Editor’s Note: As consumer health expectations continue to rise, functional ingredients can help food manufacturers respond to the current trend for more natural recipe formulations in their ready meal, sauce and snack offerings. In this guest blog Rudy Wouters, vice president of the BENEO Technology Center, discusses the state of the ready-made meal sector, the shift to clean-label ingredients and the move from modified starches with more natural forms of starches.
The Ready Meals Makeover
Since ready meals were introduced in the 1970s, they have developed into a firm favorite with the time-deprived and those looking for convenient meal solutions. In fact, despite a refocusing on healthier eating, prepared meals continue to enjoy high levels of popularity, with luxury and low fat offerings now the norm. U.S. sales for ready meals are forecasted to grow from $24 billion in 2014 to $26 billion in 2017, indicating their growing popularity.
Consumers have shifted from eating three meals a day to smaller, more frequent snacking. Because of this they are looking for convenient snacking solutions that provide nutritional snacking solutions that provide nutritional benefits and keep them satiated, especially when on the go. Some of the most important factors consumers consider when choosing a snack include natural ingredients and added health benefits. While convenience remains a key driver in the future, the increasing emphasis on “healthy alternatives" is redefining the ready meals, sauces and snack categories.
The challenge manufacturers now face is persuading consumers that their products have strengths above and beyond those of convenience alone. According to research, “consumers are looking to buy better, reflecting a desire for authentic products with greater meaning. Indeed, nearly half of global consumers claim that products marketed as authentic, homemade or made with real ingredients have a high influence on their food and beverage choice. "
In addition to seeking out products made with “real ingredients," consumers expect ingredient labels to explain in detail what a product contains, while also providing information on its provenance and positive nutritional benefits. Consumers now associate clean-label products with high quality, being more natural, as well as offering better taste credentials and health benefits due to the lack of additives and e-numbers included within them. In fact, consumer surveys show that 65 percent of the respondents consider natural products as better alternatives. Moreover, artificial additives and production methods are considered to be responsible for the growing number of allergies. As a result, natural, clean-label products are becoming increasingly important for allergy sufferers. With this in mind, more manufacturers have been looking at reducing the additives within their products and improving the marketing of clean-label products.
The Shifting Focus
An example of this shift in ingredient focus can be seen in the growth of “free from preservatives and additives" new product launches in the ready meals, sauces and snacking categories. Being free-from preservatives and additives is now becoming a mainstream requirement, with more than 13,000 global products launched in 2012 with “natural and no additives/preservatives" positioning, up from just over 7,400 in 2008. This consumer push is leading manufacturers to look in even more depth at ingredient replacement.
Modified to Natural Starch
An area of increasing interest in ready meals, sauces and snacking is the replacement of modified starches with more natural forms of starch. This is being driven in part by manufacturers’ desire to promote more natural ready meals on their food labels. In a recent study on consumer and innovation trends in ready meals it was noted that: “In order to overcome negative connotations of the healthiness of ready meals, it has become essential for ready meals to emphasize what they do contain, in addition to removing certain ingredients. Consumers are demonstrating a shift in their approach to healthy eating, whereby they are more focused on what to include in their diet as opposed to what to eliminate. As a result, more manufacturers are emphasizing the added nutritional benefits of their products."
The natural trend has been a key driver in the replacement of modified starches with natural alternatives in many ready meals and sauces. According to Mintel, natural starches are now used in more new product launches than modified starches for the first time since 2009. Out of these new product launches, snacks were far and away the biggest users of natural starches, with prepared meals the next largest user of non-modified starches.
The natural starches used in ready meals, sauces and snacking products range from corn, potato, wheat and cassava to rice. Thanks to its technological benefits, neutral taste and clean label characteristics, rice starch is growing in popularity in ready meals, as well as in a wide range of sauces and snacks. It is now most frequently used in convenience meals, followed by snacks, sauces and seasonings.
Why? Because naturally derived rice starches have good freeze-thaw, acid and process stability, making them ideal for use in packaged sauces as well as in frozen products. Natural regular rice starch and natural waxy rice starch possess neutral taste profiles that make them popular in sauces and ready meals, as no “taste masking" is required when they are used. In addition, the balanced profile and neutral color of natural rice starches, enables a product’s true freshness, acidity and glossy finish to stand out.
Manufacturers also are looking to reduce the fat content of their ready meals, sauces and snacks. Thanks to its ability as a natural fat replacer, rice starch brings creaminess to low-fat versions of dairy desserts, ready meals, soups and sauces as well as fillings. Due to its small granule size, neutral taste and short, but soft, gel structure, rice starch mimics a full-bodied, creamy mouthfeel. This gives it the ideal characteristics to be used as a fat replacer within low-fat, baby food and free-from products as well.
Rudy Wouters is vice president of the BENEO Technology Center and manages the company’s food application projects and customer technical service. He joined the company in 1997 as food application manager where he was responsible for inulin as well as oligofructose projects and customer service activities in the dairy area. In 2009, he became head of Food Application Technology where he in charge of all ingredients within the BENEO portfolio. He can be reached at [email protected].