Developments in processed foods have given rise to more convenience foods in the current market. Nearly a decade ago, Ready to Cook (RTC) convenience foods were introduced to the market considering the busy lifestyles of the individuals especially that of a working woman who had to handle both home and work without compromising on any of the two. This gave a quick push to RTC foods like Maggie noodles, cut & peeled vegetables, frozen foods, instant mixes for cakes, sweets, idli, dosa, dhokla, etc.
Moreover, the modern work tradition demands moving to metro cities that are IT hubs like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Noida, etc. leaving family behind which becomes challenging especially in the case of millennials. They either do not have much culinary skills or have not much time due to long hours of working and/or travel. When they come home after a long tiring day they would rather relax than cooking a meal for themselves. Frequent meal orders or dining out may be expensive and not really preferred on a daily basis which creates room for some quick fix solutions.
Today’s most of the younger consumers who have grown up seeing their mothers use RTC products -however, are not as keen on displaying their culinary skills.They are okay with the even more convenient ready-to-eat (RTE) products.A change in lifestyle, rising dual income families, diminishing culinary skills and numerous food delivery apps -has triggered a transition from the RTC to the RTE segment.
Ready to Cook foods definitely gave a big hand serving people the ease of cooking, but it did have a need to cook for a few minutes as these were half-cooked. We humans sometimes wish if we could get everything ready without even having to do anything. This is where Ready to Eat products comes into picture, making our wish true. Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are a group of food products that are pre-cleaned, precooked, mostly packaged and ready for consumption without prior preparation or cooking.
Why Ready to Eat foods are Saviour?
It optimises the ease of consumption, without the need of further preparation. It may also be easily portable, have a long shelf life, or offer a combination of such convenient traits. Ghar Ka Khana- we all have to agree on this that no matter how often we eat outside food we crave for simple ghar ka khana that would include rice, dal, subji and sometimes home cooked chicken. But battling through rush hour traffic after a long day’s work seldom leaves us with the time (not to mention the energy) to prepare such a meal. This void is perfectly filled by Ready-to-Eat meals as it has the taste profile that is closest to the freshly cooked food.
Initially there wasn’t much demand for this but over the last decade this market has grown tremendously. There are companies like ITC, MTR, Gits, etc. that have entered the market producing all kinds of cuisines and every time new variation enters the market. From a market with so many options, the challenge, of course, is to find healthy ready-made meals that taste good, satisfy your hunger and won’t sabotage your diet.
The market was estimated to be a little less than Rs 2,000 crores in 2017 and is expected to grow to almost Rs 5,000 crores by 2023. Thus there is a healthy growth in the market as demand is increasing steadily. The present pandemic with no doubts accelerated its growth as people were concerned about safety and secondly the fresh food market was badly affected because of lockdown. The Ready-to-Eat (RTE) meals are those that are fully cooked and packed so they may be kept at room temperature for months without spoilage.There are many companies including ITC Foods, Gits, MTR, Kohinoor and many others who prepare all kinds of dals, curries, biryanis &pulaos, and some chicken and fish preparations, dairy products, fruit juices and health drinks, snacks and nuts, noodles, soups and a hoist of other products that can be consumed directly without cooking. These have advantage of being sold in all retail formats including the online shopping stores or directly from the manufacturers. These are also convenient for consumers to store as they do not require special needs of storage. Any time one wants to have meal, it could be picked up heated in microwave or in boiling water to just warm it. No cooking is required.
How do Companies prepare RTE foods?
These are prepared in two different ways. One is where everything could be added in a package and then heated to cook it. This is actually like canning where cylindrical metal cans are used. These are filled with product and are put in a retort and heated at temperatures above boiling point of water. The present RTE products are packed in restorable pouches. They have several advantages although they lack the mechanical strength of cans.
Advantages of pouches are they are very light and they have much smaller width dimension, so heating can be quite rapid in these compared to a cylindrical can for which heat has to travel a much larger distance from side to the centre of the can. This would cause excessive heating of many more solid foods with significant impact on the sensory quality of food.
Pouches are made of several layers of plastic and aluminium films which are heat stable and can easily withstand the retort temperature. Because of their rectangular shape they would have larger height and length and much shorter width so heat travels rapidly across width and causes sterility of product in a much shorter time. While stopping the thermal treatment since the heating is done under high pressure, if the pressure is released suddenly then pouches may burst as inside the pouch may still have high pressure. This necessitates gradual release of pressure by replacing the steam with air to counter balance the pressure loss by stopping of steam.
This process is done until all the spoilage microbes are killed along with pathogens. Thus as long as the package is intact the outside microbes cannot get in and spoil the product. So product can be kept at room temperature and will not spoil.
This process will not be acceptable if consumers want different parts of a meal separated such as rice, dal and curry. This needs a different type of package than a retort pouch. Here two processes are available. One is to fill the container shaped like compartmentalised plate which could be filled and then sealed in a manner that contents filled in different compartments don’t mix. The packets are made of heat stable plastic and could be heated either by steam or by microwave until they are sterile.
A second way is hot filling the sterilised product streams from different nozzles into different compartment and then sealing it in an environment which does not allow microbes to contaminate. Using airtight compartment with higher pressure would not allow microbes to enter the filling and sealing operations.
As more advanced technology becomes available for the RTE foods one gets more varieties and sophistication in this class of food. There will be also variations in the type of foods and combinations in which it may be offered to consumers. The rapid growth shows that consumers are very happy with the offerings and there is more that they will be seeing in the future. Our responsibility as a consumer should be to check labels before buying to indulge in the habit of Smart Pick.
Manager – Food & Nutrition