as well.

For consumers seeking a truly plant-based Mexican-inspired snack, Kellogg’s-owned MorningStar Farms (morningstarfarms.com), Battle Creek, Mich., is launching three new Veggitizers made with non-GMO soy: Veggie Chik’n & Cheeze Taquito Bites, Veggie Chorizo Nacho Bites and Spicy Popcorn Chik’n.

Although some retailers reduced their frozen Mexican food assortments during the past year in order to alleviate out-of-stocks, DeBenning says those that ignore innovation are likely to lose share to independents and regional players that offer on-trend new items. “With many Mexican restaurants operating at limited capacity, consumers are seeking variety from local retailers…. But there’s an ironic lack of spicy and ethnic options in the frozen Mexican space,” he adds.

DeBenning also likes the idea of a well-signed plant-based section within the frozen Mexican foods set to make it easier for consumers to find vegan and vegetarian options. Meanwhile, Yost sees an opportunity to split the Mexican category into opening price point vs. premium products.

Top trends for 2021

According to the third annual “What’s Next in Mexican Cuisine” trends forecast from Hispanic food company Cacique, Mission, Kan., here’s what to watch for in the coming months:

•Mexican comfort food, especially nostalgic “homemade-style” dishes like enchiladas will be big.

•Deep, rich sauces, including mole, will only get more popular.

•Salsa macha and other salsa varieties will grab a bigger share of the spotlight.

•The bread baking craze of 2020 will expand to include homemade corn and flour tortillas.

•Dehydrated chiles ranging from pasillas to anchos will become more common in American kitchens.

•Dried chiles, beans and cheeses such as queso fresco will be in demand by scratch cooks employing back-to-basics techniques.

Denise Leathers

Denise Leathers

Denise is the editor of Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer.

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