A growing number of restaurant-quality, plant-based options are driving much of the growth.
Sales of frozen Asian foods in conventional channels jumped 14.7% to $281.9 million during the 12 weeks ended Oct. 30 (versus the same period a year ago), reports Chicago-based SPINS. Despite inflationary pressure, unit sales held steady, dipping only 0.4% — much less than the 5.8% decline for the frozen department as a whole.
Last year, sales of plant-based products grew at three times the rate of all foods. So it comes as no surprise that many of the latest Asian innovations are plant-based as well.
“People are changing over to plant-based proteins, even if just once or twice a week,” confirms Cindy Wu, vp of marketing for Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods, Hayward, Calif. The company’s most recent innovations include Jalapeno Cheese Samosas and a Cauliflower Curry and Lentils meal that taps into growing demand for veggie-based Indian entrees (sales skyrocketed 256.3% in the natural channel and 85% in the conventional channel during the most recent period).
VEGETARIAN ENTREES FILL A GAP
While fresh and frozen vegetarian entrees have been around for years, they haven’t been as easy to find in the Asian segment. Upscale versions have been especially scarce.
“Consumers are craving…gourmet restaurant experiences [in] the meals they consume at home,” says Tina Lin, president of Monrovia, Calif.-based Myrtle Greens, which offers vegan versions of popular Asian restaurant dishes such as Kung Pao Chicken. However, “The rise of near-restaurant quality frozen and refrigerated meals left plant-based consumers…with not much in the way of product selection.”
To help fill the gap, the company plans to launch panko breaded vegan shrimp, vegan poke bowls, and Asian-style vegan wings, including Asian Salt & Pepper and Korean Sweet & Spicy varieties, in 2023, says Lin.
Plant protein is also on the menu at Chicago-based Suji’s Asian Cuisine (formerly known as Suji’s Korean Cuisine), where Curry Chicken Fried Rice expected to debut in Q2 will feature a plant-based chicken-style protein. “There’s a lot of room for growth because there aren’t a lot of plant-based Asian meals,” says owner Suji Park, echoing the thoughts of several manufacturers in the Asian entrée space.
For consumers who prefer to create their own plant-based Asian meals, Nasoya Food USA, Ayer, Mass., is introducing a new Korean-Inspired Sweet Chili flavor of its Plantspired Toss’ables. The bite-sized vegan cubes of high-protein organic tofu are marinated in a sweet and savory mix of sesame oil, aromatic garlic, and ginger. They can be tossed into a salad, added to a wrap or noodle recipe, or even eaten straight from the package, according to the company.
“Nasoya is committed to meeting consumers where they are on their plant-based journey, offering convenient and delicious Asian-inspired options that appeal to Americans’ evolving preferences,” says Ellen Kim, director of brand strategy and marketing communications at Fullerton, Calif.-based Pulmuone, parent company of Nasoya.
PLANT-BASED SNACKS & APPS CATCH ON
The plant-based trend is also taking hold in the Asian snacks and apps segment where Suji’s will introduce Korean Style Kimchi Dumplings made with a plant-based pork-style protein and well-fermented kimchi. While the entire frozen Asian snack category was up 15.l% during the most recent 12 weeks, the dumpling segment (+16.1%) drove much of the growth — even unit sales rose 2.6% — while eggrolls and spring rolls underperformed.
Another company hoping to cash in on the popularity of potstickers, wontons and gyoza, Washington, D.C.-based Nomad Dumplings, expects to launch plant-based pork dumplings created in partnership with alternative meat maker OmniFoods sometime next year. Part of the Green Monday group, OmniFoods is also adding to its own branded lineup, reports co-founder and CEO David Yeung.
“We are incredibly excited to expand and offer the Omni Potsticker and Omni Spring Roll for the first time nationally,” he says. Omni’s Potsticker can be prepared in a variety of ways including steaming and air-frying, while its Spring Roll boasts a variety of vegetables, including carrots, shiitake mushroom, cabbage, wood ear mushroom, and mung bean vermicelli. Both are made with the company’s plant-based OmniPork Ground, which contains 97% less fat, 66% fewer calories and less cholesterol than its animal-based counterpart.
“By providing our growing consumer base with a healthy, tasty and versatile plant-based meat alternative, it takes minutes to make good food at home,” says Yeung. “We are already working on developing more plant-based appetizers to launch in the near future.”
Several other companies also see big opportunity at the intersection of Asian flavors, vegetarian alternatives and convenience — particularly since it’s challenging for U.S. consumers to replicate many Asian dishes at home.
AUTHENTICITY MADE EASY
“Asian foods are always the most popular foods in the world, but cooking Asian foods can be complicated,” explains Haojun “Harry” Li, manager of GWI Foods, New London, Conn., which focuses on traditional Chinese favorites such as dumplings and noodles. “Therefore, the most noteworthy trend in frozen and refrigerated Asian foods is products that make it simple for people to cook on their own while maintaining the taste and flavor” they enjoy in Asian restaurants.
To that end, Oakland, Calif.-based Nona Lim, which is known for broths, soups and noodles, recently rolled out a new Pad See Ew variety of its Stir-Fry Starter Kit. (Pad Thai and Teriyaki Ramen meal kits debuted last year).
The Pad See Ew meal solution saves consumers from having to re-create the dish’s complex flavors and texture on their own. “If you try to make it [from scratch] at home, it’s very complex,” says founder and CEO Nona Lim. “We wanted to make it easy.” She adds, “Everyone’s cooking at home a lot more, but people are getting tired of making the same old thing. There’s an interest in trying new flavors and dishes.”
The new Pad See Ew kit, which includes fresh flat and wide noodles and a savory sauce, is plant-based, gluten- and MSG-free and contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. It also offers consumers the option of adding their own protein.
AN EYE ON HEALTH BENEFITS
While plant-based is a monster trend, The Real Good Food Co., Cherry Hill, N.J., is focused on creating healthier, more nutritious versions of consumers’ favorite comfort foods without eliminating the meat. The company just launched a collection of better-for-you multi-serve Asian entrees, including Orange Chicken, General Tso’s and Sweet & Sour.
Lightly breaded with chickpea flour and egg whites rather than processed flours or grains, the grain- and gluten-free meals contain 4 to 6 grams of net carbs, 1 gram of sugar and 25 grams of protein per serving. “We are very excited about our new Asian entrees,” says chief marketing officer AJ Stiffelman.
Meanwhile, Baltimore-based Phillips Foods recently rolled out Shrimp Potstickers free of artificial flavorings, colorings, sweeteners and preservatives. The hand-formed dumplings feature a mix of shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage and glass noodles wrapped in a crisp wheat pastry wrapper.
Jack Acree, executive vp at Saffron Road, Stamford, Conn., which recently rolled out three family-size Asian meals, believes that higher-quality, more sophisticated Asian offerings hold promise despite inflationary pressures. “Consumers still want something that makes them feel good about eating that meal, [they want something that] evokes restaurant quality in terms of the ingredients and the authenticity.”
He adds, “There is a consumer that’s willing to pay a premium price for a premium product.”