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Overall sales of frozen food have stayed more or less flat, but one segment of the market — namely ingredients packed into “bento” boxed lunches — is showing robust growth.

Sales of such foods are being buoyed by retailers’s efforts to broaden their product lineups and an increase in products and packaging that require minimal preparation before use, industry observers say.

Among frozen food products available in the past, most required additional cooking or deep-frying before they could be consumed.

In contrast, the popular trend today is for products that can be prepared by simply heating them in a toaster or microwave oven, often by pressing a single button.

But even this type of product is being replaced by ones that require no heating at all.

Many consumers initially had various misgivings about such new products, admitted Masamitsu Ono, an official with the home food department of major frozen food producer Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. “But sales began to climb gradually once consumers became convinced that they are quite safe.”

According to the Japan Frozen Food Association, annual sales of home-use frozen food have stayed at around 240 billion yen over the past several years. Producers therefore are pinning their hopes on the new breed of more hassle-free products to revive the apparently saturated market.

Nippon Suisan released its first line of products that require no heating in 1999. Under this line, the company launched new Japanese and Chinese dishes that were previously unavailable, including those based on “hijiki” seaweed, “gobo,” a kind of root crop, and sweet-and-sour pork.

“These new products initially did not sell well,” Ono recalled.

Many housewives complained that the new products tended to be watery and did not taste as good as older kinds of frozen food, while some consumers were not fully convinced they could be eaten without additional cooking on their part, according to Ono.

Consumers, however, began to express fewer misgivings and shed their initial fears once they become accustomed to using them, he said.

In fact, many began to appreciate some advantages of opting for the new type of frozen food. When preparing their families’ packed lunches, customers had to heat the older type of frozen food and then wait for it to cool before putting it inside box lunches.

Aqli Foods Corp. also sells products that require no further preparation and found to its surprise that the new product category served a unique function that they had not imagined.

“Some customers use this type of food like a cooler to prevent other ingredients in the box lunches from going bad on hot days,” said Kenichi Kamanari, chief of the consumer product development section with the Tokyo-based frozen food producer.

The company began selling traditional Japanese side dishes made with dried daikon radishes, for example, in 2003 under its new product line.

As producers continue to expand their product offerings, food items previously considered unsuitable to be included in the new product category are now finding their ways into the market segment.

Among such items, Ajinomoto Frozen Foods Co. put shrimp gratin and fried chicken on the market this March. The company deemed it necessary to add them to the new category because they are particularly popular among one of the most important segments of customers — children who take their lunches to kindergartens and schools.

Meat and milk-based ingredients tend to be a better breeding ground for germs compared with vegetables.

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