Ready meals, sauces, and snacks have often been prized for convenience first and nutritional value second, but today’s consumers may be looking for more than just “quick and easy” from these popular foods. While convenience remains a key driver in the market’s future, growing consumer calls for healthy alternatives are redefining what it takes to stand out in the category.
One area of increasing interest is the replacement of modified starches with more natural forms of starch. 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.
A Makeover for Ready Meals
Since debuting in the 70s, ready meals have become a favorite among consumers who are time-deprived or simply looking for a convenient meal solution. Even with a pivot toward 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.
Rather than eating three meals a day, many U.S. consumers have shifted to eating smaller snacks more frequently. As a result, many consumers today are looking for convenient snacking solutions that provide nutritional benefits and keep them satiated, especially when they’re on the go.
The challenge manufacturers now face is persuading consumers that their products have strengths beyond those of convenience alone, such as natural ingredients or added health benefits. According to research by Datamonitor, “nearly half of 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.
Consumer surveys in the U.S. show that 65% of respondents consider natural products to be better alternatives, and many consider artificial additives and production methods to be responsible for the growing number of allergies. As a result, more and more manufacturers have been looking at reducing the additives within their products and expanding the marketing of clean-label products.
Claims of being “free from preservatives and additives” have also seen steady growth, to the point of becoming almost a mainstream requirement. There were over 13,000 global products launched in 2012 with “natural and no additives/preservatives” positioning, up from just over 7,400 in 2008
Shifting Focus from Modified to Natural Starch
In a recent study on consumer and innovation trends in ready meals, it was noted: “In order to overcome negative connotations of the healthiness of ready meals, it has become essential for ready meals to emphasise 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 emphasisingthe 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. Natural starches are now used in more new product launches than modified starches for the first time since 2009, according to Mintel. 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 include corn, potato, wheat, cassava, and rice. Rice in particular is growing in popularity, and it is now most frequently used in convenience meals, followed by snacks, sauces, and seasonings.
Why Use Rice Starches?
Naturally-derived rice starches have strong freeze-thaw, acid, and process stability, making them ideal for use in packaged sauces as well as frozen products. As they do not require taste masking, natural regular rice starch and natural waxy rice starch possess neutral taste profiles that make them popular in sauces and ready meals. 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.
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 mouth feel. It is therefore ideally poised for use as a fat replacer within low-fat, baby-food, and free-from products as well.
Rice-based ingredients offer food producers high-quality, stable products that encompass a wide range of nutritional benefits: they are naturally derived, hypoallergenic, wholegrain, gluten-free, non-GMO, and rich in anti-oxidants and phytosterols. BENEO-Technology Center offers recipe creation and free-from alternatives as a large part of its services to manufacturers.
As consumers demand more natural and healthy recipe properties from their convenience meals, as well as more ingredient visibility on labeling, natural starches will continue to grow in popularity, including those made from rice.
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