The Basics of Convenience Food

Time-pressed meal preparers are reaching for meal kits, pre-cooked and pre-cut items and other shortcuts to make a ‘home-cooked meal’ in less time.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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Easy does not always mean fast. A Crock Pot (Rival's brand of slow cooker) is slow (quite slow) but it is extremely easy and consumers find it convenient. In the past, however, consumers had to shop for numerous ingredients and then prepare them for their Crock Pot meal. Now, with less time on their hands, consumers have ConAgra's Banquet Crock-Pot Classics.

Crock-Pot Classics (available in six varieties) help alleviate several of the stresses associated with evening meal preparation and also are a solution for families that eat in shifts, according to John Hanson, vice president of marketing for the Banquet brand at Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra (www.conagra.com). All the necessary ingredients are included in the package, and the meals may be started in the morning for slow cooking through the day.

Other ingredients that save consumers steps in the preparation process are sliced vegetable combinations and bagged salad. Prepared vegetables have been popular with consumers for several years now. Advances in ingredient science and food preparation technology have greatly enhanced the shelflife of fruits and vegetables — a category that is projected to grow tremendously with the increasing focus on ways to reduce overweight and unhealthy eating.

Ready Pac, Irwindale, Calif., relaunched its diced bell peppers and onions and other vegetable combinations in smaller, one-meal-only-sized boxes. Ready Pac has a whole line of Ready Fixins that includes washed and cut single items like No-Tears Onions but also combinations of vegetables for stir fry, stews and chop suey.

Americans appear to need help with more than just main courses. Unilever earlier this year launched Country Crock Side Dishes, ready-to-use accompaniments such as mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese in the same plastic tub as Country Crock spread.

Ingredients that make it possible

One consequence of this preparation and combination ease is more rapid spoilage of the food components. For example, an uncut apple can last for weeks, but once cut, it can spoil in minutes. Therefore the challenge for food manufacturers is to overcome this quickening spoilage, in other words to make items more shelf-stable. Ingredients' greatest contribution to making meal preparation more convenient is to help manage shelflife and appearance.

Not all ingredients used to enhance ease of meal preparation are apparent to consumers. Processors of pre-sliced and pre-packed meat employ plant-based gelling agents such as locust bean gum, gum arabic, guar gum, carrageenan and alginates (derived from seaweeds) to retain succulence and to help extend product life. Without these hydrocolloids, the slices would not be appealing and would shrivel up in very short time.

Formulators use instant cold water-swelling starches as a way to improve textural properties or emulsion stability in a number of applications including pie fillings and desserts and especially those formulated without sugar or with reduced fat. In addition to contributing to the texture, many of these novel ingredients have an important role in improving the nutritional profile of products and making products less obesogenic.

Marketers have to be careful about the appearance of their products. So formulators rely on emulsifiers, preservatives and glazing agents to enhance and extend the flavor, visual appeal and texture characteristics. These ingredients have contributed tremendously to the growth of convenience foods.

Calcium silicate and magnesium stearate are used to prevent caking of powder blends and to prevent lumps in dry mixes. Glycerol, propylene glycol, fructose and sorbitol are used as humectants to retain moisture in breads and cakes. Emulsifiers are used to improve the uniformity and smoothness of sauces and dressings.

Simple vinegar (acetic acid) is incorporated as the antimicrobial in conjunction with hydrocolloids to manage water activity of salad dressings, salsas and sauces. Salts and sugars serve as additional hurdles.

Processing and packaging technologies

While ingredients can help, packaging and processing technologies perhaps play even greater roles in preserving these convenient foods.

Menu Fresh uses high-pressure processing technology to keep beef and chicken fresh in its meal kits.

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) effectively retards aerobic growth for foods including meats and bakery products. Maintaining the optimum mixture of gases — evacuating some and sealing in others — is the key to the technology. But most often, MAP means the replacement of oxygen with nitrogen or some other inert gas.

MAP is the key behind the shelf life of Oscar Mayer Lunchables from Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill. The packaged lunch kits, made up of cheeses, crackers and sliced meats, relies on air-tight packaging also for the prevention of moisture migration between food items. Consumer-friendly sodium lactate adds extra shelf life for the meat items.

MAP also is key to the relatively new category of refrigerated pasta. While the main driver here is a fresher, better tasting product, the shortened cooking time helps with convenience and is doubled by combining MAP and active packaging with refrigeration.

The retortable pouch has been a huge contributor to the shelf-stability of super-convenient foods. Rice, once of those long-simmering side dishes or meal components, now can be ready in as little as 60 seconds in the microwave.

Uncle Ben's, a division of Masterfoods USA (www.masterfoodsnews.com), Hackettstown, N.J., during World War II cut rice-cooking in half with its converted rice. In the 1980s, the company made it easier with its Boil-in-Bag Rice, which cooked in 10 minutes and with minimal clean up. When 10 minutes was too long for consumers, there was Instant Rice, done in five minutes. Now there's Ready Rice.

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