Fast and fresh ready meals: Plant-based foods at the center of the table, reduced sodium solutions reign supreme


30 Jan 2019 --- Consumers want to cook and eat leisurely and in the comfort of their homes, but with today's fast-paced and modern lifestyles it can be hard to find the time, which often means consumers head to the fridge-freezer for a quick and easy ready meal. Now more than ever, consumers seek plant-based options that allow vegetables to be at the center of the plate, and manufactures and ingredient suppliers are under increased pressure to deliver ready meals that meet consumer criter

Nowadays, consumers are getting smarter about good food; where it comes from and how it might benefit their health. According to a recent Innova Market Insights survey, 8 out of 10 consumers have changed their own or their families’ diets to eat healthier. At the same time, veganism, vegetarian and flexitarians are on the rise globally as more consumer ditch animal-based products in favor of plant-based foods. 

“We hear consumers saying they are not only trying to eat more plant-based but are looking to incorporate more vegetables into their diet, so for us, we want to offer solutions that help in the preparation of meals in a short space of time, Leslie Serrano, Innovation Chef, Kerry – Beloit, Wisconsin explains to FoodIngredientsFirst

Click to EnlargeCopyright Kerry 2019Serrano maintains that innovation is everything in meals. “ The consumers deserve a variety of unique, clean and flavorful products to satisfy their needs conveniently and healthily.”

There is also a more significant focus on positive nutrition such as added protein, superfoods, and full servings of vegetables. However, on the flipside, consumers tend to associate adverse nutrition claims such as reduced salt or fat with poor taste. 

There is a lot of white space in the meals category for vegetable-focused meals. For Kerry, innovation means introducing new flavors and new platforms to the meals space. Change is helping customers put products into the market that they know will perform well for consumers, according to Kaylee Ryker, Senior R&D Scientist, at Kerry. 

Jessica Vogel, Senior Marketing Manager – Meals, at Kerry, also explains that the company continues to see positive claims and added benefits in the ready meals space. 

Consumers are also coming back to the frozen category because the quality has improved, but they are still pushing for it to be even better, she says. “We now see frozen ready meals that are almost US$10 but are chef-inspired and feature unique ingredients. Consumers seem eager to splurge on ready meals that will deliver on taste and quality.”

Vogel also notes that new companies and brands are entering the meals category every day. “Brands that have owned this space historically are now competing with brands that didn’t even exist five years ago. Because consumers are drawn to small, niche and new brands we have to change how we service this space,” she adds.  

Consumers are indeed looking for cleaner ingredient lists and with this comes with many challenges because no one wants to compromise. Natural preservation and shelf-life extension continue to be a challenge, says Ryker. 

“Flavor and driving flavor with less sodium and use of ‘natural flavors’ and maintaining product quality without using numerous functional ingredients can be difficult,” she states. 

Kerry continues to expand its fermented ingredients for better shelf life protection and also develop their “from food” flavors that have ultra clean ingredient statements. “We utilize our rich heritage in dairy to provide best-in-class properties for natural cheese powders and clean label dairy sauces,” Ryker notes. 

At the same time, Kerry recognizes that non-dairy alternatives are expanding rapidly and there is a need for them in the ready meals space.

“We have been focused on plant-based proteins and developed a product that performs similarly to chicken. The examples are endless, but the message is clear: the ready meals landscape is changing,” shClick to Enlargee comments. 

For Kerry, the consumer expects clean and simple ingredients, as their mindset is “the less processed, the better.” They also want the foods they eat to satisfy cravings for delicious and trendy food. 

Also speaking with FoodIngredientsFirst, Vince Martin, Business Development Manager at Kalsec, notes that the flexitarian trend will continue in 2019, with “consumers being less radical about dietary choices and more willing to have days where they eat vegan or vegetarian.” 

“Aligned to this will be the ongoing wish to try authentic and interesting regional dishes which can come from exotic overseas locations or be traditional local dishes prepared in a truly authentic manner. The consumer market is being driven by a need for authenticity and experience and food provides one of the main experiences of life,” he explains. 

According to Martin, this year we can expect to see experiential and more ethnically diverse cuisines. “Nutritional concerns will be met by better portion control and the inclusion of diverse materials, such as ancient grains, will deliver some variation to the ranges where the market is already mature,” he continues. 

The offering of plant-based and vegetarian options with excellent delivery of taste will be important to support the flexitarian lifestyle. When a plant-based meal can offer a similar taste to a meat-based meal, it will be desirable to the whole market and not just the minority lifestyle followers, he states. 

Martin also highlights that vegetarian, vegan and free-from foods will continue to play a role in the whole market and not just in the niches where there is a firm commitment. Consumers will also continue to pay more attention to what is in the food but expect good taste and nutrition from ready meals.

For Kalsec, the space of ready meals innovation covers several areas. One example is the development of authentic meals that require minimal preparation from the consumer. These meals deliver a complete sensory experience characteristic of the dish including aromas, flavors and textures from all corners of the globe. 

Martin also believes the food market is driven by trends from top-end restaurants, lobby groups and even entrepreneurial food retailers such as food trucks. The ready meals market needs to be able to deliver these experiences while conforming to the desire for natural ingredients, nutritional guidelines and price constraints, he says. 

“The ready meal category is extremely competitive amid the increasing pressure on time and need for convenience in single or couple households. This recent change in shopping habits leans towards more impulsive purchase choices,” adds Martin. 

Anna Schrammen, Head of Marketing at Scelta Mushrooms BV, notes that smarter and healthier food is developing further innovation for packaging, but also for regional cuisine. She also stresses that meat alternatives and sustainability trends are still significClick to Enlargeant. 

“At Scelta, we offer products that can help with eating healthier (less salt, more vitamins) and even more sustainability. We keep an eye on NPD and make our products which offer more intelligence.”

“One key theme for Scelta, of course, is salt reduction, and this trend continues to grow. People want to eat healthier and this is also why sugar reduction and clean label are additional key themes,” claims Schrammen.

Reductions in salt, sugar and fat can be a real challenge. “Reduction and reformulation often means changing recipes and, therefore, running the risk of losing customers. But by not reducing these three factors, customers will likely get lost as well,” she concludes. 

What’s next?
Often the reformulation and reduction maze can seem somewhat puzzling but the consumers’ desire to eat healthier is helping to move these trends forward. Plant-based meals will remain under the spotlight, as consumers opt for healthy choices at every eating occasion. Further NPD in fast and healthy convenience foods will be driven by the need for nutritionally-based and smarter foods, with lower levels of fat, sugar and salt. Governmental regulations on nutritional standards are expected to be tightened, as many countries face obesity epidemics and consumers understand that changing their eating habits to healthier ones is a solution that the entire family can benefit from. 

By Elizabeth Green

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