Consumers are increasingly on the hunt for healthy, convenient meals. This is the change in consumer mindset the food industry has been coming to grips with in recent years.
It’s not a surprise that celebrity chefs including Kylie Kwong and Jamie Oliver have been releasing their own ranges of ready meals. Australians are busier than ever and are searching for healthy and convenient meal solutions.
Consumer choices are increasingly driven by dietary restrictions, the latest food and diet crazes, and considerations around sustainability.
Just one example is the increasing number of Australians shopping at local farmer’s markets. This trend means consumers are no longer happy with cling-wrapped potato salad as the token ‘healthy and convenient’ option. Instead they desire healthy, fresh and visually appealing food, packaged in easy-to-use, convenient formats.
For manufacturers and retailers, these changes have required – and will require even more so in the future – some serious innovation.
Convenience above all
Industry analysis by IBISWorld shows that the world’s prepared meals production market has increased steadily over the past five years at an annual rate of around 3.6 per cent. Changing demographics associated with the aging baby boomer population, and the shift towards smaller and dual income households, has resulted in a consumer base that demands fresh, high-quality ready meal options which are affordable and can be heated and enjoyed instantly.
To achieve this, packaging that minimises steps for consumers is in high demand. Packaging solutions such as grab-and-go packaged produce or fresh meat products that can go straight from the retailer’s chiller case into the oven or microwave are growing in popularity. Easy open packaging that consumers of all ages can access without the use of a knife or scissors are also becoming popular.
Another convenient solution of note is one that enables the product to be marinated inside the package, which streamlines the process of marinating meat or poultry. This technology packages protein and marinade together, separated by a seal, which is broken when the consumer squeezes the package. The protein can then marinate in the hermetically sealed pack, which means enhanced food safety, easy clean up and less time wasted.
People often associate sustainability with recycling; ignoring other ways to reduce the environmental impacts of food and cooking.
But reducing food waste is actually a very efficient, low cost method of improving sustainability and saving money. With the average Australian household now wasting around $1,000 worth of groceries each year, food waste is a big problem. The unfortunate reality is that discarded food often ends up in landfills and ultimately, leads to the production of methane gases that are harmful to the environment.
As education around sustainable approaches to food preparation increases, many consumers are no longer just concerned about whether a package is recyclable; they are also considering elements like carbon footprint and product lifecycle. For example, consumers are waking up to the fact that packaging designed to help extend shelf life is key to reducing food waste; a key contributor to overall carbon footprint and a drain on food producers and retailers’ bottom lines as well as household budgets.
New technology now often utilises the protective benefits of vacuum packaging with individual products separated with perforated seals. Products such as poultry, cheeses and sausages are frequently packaged in this manner, which lengthens shelf life, reduces food waste, and, importantly, looks attractive.
Efficiency at all costs
For retailers, new innovative packaging technologies can improve efficiency in several ways. By incorporating products with just the right package size and shape, operators can make better use of their space. Many products that arrive in bulky cans could be transformed into stackable pouches, taking up less storage space on the shelf and generating less waste material for disposal. Also, products that are portion-packaged reduce the amount of labour and time required to break down and prepare foodservice items, while also reducing food waste.
We’re going to continue to see the development of flexible packaging design and technologies to help optimise the amount of packaging needed to protect food products. Furthermore, packaging solutions will start performing more active functions when it comes to food and food formulation, maintaining product freshness without the use of preservatives or substantial food processing steps.
Cost consciousness and value shopping are very prominent trends in the food market in Australia. One key takeaway related to this attitude is consumers’ reluctance to throw out food. Therefore, we anticipate the need for extended shelf life food products will only increase in the future.
With more and more working Australians eating lunch at their desk every day, ready meal options aren’t going anywhere. We expect the fresh ready meal category to keep dominating retail shelves in the near future, with more and more high-end innovative options on offer to accommodate for the hectic lifestyles of today’s consumers.
[Paul McGuire is Market Manager, Ready Meals & Darfresh, Sealed Air, ANZ]