Healthy cooking and ready meals, a combination to satisfy the consumer
When we discuss healthy ready meals, we cannot refer to a single type of consumer. In fact, four factors guide the trends around this type of product: healthier food in terms of its nutritional properties, clean label, preparations with hedonic or “whimsical” elements, and less invasive production processes.
Healthy ready meals for everyone
One of the average consumer’s biggest concerns at the moment is that there is not a sufficiently wide offer of ready meals for special diets. The two main examples are gluten/lactose intolerance and the special nutritional needs of the elderly. And they are quite probably the two biggest market niches for ready meals.
Regarding the products used in this new type of ready meals, ingredients associated with a greater technological capacity have been introduced, and also at a lower cost and with properties wanted by the consumer. Thus, dietary fibres from vegetables are tending to replace other sources of carbohydrates. The reason is that although the sensation in the mouth is similar, they are less likely to cause hypoglycaemia and contain less fat. The wide acceptance of so-called ethnic products has been of great help in the incorporation of new raw materials. Thanks to them the variety of aromas and flavours has been enriched. But, above all, they have helped to make food more varied in nutritional terms too.
The infant and third age sectors
The trend in both sectors as regards healthy ready meals is to introduce products that facilitate the preparation of meals for young children and the elderly.
The main attraction of ready meals in these two sectors is convenience, although consumers are still cautious owing to the connection made between ready meals and an excess of additives. This cautiousness, however, is tending to disappear thanks to the high R & D investment in the sector.
Vegetal products and ethnic cooking
There is a tendency in the production and manufacture of ready meals to replace protein and other ingredients of animal origin with vegetal substitutes. Though always choosing ingredients with a similar texture and flavour.
Innovation in ready meals revolves around the principle of reducing salt, fat and sugars while increasing the fibre content. The increase in natural ingredients is combined with a reduction in allergens such as gluten and lactose. In addition, manufacturers seek technological properties that cut down on additives and enhance the nutritional balance and sensory variety. All this results in more complicated labelling, at least with respect to the list of ingredients. One might expect the opposite but the fact is that by adding natural ingredients to reduce additives, the end products are created with more ingredients. This is the case of those products in which an additive is replaced by two or more natural ingredients.
The most functional ready meals use ingredients such as soy and tofu. Both are good for the health, increase the variety of nutrients, textures and flavours and also come directly associated with the diets of other cultures.
Ready meals with a hedonic character
Ready meals are said to have a hedonic character when their enjoyment does not depend solely on the product itself but also on the time of consumption. In many cases these ready meals display gourmet or premium labelling, which is especially relevant for their identification.
The consumers look for these lines of ready meals for two fundamental reasons: firstly, because they see them as a way of trying new recipes without risking too much. It is no longer necessary to go to a restaurant to try one of these dishes. And secondly, the “whim” factor tempts them to pay a little more for products made with ingredients of higher quality; i.e. in the premium category.
The producers of ready meals must therefore develop a range strategy. This is based on the development of certain references adjusted to both consumer habits and consumer tastes. In addition, these ranges are differentiated by their presentation, packaging and type of preparation in the home.
In general terms, these consist of fruit, green and root vegetables sold for raw consumption: they are washed, peeled and cut, and packaged. The end consumer should only need to remove the wrapping to eat this fourth-range type of ready meal.
Unlike the above, fifth-range products are only partially prepared and need some type of cooking to be consumed in the home.
In the research and development phase we find the sixth-range products. These are aromatized and texturized fruits and vegetables. They undergo some kind of processing but give the impression of being fresh food.
Ready-meal production technology
It is certainly true that the technology applied to food permits large doses of innovation. As regards the focus of the food itself, for example, one aspect or another can be given greater importance. Remember the factors around which the new ready meals revolve: health, pleasure, ethnic focus, trustworthiness and convenience. But technology is not only applied to the development of the end product. Packaging is also an area in need of constant improvement. Companies can use the packaging to influence the purchase decision.
The current trend is the design of containers that don’t have to be removed to cook the food they contain. For example, ready-to-use containers for the microwave. The formats aimed at the niche of informal meals are also worth mentioning.
In this respect communication is important. It must and indeed tends to make the product look easy-to-consume, attractive and healthy.
At Sensory Value, we are specialists in the food and drinks market and we have experience with all kinds of products. That’s why we can help you find out if your product is a hit and why. If you want to put your healthy ready meals to the test, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.