If there is any area of recent food development where consumers are clearly in the driving seat, it is in the demand for clean-label and natural ingredients. More than ever, consumers want to know the provenance and content of their foods, with an emphasis on healthy and sustainable ingredients.
“Clean-label has risen in importance as the public searches for transparent information about food sourcing, in an effort to be reassured,” says Christina Furlong, insights specialist, market research and consumer connect at Kerry Europe & Russia.
“Sustainability and ethics are also becoming pillars of trust under the clean-label umbrella, which indicates clean-label needs to extend across the whole supply chain. Ultimately, consumers want food that tastes good, is good for them and does good for people and the planet.”
As consumer demands around taste, nutrition and traceability change constantly, one of the areas rapidly evolving to meet this demand is the prepared meals category. This was the primary driver behind the launch of Kerry’s Great Culinary Taste initiative, developed last year at the Irish firm’s Global Technology & Innovation Centre in Naas.
“Manufacturers can find it difficult to deliver the authentic home-cooked taste that we know consumers are looking for, at scale,” explains Noreen Sheehan, savoury end use market director for Kerry Europe & Russia. “We wanted to support our customers by providing an easy-to-use toolkit of key ingredients that they could utilise as a shortcut in their innovation process.”
‘Add a little bit of culinary magic’
Great Culinary Taste aims to take the ingredients that prepared meal manufacturers already have available and “add a little bit of culinary magic and know-how” to enable them to enhance existing consumer favourites or add to a range by creating other product variants, including more authentic and ethnic dishes.
Ingredients in the Great Culinary Taste range include plant proteins, natural stocks, infused oils, natural flavours, DairySource-Cream Replacer, natural extracts and marinades, pastes and glazes.
“Being able to introduce this variety, authenticity and ethnicity to a range, using clean-label ingredients, is critical to the success of prepared meal reformulation,” the firm said at the time of the launch.
Kerry’s ethos came on the back of its Discovery research, conducted in 2016, which found more than 70% of European consumers checked the back-of-pack labelling when shopping for groceries, and 73% of consumers looked for more natural ingredients in their prepared meals. Meanwhile, 42% said they were highly influenced by products that claimed to be “authentic, homemade or made with real ingredients”.
The campaign has been launched in the UK, Ireland, the Nordic markets, Italy and Spain “taking into account their different taste palates and local market needs”, says Sheehan. “The response so far from customers has been really positive and our dishes featuring plant protein have sparked a lot of attention, as our ingredients have masked the aftertaste of soy protein.
“In addition, our selection of smoked and grilled flavours has allowed our customers to replicate sophisticated cooking techniques, such as wok- or pan-fried. This helped our customers to mimic more aromatic cooking profiles when they didn’t have the equipment to do so.”
Trends driving consumer motivation to purchase prepared meals include convenience and third-party delivery, according to Furlong. “Time-pressed consumers continue to look for shortcuts in meal preparation and we are now seeing a rise in third-party delivery services, which has expanded the consumer repertoire hugely.”
While home delivery offers convenience, freshness and flexibility, she suggests, it also presents both a threat and an opportunity to the prepared meals category as ready meals and delivery are “operating in a similar space”. “As home delivery becomes increasingly sophisticated, ready meals must continue to innovate to stay relevant,” Furlong adds.
When it comes to plant-based ready meal innovation, “there continues to be open space and vegan has been huge already in 2019”. This, says Furlong, is happening alongside a growing consumer movement towards more ethical and sustainable lifestyles and amid a climate where consumers have become more sceptical and less trusting of food and drink producers.
However, in future, she believes customisation of food – an increasing trend in the market – will be “an area in which ready meals can win”.
That said, as Sheehan points out, cost is a major concern for prepared meals manufacturers. With retailers wanting “more for less”, she says, “margins are getting tighter”. The uncertainty around how Brexit will affect the UK market is also having an impact on development.
Meanwhile, changing regulations in the fight against obesity are having a further marked effect on the industry. “Public Health England is targeting a 20% calorie reduction across savoury products by 2024, while Germany and Spain recently signed up to Nutriscore – a new front-of-pack labelling system,” Furlong explains. “The result of this is increasing scrutiny on prepared meals.”
With the ongoing battle against food waste, natural freshness that extends shelf-life will also be important, says Furlong. “There is a correlation between food waste, shelf-life and packaging, making this a complex ask,” she adds.
“At Kerry, we try to stay at the front end of innovation to tackle these challenges through our Future of Food project, which will capture the future innovation platforms specific to prepared meals until 2030. This will help us collaborate with our customers around innovation and face future challenges.”
Use insights to get ahead
Any would-be innovator in the prepared meals sector should start as early as they can and get a robust strategy built on in-depth insights, advises Noreen Sheehan, savoury end use market director for Kerry Europe & Russia.
Kerry’s Great Culinary Taste has already come to the rescue for one (unnamed) UK manufacturer that Sheehan says was “losing share in their own-label meals range”.
“They wanted to differentiate their product with a richer, more authentic taste profile, while passing on a cost saving to their customer,” says Sheehan.
“Our technologists and chefs leveraged Kerry’s core expertise in natural stocks and umami to deliver depth of taste and the required 10% cost saving for the customer. Market share also increased.”