Frozen pizza is ‘begging for better-for-you innovation,’ and Sweet Earth is ready to provide it, CEO says

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Frozen pizza is ‘begging for better-for-you innovation,’ and Sweet Earth is ready to provide it, CEO says
Even though frozen pizza is notorious for being loaded with sodium, saturated fat and preservatives, plant-based brand Sweet Earth Enlighted Foods sees it as the perfect vehicle to improve the health of Americans as well as the planet.

“We are a mission based food company and we believe as part of our mission that people need to be talking about more sustainable and healthier food … and if you want to make a difference, I don’t think you can think or start small. So, we want to go after pizza, number one, because it is one of America’s favorite foods, and two because it is so large and three because it is just begging for better-for-you innovation,”​ Kelly Swette, Sweet Earth’s CEO and lead recipe developer, told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that the pizza category as whole is worth $48.1 billion, but that the frozen piece is only about 10% -- with the lion’s share going to fast casual, “where you are seeing a lot of innovation as well as delivery improvements”​ and advances in technology.

But, she added, “the frozen side of the business, the convenience segment, really could be larger. It could be larger certainly on the premium end, but I think it also begs for stronger consumer alignment with better-for-you eating trends.”

And that is exactly what she says Sweet Earth’s new line of frozen pizzas offers with “crust that matters”​ and toppings that deliver on taste and nutrition.

“What we are trying to bring forward here is what we are calling pizza enlightenment. So pizza on another level. So, what we have done is we have really focused on the crust,”​ which makes up half of the average pizza and which other manufacturers have made thinner and thinner in an effort to cut calories and carbs, Swette said.

Sweet Earth is taking a different approach. Instead of just trying to minimize the crust, it is bringing benefits to it, such as at least 5 grams of fiber per serving thanks to the addition of quinoa, flax seed, chia seed and whole pieces of carrots. The crust also has organic ingredients, aromatic herbs and ancient and whole grains.

Cutting sodium and fat

In addition to sneaking in extra vegetables and fiber in the crust, the pizzas also are lower in sodium with 270 mg to 530 mg per serving, which is “a significant reduction from what you are seeing in the other pizzas out there,”​ Swette said.

She explained the company is able to cut the sodium so dramatically by using herbs and spices, and by thinking about the pizza holistically instead of as different components.

“Do you have to have sodium in the crust? Sodium in the sauce? Sodium in the toppings? Sodium in the cheese?”​ she asks. “We say, those pieces are all being eaten together, so let’s get the right balance of where it should be sodium and where it should be other flavoring ingredients, which oh by the way also are high in antioxidants and vitamins so that they offer other natural benefits.”

The company also was able to cut down on the sodium by making a plant-based version of one of America’s all time favorite toppings: Pepperoni.

“We have a protein lovers pizza that goes beyond pepperoni, but still gives you all those flavors of garlic and fennel and spices, but without all the baggage”​ of high sodium and high saturated fat, Swette said.

Overcoming the challenges of updating a classic

A major challenge with revamping a classic is convincing people who love the original version to try something new – and a dominate way that Sweet Earth does this is with a “strong social component and strong, loyal followers who really help us get the word out there,”​ Swette said.

She explained that being fully transparent about what is in the product, providing beautiful photography and an appealing product, the pizzas become something that consumers are proud to share on photo-centered Instagram and Pinterest.

“When we do the photography, I measure every ingredient so that I don’t misrepresent what is there. It is not a pretend shot. And I think one of the cool things you will see as we are thinking about the crust that matters is when you flip it around and look at the backside … you will see the corn meal, or the bits of carrot, you see the chia seeds and it is not just flour or pulp,”​ Swette said.

Sweet Earth is bringing new consumers to frozen

The premium ingredients and convenience of Sweet Earth’s elevate frozen food lines, which includes empanadas and quesadillas as well as pizza, also is attracting a new type of consumer to the frozen aisle who previously didn’t shop there, Swette added.

“Our overall frozen business is growing substantially faster than the overall frozen category … so we are bringing growth to the overall frozen category because of the type of food we make, the quality of the food we make, the flavor of the food we make,”​ she said.

“The other piece is we always bring innovation and it is part of what is really growing the category outside of the retail space in the sit-down space,”​ she added. This innovation comes in the form of unique flavor combinations, such as broccoli and Brussel sprouts along with other vegetables on the company’s vegan veggie lover’s pizza.

These qualities, along with the convenience of a one-dish meal, are particularly appealing to Millennials, who are returning to the frozen aisle for solutions as they become time-strapped parents and working professionals and as they discover the frozen aisle has increasingly healthy options, Swette added.

A give and take with Nestle

The speed with which Sweet Earth has been able to develop the pizzas and the sheer size of the launch would not have been possible before the brand joined Nestle in October 2017, Swette said.

She explained that the idea that big food cannot innovate as quickly as smaller companies is a “bit of a misperception.”

As an example, she pointed to the speed with which Sweet Earth was able to develop the organic, high fiber crust, thanks in part to access to Nestle experts, including a “crust whisperer who knows everything and anything about crust.”

Sweet Earth’s new parent company also was able to help it quickly find a facility that could handle the organic crust product, she said.

She also emphasized the mission-related support provided by Nestle, which she says also believes in bringing healthier food to families.

“Nestle was interested in us because they believed in bringing healthier foods to families, and so they felt that we might play and important role in their portfolio in bringing our style of food, which is more plant-based, which is healthier and younger,”​ she said. She added Nestle was also interested in Sweet Earth because it hoped “that there would be a spill-off of having us in the room talking about food the way we talk about it in terms of flavor-forward, nutrient-dense. Those are topics that I think are going to be raised and really filtered throughout the Nestle system going forward.”

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