With research highlighting that in the UK, for example, adults allow only 39 minutes to eat per day, it’s no wonder that convenience has been a driving force behind the immense growth in the popularity of ready meals, sauces and snacks.

Convenience on the rise

Convenience looks set to remain a key driver in the future, and the increasing emphasis on health and well-being is redefining on-the-go eating.

The convenience food sector has experienced significant growth in recent years, which has not only put greater emphasis on manufacturing standards and regulatory compliance, but has also influenced the way consumers shop. There are stringent regulations regarding the labelling and production of convenience foods in both developed and developing nations. And, with more women in the workforce, the demand for convenience foods is rising, primarily in emerging economies. Other key factors are increasingly busy lifestyles and an ageing population around the world. Today’s shopper is driven by value, convenience, trust and technology.

As global distribution channels have expanded and consumers have become more likely to purchase off-the-shelf, especially in the BRICS and MENA markets, many large, multinational corporations have adopted a variety of strategies to develop and penetrate the convenience foods market in new and different regions. To get it right, though, supplying products that match local consumer taste at the right price is critical.

Social and economic changes are also helping to deliver growth. Changes such as smaller households, longer working hours and reducing food waste are playing to the strengths of the convenience market as shoppers look to shop little and often.

So, with today’s metropolitan lifestyles demanding a range of processed foods that are easy and quick to prepare, providing nutritious alternatives in a sustainable way has become a key industry driver. In addition, as urbanization continues to expand, half the world’s seven billion people are city dwellers (who account for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions). Sadly, along with population growth, increased per capita incomes and more adults in full-time employment, another worldwide trend is “globesity.”

You are what you eat

According to the World Health Organization, global obesity rates have almost doubled since 1980. Approximately 65% of the world’s population now lives in countries where being overweight or obese kills more people than being underweight. Obesity increases the risk of developing several serious conditions, including atherosclerosis, diabetes, stroke and heart attack.

Convenience foods are often linked to unhealthy eating; but, fast doesn’t necessarily have to mean fat. Yet, it is somewhat unfair and inaccurate to classify all convenience foods as unhealthy. It belies the many nutritious choices on offer, from packaged fruits, vegetables and salads to low-calorie meals and health drinks. And demand for these is increasing. And, research indicates that consumers are ready to pay a premium price if they get to buy quality convenience foods with health benefits. There is a growing trend towards healthy convenience foods that are rich in proteins, functional fibres, vitamins, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.

A recent report, “A Look into the Future of Eating,” predicts an 18% increase in the consumption of low-calorie foods and a 16% rise in demand for snack bars, yoghurt and fruit. The research suggests that the ageing population is behind this trend; people tend to eat more fruit and vegetables as they get older and, if they have health problems, such as diabetes, heart conditions and high blood pressure, they are probably under doctor’s orders to improve their eating habits. Further more, campaigns by celebrity chefs to improve the quality of school meals, for example, are leading the drive towards healthier eating. Governments are also pressuring food manufacturers to use less salt, sugar and fat in their products.

Health on the menu

The challenge that 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 all global consumers claim that products marketed as authentic, home-made or made with real ingredients have a high influence on their food and beverage choice.”

GEA, a designer and manufacturer of equipment for preparing, marinating, processing, slicing and packing food, is actively helping customers to meet this demand. As Robert Schmiehusen, Director, Product and Technology, points out: “Salt, fat and sugar usually provide flavor. If you take them out, what do you put in their place? When you replace ingredients, it affects how the machines handle the products and also their shelf-life and cost.”

As part of the service to customers, GEA’s technical specialists use their equipment and application know-how to help customers make healthy changes to their recipes in a way that enables them to maintain profitability. The company’s test center in the Netherlands enables customers and ingredient suppliers to try out different processes. “For example, we have a cooker that uses an high-velocity airflow to fry foods without actually frying them,” says Schmiehusen. “The center has also helped one of our coatings suppliers to develop the use of a hot air oven instead of a fryer to set the coatings on foods, resulting in leaner, healthier products.

Technology solutions

Other GEA technologies include high-pressure homogenization, which is an important part of processing beverages, sauces and other fluid products. By reducing and standardizing particle sizes, homogenization makes for a more stable product and improves both texture and taste. The company’s separators are used to produce ESL (extended shelf-life) milk by reducing the bacterial count by 90% prior to pasteurization. This low energy solution delivers a product with the same vitamin content as traditional fresh milk and a shelf-life of at least 21 days. GEA freeze dryers help to prolong the shelf-life of food by drying deep-frozen food in a vacuum to vaporize the ice. With this method, products keep their shape, taste and nutritional content, and are light and easy to transport. And, finally, GEA’s refrigeration technologies provide innovative freezing and chilling technology throughout the production, transport and storage of food.

Modified atmosphere packaging

GEA also recognizes that, as customer needs for flexibility in product manufacture change, the functionality of their packing systems must also be able to accommodate this need. As powdered products are shipped around the world and often held in storage for extended periods, there is a real risk of degradation that may limit the useful life of the product. For more than 20 years, GEA has been supplying gas packing technology to the food and dairy industries to enable our customers to deal with the logistics of storage and shipping of valuable powdered products.

Using a combination of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to effectively blanket the product prior to closing the bag can increase the shelf-life to several years, making it an ideal solution for companies wishing to bulk store products to suit their manufacturing cycle or to take advantage of seasonal demand and pricing around the world.

“By helping to prepare healthier food, we’re contributing to the overall health of the global population and, by definition, that’s engineering for a better world,” concludes Schmiehusen.

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