CALL them the HBO of TV dinners. Logos like "Lean Cuisine," "Dinner Classics, "Le Menu" "Great Escapes," Entrees like Chicken Americana," "Filet of Fish Florentine" Higher prices, higher quality, lower in calories -- sometimes. Frozen food for the jacuzzi generation.
Whatever they're called, the improved lines have brought good news to the $500 million frozen-dinner industry. Prior to skyrocketing, sales were following a "consistent rate of decline," says Alan Miller, vice president in charge of sales services at Sales Area Marketing Inc. (SAMI). The turnaround, says Miller, "is related entirely to the volume contributed by the new dinners."
The marketplace was prime for upscale and "light" frozen food and the numbers prove it. According to 1982 figures, 52.6 percent of all women work, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics and there are 6.8 million, or one out of every five families that are one-parent, reports the Census Bureau. Not to mention the growing numbers of microwave owners (near-future projections of 35 percent of all households say Armour's marketers), higher-income households and Weight Watchers' estimation of 80 million overweight Americans.
Spearheading the movement, say many, was the remarkable popularity of Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, a product 10 years in the making. Labeled as a less than 300-calorie line, it hit supermarket freezer shelves in 1981, garnering $120 million in sales in one year, according to Advertising Age. Now everyone is cashing in on the momentum. Weight Watchers reformulated its then 13-year-old line in 1981 and saw a doubling of sales. Dinners like Swanson's Le Menu, although not advertising low calories, are reporting sweeping sales despite limited national distribution.
The idea of frozen foods as low calorie is not a revolutionary idea, simply because they are controlled portions. But ounce for ounce the frozen versions, even the diet ones, may sometimes not be less caloric than the real thing. A homemade beef and vegetable stew (with lean beef chuck) can run about 25 calories per ounce; Weight Watchers sirloin of beef with sauce and two vegetables is 28 calories; Lean Cuisine's Salisbury Steak with Italian-Style Sauce and Vegetables is 27 calories.
Eating a prepackaged 260-calorie Lean Cuisine lasagna or a 380-calorie Weight Watchers lasagna is a more easily controlled dinner for a dieter than the temptation of an entire casserole dish of homemade lasagna. And 385 calories, the amount in Stouffer's regular lasagna, is certainly also within the acceptable range. Swanson's regular loin of pork TV dinner, the company reports, contains 270 calories; its swiss steak dinner totals 350. And the new "upscale" dinners are comparable to the diet dinners also. Practically all are within the 300- to 500-calorie range. Whether frozen dinners are filling is another matter, as any teenager who considers no less than three for supper can attest.
Elena Coccari, consumer affairs manager of Stouffer's, agreed that some of the company's regular-line products may still be within an acceptable range for dieters. But, said Cocciara, Lean Cuisine was "specifically designed," and is "nutritionally balanced." Stouffer's other products, she said, may not have been formulated to control fat or cholesterol levels, for example. And Weight Watchers dinners, which Foodways President Gerald Herrick says "appeal to the more serious dieter" than does Lean Cuisine, contain about 25 to 30 percent fewer calories than other nondiet frozen dinners. Meals average 287 calories, said Herrick. In addition, he said, Weight Watchers is not a "calorie counting program." What's counted instead are protein and carbohydrate contents, for instance.
Bonnie Liebman, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that the main difference between Lean Cuisine and other nondiet frozen dinners is that Lean Cuisine contains appreciably less fat. On the average, Liebman calculated, Lean Cuisine dinners derive 21 percent of their calories from fat. Swanson TV Dinners, on the other hand, derive an average of 39 percent of their calories from fat; Banquet Buffet Dinners 45 percent. "That's less fat in Lean Cuisine a definite advantage," said Liebman.
But those are only averages; specific dinners may come close to the Lean Cuisine average. "If you're careful enough and if the foods had nutritional labeling, you could pick out a standard TV dinner comparable to Lean Cuisine," said Liebman. Swanson's main course entree of Steak and Green Peppers in Oriental-Style Sauce, for instance, contains 6 grams of fat and 180 calories. A similar item, Lean Cuisine's Oriental Beef with Vegetables and Rice, contains 8 grams of fat and 280 calories.
In addition, said Liebman, the sodium levels in Lean Cuisine are "no lower than any other TV dinner." Lean Cuisine's sodium content average, she calculated, is 1189 mg. per serving. Although Liebman said she is anti-frozen dinner ("there are a lot of healthful meals that are just as convenient") and is for "lean cuisine without the capitals," she said eating Lean Cuisine was a "reasonable idea for losing weight," its advantage being its assurance of lower fat and lower calories.
Practically all frozen dinners, including Lean Cuisine, contain monosodium glutamate, and water is frequently listed as the fourth or fifth most prevalent ingredient. Additives such as autolyzed yeast, disodium inosinate and hydrolyzed plant proteins are added to "exaggerate flavors," says Dr. James Oblinger, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. Mono- and diglycerides are added as "emulsifiers for mouth feel," said Oblinger, and the often-listed "xanthan gum" is a naturally occuring thickening agent.
Culinary talents aside, the marketing techniques to promote them have been masterful. Frozen foods take on a new wrinkle; a Dinner Classics commercial shows a family eating the dinners in the dining room--by candlelight. And packaging has come a long way from the TV dinner days of compartmentalized foil trays and flimsy cardboard boxes. The new dinners' boxes look like the Izods of the ice world; wispy identifying type, stylish photographs of the entree. Some come in airline-style plastic trays that are reusable--with gold foil for baking or plastic domes for microwaving. Lean Cuisine's white boxes, says Stouffer's Coccari, were designed not only to distinguish them from the company's regular red-box line, but to signal "light" to the consumer. And the name--Lean Cuisine--"had something to do with the success of the product," says Kenneth Carlson, vice president of the marketing research group at AC Nielson Co. "It said it all in two words and it rhymed."
The success of diet packaging is no better demonstrated than by the California company, Certi-Fresh. The two-year-old firm had been marketing its five seafood-and-sauce frozen dinners (the likes of cod in shrimp sauce, halibut in white sauce) with minimal success--until very recently. In November of 1982, the company commissioned an advertising agency to develop a new box. A yellow tape measure now flags its left hand corner with "Under 300 calories ." Public relations representative Mike Snapp said sales of essentially the same product--low calorie to begin with--have leapt 55 percent.
In this era of lite ketchup and lite cream cheese, the stodgy mashed potatoes of yesterday's dinners have been replaced with side dishes like Green Giant's "wild rice"; carrots and peas diversify into Le Menu's "garden vegetable medley." Heavy gravies turn teriyaki, "Italian-style," "mildly seasoned white." And Seagram & Son's subsidiary, Westmount Corp., has come out with a limited-distribution frozen dinner line, Feast for One, that includes chicken cordon bleu topped with a handcarved carrot tulip.
Fancy names and better ingredients mean higher prices; the more elaborate new dinners range from about $2 to $3.30, as opposed to generally under $2 for old-line Banquet and Swanson. Nick Rago, vice president and general manager of frozen food for Armour (which owns Dinner Classics) and Coccari of Stouffer's agree that although consumers could make the dinners cheaper from scratch, "people put a value on time," said Coccari. Besides, say the frozen food executives, the new dinners are made with higher-quality ingredients. Leaner veal, less-fatty sauces, fish fillets instead of block fish. No prefabricated beef in Dinner Classics, says Rago. "Our sirloin tips are actual cubed beef. Our chicken is deboned breast meat. You're getting a good quality and value relationship."
For Lean Cuisine, there are additional incentives for paying more. "Not only are they Lean Cuisine positioned with a high quality . . . they also have a calorie motif, which can psychologically justify in the mind of the consumer buying an expensive lasagna, for instance," said SAMI's Miller.
Whatever the calorie comparisons or the prices, Lean Cuisine is building a track record. Coccari said her office is getting flooded by consumer letters, and before-and-after pictures from successful dieters: a woman who feeds it to her children as well as herself, a man who dropped from 425 to 279 pounds after a regimen of one Lean Cuisine at lunch and two for dinner. And Dr. Aaron Altschul, director of the Georgetown Diet Center, said he has heard comments from clinic members who find it "a useful tool for a low-calorie dinner."
Stouffer's nutritionists have developed a formal diet regime spelled out in a company brochure. "The 14-Day Lean Look Plan is not a fad diet," it reads, but stresses sensible eating that integrates the frozen dinners with fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products--and exercise.
Stouffer's diet philosophy, said Coccari, stems from its original market surveys that reported the reason diets fail is because "diet food doesn't taste good."
And what do the dieters think? "I found they taste all right and I'm satisfied," said Janie Gordon, from Baltimore, who lost 25 pounds in 3 months after exercising, eating nothing for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and popping a Lean Cuisine in the oven every night.
Lean Cuisine's most popular item is the glazed chicken; Weight Watchers cites its southern-fried chicken patty as the number two product behind lasagna; Dinner Classics claims sirloin tips as its largest seller. In an informal tasting of more than a few frozen dinners, the new upscales and the old TV types, we found that the brands differed in appearance, accompaniments and consistency of ingredients. Some manufacturers' vegetables were able to retain some crispness, other entrees were parched of sauces. Red meat dishes were hard to reproduce; blandness being a common fault. In general, though, the new upscale dinners showed appreciable improvements.
Where the manufacturers seem to run into trouble are with imitations of traditional high-calorie meals. Filet of Fish Divan by Lean Cuisine is low-calorie to begin with; Weight Watchers new diet cheesecake and its deluxe combination pizza have not only the drawbacks inherent in frozen foods but also suffer from their caloric deprivation; those missing calories are noticed.
Although a frozen fish dinner won't supplant the taste of a fresh one, the new dinners are aimed at another market. "We're not looking to replace the French restaurant," said Armour's Rago. "The calorie content is good, you can pop it in the oven and it's satisfying."