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Changing lifestyles and the growing demand for quality leisure time bode well for the convenience foods market, but saving time and effort will increasingly need to be underscored with both health and quality. Rod Abbott reports

The consumer’s growing desire to eat more healthily, rising disposable incomes (although there remains a reluctance to pay more for what are now everyday products) and an increasing demand for single-serve portions are key factors which will affect the way future convenience food packs will be designed and made.

According to research group Mintel in its report, “Eating habits: improving the appeal of convenience options – UK”*, published in May this year, ready meals have recorded the fastest growth rate since 2002, followed closely by pizza.

Manufacturers are now dedicated to improving the image of convenience foods and proving that “convenient” does not equal “unhealthy”. This strategy is likely to intensify. Quality has become a key consumer criterion, alongside “premium”, the latter driven by rising disposable incomes and a growing interest in matters culinary, fostered by the media and the growing legion of celebrity chefs.

Mintel expects the already broad range of ready meals to expand further into areas such as GM-free, holistic “superfood”’ ingredients, organic ingredients, fair trade products and those with low food miles and a small carbon footprint.

But consumers are no longer prepared to pay more just to save time. In addition, convenience food has become increasingly mainstream, hence the consumer reluctance to pay more for what they consider everyday products.

Mintel’s previous report on convenience food recorded market growth well ahead of that on food generally. Over the current review period of 2002-2006, however, value growth in convenience food has paralleled that in food expenditure as a whole, suggesting that intense retail competition is holding back growth in unit prices. The forecast figures predict that the four selected convenience food segments – ready meals, pizza, cooking sauces and soup – will continue to experience positive growth over the 2006-11 period.

Ready meals see highest growth

The ready meals and pizza segments are projected to increase by 25% and 16% respectively at current prices while the cooking sauce and soup segments are expected to rise at current prices by 11% and 14% respectively. Growth in personal disposable income, projected at about 22% over the 2006-11 period, is expected to be a positive for the market. The 5.5% expected growth in the number of one- and two-person households should also prove beneficial to the market, while demographic shifts in the number of families and the “greying” of the UK population will be less favourable to market growth.

The number of people in the family life stage is expected to increase slightly by about 1.7%, while the number of people aged between 15-54 is expected to increase by only 1.9% over the 2006-11 period. More importantly, however, the people who are the most likely to be high frequency consumers of convenience foods, those aged between 15-44, are expected to decrease in number by 2%.

Single-serve has potential

Single-serve is another segment with good potential, catering for the increasing number of consumers who live in smaller households and also allowing different meals to be provided for individual family members. Increasing microwave oven ownership amongst those who live alone will also be important for growth in this sector.

Changes in the use of materials also lie on the horizon. Despite the prevalence of plastic and board in the convenience food packaging sector, aluminium and steel-based packaging is making a bid to improve market share.

Only last year Packaging Today reported that the association of European steel producers – APEAL – and the German body Verband Metallverpackungen had commissioned a technical study by the German Fraunhofer Institute into metal as a suitable medium for heating food in a microwave oven.

The report, which was due to be completed at the end of September, should make interesting reading, as it is expected to recommend the use of metal packaging that is specially designed for microwave heating of food. Indeed, the results will support a call for microwave oven manufacturers to adopt new consumer instructions for their appliances that will specify metal packaging that is safe to use.

Championing the plastics sector is Linpac director of innovations Alan Davey. “The food service industry is fast-moving and competitive and to stay ahead food service operators need to cater for changing lifestyles and eating trends,” he says. “More and more organisations are making alfresco dining, take-out services and even deli counters available to customers to enable them to be more profitable.

“Finding effective convenience food packaging to meet their needs is a hot topic. Plastic offers design flexibility, and, through design innovation, manufacturers are able to offer a product that effectively meets the needs of the convenience food industry and fulfils its environmental responsibilities.

“However, the recent criticism of food packaging has focused too much on the reduction and removal of packaging, ignoring the wider contribution that it plays in reducing food waste and protecting, preserving and presenting convenience food.

“At Linpac we have a range of approaches to these issues. One key approach is a lightweighting policy, which means we try to meet our customers’ packaging specifications with the lightest packaging products available and minimal use of materials.”

Pizzas get extended shelf life

The fast-growing Polish food processor Bracia Rudziks, which supplies pizzas and ready meals to Tesco, Geant, Carrefour, Elea and Polomarket, worked with global food packaging specialist Sealed Air Cryovac to prolong the shelf life of its pizzas, which represent 50% of its business. Earlier this year the company adopted the Cryovac BDF concept for tray overwrapping fresh pizzas under modified atmosphere. Rudziks also acquired an Ulma Pacific packaging line with a Cryovac CJ shrink tunnel to pack its pizzas in Cryovac BDF 8050 film.

This high barrier shrink film has been designed to provide a leak-proof, abuse-resistant pack with extended shelf life, while offering superior transparency and the traditional store-wrapped look consumers are said to prefer. The new packaging has provided the company with shelf life extension and reduced logistical costs, and created an enlarged distribution network and expanded market base.

Meanwhile, Spain’s EDV Packaging has worked with HJ Heinz Australia to develop a lightweight high barrier white PP/EVOH/PP cup for the launch of 10 tuna and salmon varieties for the Greenseas brand. Heinz and EDV say that, while shelf-stable seafood has traditionally been sold in cans or glass, they were keen to “boost the healthy eating sector” with a new pack concept offering customer convenience, portability and a long shelf-life.

The 100g recyclable cup, with resealable lid and “spork”, is manufactured at EDV’s Llinars del Vallès plant in Spain. Alongside long shelf life, it reportedly provides an excellent moisture barrier to safeguard seafood against decay and preserve its taste for up to 18 months after packing under optimal ambient conditions. The opaque base provides UV and light protection, while the cup is hermetically thermosealed with printed aluminium foil.

World first for heat-seal film

FFP Packaging Solutions of Northampton has just launched a new heat-seal coated film, Estergreen PCR1, which is reputed to be a world first in that it uses at least 30% post consumer recycled polyester from recognised waste streams. Estergreen PCR 1 will seal to itself, C-PET, A-PET, R-PET and PET-lined board trays, making it ideal for both VFFS and HFFS bagging applications and tray lidding, where it provides an easy peel and is suitable for hot, cold or frozen food. Being PET, it is suitable for use in both conventional and microwave ovens and, in cooking, is self-venting to allow steam to escape.

Estergreen PCR1 is available as a plain or printed film and may be anti-mist coated. It can be incorporated into a laminate structure in the same way as any other polyester film. Estergreen PCR 1 can be supplied with the firm’s Esterbreathe protocol, said to maximise shelf life by tailoring the permeability of the film to match the oxygen requirement of the produce being packed.

FFP has been supplying Avondale Foods in Northern Ireland with Estergreen LD1AF lidding film for Marks and Spencer’s Fruity Coleslaw. M&S has undertaken a number of developments recently with the aim of sourcing sustainable packaging materials and LD1AF is made from PLA, which is compostable.

FFP has taken the lidding application several steps further, applying a coating to LD1AF, providing a smooth peel seal from the pot, a Huhtamaki PLA item supplied by Howard Packaging. Consumers do not have the messy and potentially dangerous task of cutting the film away with a knife or scissors. Estergreen LD1AF is also anti-mist, which improves the presentation of the product on-shelf.

The use of multi-layer food trays from RPC Bebo UK Corby has enabled the Mispol Group to launch a new product range to meet the growing popularity of ready meals in the Polish market. Consumer research suggested that Polish consumers are looking for quick and convenient ready meals in single-serve packaging, and Mispol developed a range of ambient products that only need to be heated for two minutes in the microwave before serving.

Barrier protection maintains the taste of the products over a 9-month shelf life, the pack is fully microwaveable and its shape enables the consumer to eat directly from the tray. The ready meal is sterilised in the multilayer PP/EVOH/PP barrier tray and sealed with barrier foil. A cardboard sleeve provides on-shelf impact as well as holding the tray in place.

Südpack is best known in this sector for its EcoVent and EcoSteam systems. EcoVent features a cardboard container with metallic coating hermetically sealed by film. The product is placed in the microwave unopened. There it heats up using the pressure cooker principle until the packaging opens by itself. Then the product is baked. The combination of pressure and microwave cooking heats the product thoroughly and evenly without loss of quality says Südpack.

This EcoSteam system brings about a dramatic reduction in cooking times compared to conventional systems, while retaining vitamins and flavour, says the company. Different cooking times for various products are balanced out, preventing overcooking of individual components. This film-based system, which functions like a valve, is economic to manufacture and simple to use.It can be used on all FFS thermoforming machines and tray sealers without modification.

Positive outlook for growth

The continuing fragmentation of lifestyles, together with the rising numbers of women in work, the growing demand for quality leisure time and the general lack of inclination to slave over hot stoves all bode well for the convenience foods market. Increasingly, however, saving time and effort will need to be underscored with health and with quality.

*Mintel “Eating Habits: Improving the appeal of convenience options – UK” May 2007, price £1,500.

T: +44 (0) 207 606 4533,

Contact details

EDV Packaging
T: +34 938 427000;

FFP Packaging Solutions
T: +44 (0) 1604 798600;

Linpac Plastics
T: +44 (0) 1977 636512

T: +44 (0)1252 893300;

T: + 44 (0) 1536 272943;

Sealed Air Cryovac
T: +33 237 189556;

Südpack UK
T: +44 (0) 1908 525720;

FFP Packaging Solutions has been supplying Avondale Foods with Estergreen LD1AF lidding film for Marks and Spencer’s Fruity Coleslaw Linpac director of innovations Alan Davey says one key approach at the plastics company is a lightweighting policy LOMA HAS IDEAL FOIL FOR QC CONCERNS

Loma claims to offer ready meals producers “the ideal solution for their quality control procedures”, even for product in metallised packaging.
The company says for ready meals producers who manufacture products in FFP Packaging Solutions’ film-sealed food pack