Beetroot tagliatelle is marketed as a pasta alternative 

The prepared produce category must surely be one of the most exciting categories to be in right now, as foodie trends for carb alternatives and spiralising give free reign to NPD teams across the sector.

While consumers and food writers are inevitably benefiting from the plethora of exciting products, suppliers are also cautiously optimistic that these new trends are putting prepared produce in a positive light.

“The faux carbs movement and spiralising trends have carried some great traction in 2015-16 as foodie health trends continue to undo the perception that convenience equals unhealthy,” says Mash Direct director Jack Hamilton. “This is being met with the demand to move towards premium vegetables at affordable prices. Trading up hasn’t been hampered by Brexit so far as consumers aren’t willing to ‘trade down’ the part of the shop that has the feelgood factor of feeling healthy.”

Alistair Whitaker, category manager at prepared produce firm Freshtime, says the new trends have added sales to the category, rather than cannibalise from the existing range. “The main pressure on the prepared veg category is from the wholehead category as price reductions and promotions on wholehead have meant that customers consider the relative values of prepared versus wholehead,” he says.

Despite this, the category looks in high health with both volume and value up 11.7 and 9.6 per cent respectively [KWP, 52 w/e 17 July 2016], while the prepared NPD bandwagon has by no means slowed. In contrast to many wholehead categories, all main retailers grew their prepared produce sales in the last year, according to Kantar analysts, with sweet and crunchy salads, and baby spinach, performing particularly well.

It’s clear that healthy eating has benefited the prepared salad category, particularly at lunchtime where it continues to steal market share from sandwiches. But Tony Walsh, category controller at Florette, says the company has found that shoppers want healthy food only if it can be “simply swapped in” as a component of their usual meals, rather than a diet overhaul. “As a result, we developed our Superfood Salad – a nutritionally-dense mix of beetroot, wild rocket, baby kale, peppercress and baby chard,” he says. “The Superfood Salad saw £2 million worth of sales by June 2016 – proof that our NPD is right on target.”

Northern Irish grower and prepared produce supplier Gilfresh has recently invested in a new line of spiralised vegetables, currently stocked in discount retailer Iceland. General manager William Gilpin says the company bought a smaller model of a spiralising machine, before working with a local engineering firm to tailor it and add automation. “You can buy all-singing, all-dancing spiralising machines, but it’s a big investment when you don’t know the market,” he explains. “We can scale it up if the business was to take off. For now it is adding sales growth to our business.”

Gilfresh also produces cauliflower rice – another new trend – and earlier this year launched ready-to-juice packs of produce into Asda. Gilpin says the company’s strategy on prepared produce is about crop utilisation, adding: “NPD keeps the category fresh and keeps it exciting for the consumer. The challenge is always to make it as convenient as possible. There are enough people working in cooked produce – we’re into utilising our crop and making exciting products for the consumer.”

As another consumer favourite of the moment, it’s no surprise that sweet potatoes are another one to watch in the category. Mash Direct has recently launched new sweet potato croquettes, while Freshtime’s Whitaker notes there has been a rise in the number of sweet potato SKUs, with mash, fries and wedges all becoming available.

Looking into the future, Whitaker says coloured vegetables, in both rainbow-layered veg and different-coloured vegetables, may prove to be the next hot trend in prepared produce. “We’re currently seeing spiralised veg and cauliflower steaks, but other new cuts will lead to more potentials,” he adds.

Meanwhile, for Hamilton, blandness and a lack of inspiration are the biggest challenges facing the category. “The category has to bring shoppers the choice that they want, otherwise they are going home hungry and unhappy, and while prepped vegetables have continued to boom in volume, the amount of new products entering the market has actually gone down in the last year.”

To counter this, Hamilton stresses the importance of keeping a finger of the pulse of the latest innovations and trends. “The desire for more colour, flavour and variety is there and it is the growers and retailers who are getting out to the marketplaces and keeping an eye on Instagram who are reaping the rewards,” he says.

Prepared produce seems to be in fashion right now, but suppliers need to remain as close as possible to their ever-fickle consumers if this growth is to continue.