Inflation, logistics and other hurdles have made it more challenging than ever for the fresh food industry to deliver the products consumers want on time and at prices they’re willing to pay.

On top of those, the fresh produce industry must constantly battle the threat of foodborne illness, the risks associated with working with the most perishable and often fragile of products and other potential problems.

Despite all that, the prospects for the fresh produce industry — and for the grocery retailers who sell their products — are bright. Consumers’ surging interest in foods that are fresh, healthy and delicious, foods that tell a story and open up the world via the taste buds, play to all of the category’s many strengths.

“Produce is in a great position,” said Rachel Young, digital marketing and communications manager for Dole Food Company, Charlotte, N.C. “With health and wellness being so important today, the opportunity for produce has never been better.”

Some of the top fresh produce trends Dole is tracking include increased demand for organic, locally sourced and unique and exotic fruit and vegetable varieties; a growing preference for plant-based diets and alternative proteins; flexitarianism; and a greater emphasis on sustainable and eco-friendly practices. And, as always, consumers continue to be drawn to pre-cut, pre-packaged and other convenience items, Young said. Dole is also tracking surging interest in culinary diversity and in packaging solutions that reduce food and package waste.

The marketing and merchandising of fresh fruits and vegetables at retail are being shaped by several key trends, said Melissa Mackay, vice president of marketing for Fresh Del Monte North America.

Near the top is premiumization, characterized by a heightened focus on flavor, superior ingredients, and appealing packaging.

“This shift reflects consumers’ willingness to invest in products that offer value to their families, be it through larger sizes, personal rewards, or trust in attributes and brands.”

A parallel trend, she said, is the proliferation of novel and enticing produce varieties, aligning with the growing interest in diverse food options.

Food safety and traceability have also gained paramount importance, compelling retailers to underscore transparent sourcing practices and stringent safety protocols, Mackay said.

Creating value

One of the dominant trends in fresh produce is also common in most corners of the food world: catering to younger people and their abandonment of the three-meals-a-day model.

“The word of the day, week, month and likely year is snacking,” said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer for Leamington, Ont.-based greenhouse vegetable and fruit producer Pure Flavor. “Now that we’re long past Covid, lives have gotten busier, with kids fully immersed in all activities, which means a greater need for healthy snack alternatives.” Pure Flavor has seen significant growth in its snacking category, with consumers looking for greater variety and consistency, which greenhouse grown vegetables can provide.

“Snacking is the fastest growing segment, sometimes outpacing two to one, or more, depending on the time of year. Greenhouse-grown allows for a consistent supply year-round.”

Convenient and healthy snack packs like Pure Flavor’s Mini Munchies and Snack+ products are an ideal solution for those who want to eat healthy but don’t have a lot of time, Veillon said.

According to FMI’s Power of Produce report, more than 3 in 10 shoppers believe they will purchase more value-added produce in the next year.

One third also said that providing more fruit and vegetable snacking items is a good way retailers can help consumers increase fresh consumption.

In addition to snacking products in particular, Pure Flavor is also seeing a greater variety of grab and go options in general, and a transition to smaller formats, which is prompting retailers to ramp up their product assortment and related displays, Veillon said.

Pure Flavor is also tracking more cross-merchandising of fresh produce with center-of-store items.

Dole is seeing similar trends, Young said.

Retailers, for instance, are increasingly recognizing the need to invest in visually appealing displays to draw more shoppers to the produce section and enhance the consumer experience.

“There’s more of a focus on storytelling and educating consumers about the origin and nutritional benefits of produce,” she added. “Retailers are also using technology to provide nutritional information and recipe ideas, creating a seamless shopping experience for health-conscious consumers.”

Dole uses QR codes on our packaging, stickers and tags to help deliver more information on product origins and healthy usage inspirations.

The pandemic-induced surge in home cooking has led to the rise of value-added products such as Mann’s Air Fryer Veggie Kit, which meets demand for convenient and versatile options, Del Monte’s Mackay said.

Organic is another category that continues to grow for many fruit and vegetable growers and their retail partners.

Pure Flavor’s Veillon points out that organic demand often overlaps with demand for greenhouse-grown, and he has the numbers to back it up.

According to FMI, 33% of Gen Z shoppers want their produce department to carry more organic and greenhouse grown produce.

“Demand for greenhouse grown organics is going to continue to grow as more consumers become educated on the environmental benefits of sustainable, protected agriculture,” Veillon said. “We’re supporting retailers and encouraging them to get ahead of this trend early.”

Making healthy convenient

Consumers’ focus on health has only gotten sharper post-pandemic, said Del Monte’s Mackay.

“Consumers are more health-conscious than ever and are not only looking for ‘easy’ and pre-made foods, but they’re looking for convenience blended with healthier choices, more desirable options, a flavor kick, and plant-based ingredients,” Mackay said.

The heightened focus on health has also driven interest in immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables, she added.

In the coming years, Mackay said, the aging US population is likely to steer individuals toward produce with age-related health benefits, encouraging the consumption of nutrient-rich options that support overall well-being.

In addition, the prevalence of obesity in the US could prompt a heightened interest in fruits and vegetables known for their weight management properties, as well as those rich in fiber and low in calories.

“This alignment of health concerns with specific produce choices is anticipated to shape consumption patterns, as individuals seek to address age-related health needs and combat obesity-related challenges,” Mackay said.

Growth in plant-based foods is also largely being driven by health concerns, Mackay said, citing Food Institute data which found that 40% of consumers purchased plant-based protein and/or dairy alternatives within the last six months — and they cited health as their key motivating factor.

According to Statista, retail sales of plant-based ready meals in the US are projected to grow 25% from 2022 ($275 million) to 2026 ($345 million).

More consumers are looking for foods with nutritional content, and fresh fruits and vegetables are perfectly positioned to take advantage, Pure Flavor’s Veillon said.

For years, he said, Pure Flavor has relied on professional nutrition panel testing validated by third parties to ensure that it’s products have the right nutritional content and that that information is getting delivered to customers and consumers.

Pure Flavor created its “Goes Well With” program for all of its items to educate consumers on how best to pair the company’s vegetables and fruits with the right grains, dairy products and proteins for a healthy, balanced, delicious diet.

“Consumers are becoming savvier on how to include more fresh greenhouse grown vegetables in their diets by understanding how these premium products can be used, beyond a salad, or raw snacking.” Pure Flavor is also seeing a great interest in plant-based searches, which has prompted the company to create even more focused content to address the appropriate keyword searches as part of its digital strategy.

There are a number of highly visible health trends that are likely to continue resonating with consumers in the coming years, said Melanie Marcus, Dole’s nutrition and health communications manager.

“The produce enthusiast’s likelihood to eat certain fruits and vegetables can be influenced by a focus on functional foods and ingredients with specific health benefits,” she said. “Still benefiting from the lasting impact of COVID, produce with high antioxidant content and immune-boosting properties like pineapples, as well as superfoods like berries, leafy greens, and avocados, have remained popular due to their beneficial nutrition.”

Produce companies and their retail partners would also be wise to more aggressively address the growing interest in gut health. Probiotic-rich fruits and vegetables and other foods are just one area that should enjoy big growth.

Just as if not more important than gut health is increased awareness of mental health. The growing awareness of the impact of diet on mental health, Marcus said, is likely to drive interest in fruits and vegetables that support brain health and cognitive function.

And when it comes to health, it’s not just their own health people are more concerned about, Marcus pointed out.

“Increased awareness of the environmental impact of food choices may also influence consumers to opt for plant-based alternatives and sustainable farming practices.”

This article is an excerpt from the September 2023 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Value Proposition feature and more in the digital edition here.