Special Report: Consumers Step Up Their Demands for Nutritious Ready Meals

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19 Apr 2017 --- For many, convenience is a deciding factor when it comes to dealing with necessities such as daily sustenance, creating interesting opportunities for producers of ready meals. However, the growing body of knowledge on the role of nutrition in overall health is affecting this sector of the food industry, and has prompted many consumers to inspect closely what they are putting in their bodies. 

FoodIngredientsFirst spoke to a number of industry experts on consumer expectations vis-à-vis ready meals, as well as the key trends driving development in this sector.

Natural and Authentic
Product development within the ready meals sector is increasingly being informed by a demand for products that feature flavors and nutritional aspects that consumers perceive as being natural and authentic, as well as convenient.

Click to Enlarge“Natural is the prerequisite when it comes to food and drinks. People increasingly scrutinize products, demanding natural and sustainably sourced ingredients. Quality and taste perception are directly linked to sourcing and processing,” Simone Ehbrecht (pictured left), Director Marketing Category Culinary EAME, Symrise Flavors Division, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“Nowadays consumers are more concerned about what they eat,” says Claudia Crepaldi, Global Business Food Manager, Biorgin. Consumers look for meals that are low in sodium content and contain natural ingredients that deliver a fresh, homemade flavor. 

This demand for convenient ready meals that still feel authentic and home-made is also increasingly reflected in the way these items are being packaged: A point in case is the separation of the individual components of ready meals, allowing consumers to customize or adjust the ways they serve their meals. “Once we would have bought goulash, ready made in its sauce. Today, the meat and sauce are presented separately, and it is down to the consumer to combine the two components. The benefits of this approach are clear: By seeing the individual components of the meal, the customer can clearly determine whether they are fresh or not. In addition, customers can adapt the meal to their own personal taste,” says Marcus Leben, member of the convenience team at Frutarom Savory Solutions.

Ironically, by improving aspects such as shelf life, technological advancements play a large role in providing consumers with ready meals that have a natural and authentic feel.

“Modern technologies offer us increasing scope to meet consumer demands with regard to flavor, texture, color and naturalness. They allow us to produce the required consistency and colors more authentically and naturally than even five or ten years ago,” Leben says. 

Sustainability and Health Consciousness
With consumer expectations regarding the health and sustainability aspects of their meals increasing, marketing around sourcing and sustainability is becoming a pre-requisite. 

“Sustainability has long been an abstract concept, hard to grasp and related to special markets in Western Europe. Now, people want to know where their food comes from and how it was made – transparency takes center stage,” Ehbrecht says.

People are increasingly recognizing the interconnectedness and limitations of our world, the impact of their consumption behavior on both the planet and their own bodies, and that they can make a difference. 

The “zero food waste” movement, as well as the more conscious consumption of meat are two reflections of this increased awareness of sustainability. The widened range of reduced meat options follows an increase in popularity of diets such as flexitarianism or semi-vegetarianism, whereby people mainly eat a plant-based diet but occasionally consume meat products. 

According to data from Innova Market Insights, 9% of global launches in 2016 were specifically positioned on a vegetarian platform, an increase of 85% since 2011. Ready meals featuring the term “vegan,” meanwhile, accounted for 4.5% of the total global launches in 2016, up from just 1.1% in 2011. Following on this trend, vegan labeling and certification schemes are becoming increasingly common across a range of product sectors. 

Flavor Trends
Globalization is not just informing consumers’ views on sustainability, but also their appetites for new flavors and cuisines. In terms of flavor trends and culinary products, a number of trends stand out, with regional cuisines, rather than single flavor trends, quickly gaining favor with consumers. 

“Those upcoming cuisines are e.g. Portugal, Georgia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indian Thali, Brazilian and Mexican regional (Yucatan). Of course, migration streams bring new impetus that lets people discover unknown cuisines,” Ehbrecht says. “North African and Middle Eastern spices and condiments such as sumac, saffron, harissa, baharat, ras el hanout and Indian rending curry get more and more trendy and find their way to Europe and the US.”

“Globalization continues to influence consumer preferences, leading to the remixing and combining of disparate cuisines, techniques and ingredients. New and interesting fusion cuisines include “East Meets East,” e.g. combining Korean and Polish cuisines, and “East Meets West,” e.g. fusing Italian and Chinese cuisines, she adds.

Click to EnlargeOther key trends are flavors from the Americas, including chillies and BBQ, trends that began in the USA and are attracting increasing consumer interest in Europe. “In particular, BBQ smoking in combination with spices of different strengths is experiencing a major spike in popularity,” Leben says.

“Of all the many and various chilli varieties, jalapeño, chipotle and habanero stand out. Chilli’s consistent and growing popularity can be combined very effectively with other key trends this year, for example when used as a flavor-enhancing ingredient in hybrid product concepts and for authentic, exotic dishes,” says Sascha Thaens, Director Sales Management & Strategy, RAPS GmbH & Co. KG (pictured right). 

Clear Labeling
Along with the demand for natural and authentic ingredients, clear and simplified labeling has become more important than ever, with consumers closely inspecting product labels and educating themselves on all things diet-related. The consensus among industry experts seems to be that for the modern consumer, “less is definitely more” when it comes to ingredient lists. 

“Consumers have raised their expectations around food standards. In order to properly understand what they are eating, people demand transparency: things like clear labeling; no unnecessary artificial additions; products made from pure, familiar ingredients,” says Jan Derk ter Keurst, Sales Manager at Scelta Mushrooms.

One noteworthy trend is the increase in non-GMO labeling. According to Innova Market Insights data, just under 5% of global launches in the ready meals category used Non-GMO claims, rising to over 15% in the US. The popularity of non-GMO claims in the food and drinks sector as a whole has bolstered the Non-GMO Project Verification program in the US, which tests whether a product meets the defined standards for the presence of GMOs. Although verification programs are not always mandatory, “given the negative image of genetic engineering, many food manufacturers are willing to provide their customers with this assurance – knowing that transparency about ingredients and clean product composition is becoming a stronger and stronger reason to buy,” says Thaens.

Keeping the Good Stuff
One of the challenges for food manufacturers is to provide ready meals that are less processed, yet still appealing in terms of flavor, texture and nutritional benefits.

“Food developers need economical, highly functional and nutritious ingredients that are easy to incorporate into recipes, without additional capital investment or significant formulation changes,” says Tim Symons, Meat & Meal Sales Director at Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM). 

Symons lists as examples of such ingredients functional soy proteins, which have the potential to aid water absorption as well as to deliver appealing flavors and textures, and textured vegetable proteins, which “impart juiciness into products by binding water and absorbing fat to provide a more appealing consumer product.”

“Bean ingredients offer a virtually flavorless solution to increasing both protein and fiber contents in processed foods with one, clean-label and whole-food ingredient. Beans do not contain gluten, and can often be declared as ‘Gluten-free,’ beans are not listed allergens and being highly nutritious, they are an ideal choice for use in products targeting health, wellbeing and weight reduction,” Symons says.

Reformulation and ingredient swaps are also key strategies used to address health concerns surrounding the (over)consumption of sugar, salt and fat. “Vegetable oils, especially rapeseed oil or olive oil, play an increasingly important role, as they are considered to be very healthy and environmentally-friendly. In the same vein, fish oils are seen as extremely valuable, and are increasingly used in the preparation of ready meals,” Leben says.

With busy lifestyles set to continue to define our eating habits, the popularity of ready meal options is not likely to wane. Still, consumer demands for sustainability, healthiness and transparency will provide producers with enough food for thought. 

“Consumers are far more aware of diet than they have ever been. Our challenge in the convenience sector is, above all, to provide solutions which safeguard product quality, whilst allowing clear, unambiguous labeling. The right approach is to move away from industry jargon, towards using ingredient names which end consumers understand and can relate to,” Leben concludes.

by Lucy Gunn

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