A closer look at ready meals in UK supermarkets
Time scarcity, accompanied by modest cooking skills, have obliged many people to accept convenience foods such as supermarket ready meals or fast and takeaway food as a part of their diet. In 2016, the value of the UK ‘food-to-go’ market was £16.1 billion, and this number is estimated to rise by 6.2% reaching £21.7 billion in 2021 indicating significant growth. Despite its convenience, frequent consumption of prepared foods is associated with developing non-communicable diseases NCDs (e.g. obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers). Consequently, governmental bodies and research institutes have hastened their efforts to control food production and increase the awareness of diet-health related issues. A well-known example of this is the successful use of ‘traffic light’ labelling established in 2006 by the Food Standard Agency (FSA) that informs consumers about how the nutrient content of a specific food product relates to the governmental recommended daily intake. Another example is the formation of numerous campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the consequences of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles such as Food4Thought and Change4life. These efforts did not only push fast food chains to add some healthy options to their menus, but also inspired the food industry to consider producing healthier convenience food products and making them readily available in supermarkets.
Supermarket food products are generally trusted in Europe; in the UK for example, 44% of consumers believe that supermarkets provide all the products that lead to a healthy diet. Consumer trust is not only limited to the previous aspect, but it extends to the belief that these food stores are able to deliver personalised nutrition. A recent survey of 9381 European participants indicated that 17% prefer to get their personalised meals from supermarkets. Although this percentage came after family doctors (31%), dieticians (28%) and private health organisations (24%), it illustrates a remarkable confidence that supermarkets can be professional and scientific as specialised health care providers. It also illustrates the huge responsibility on supermarkets to keep up with their consumers’ expectations and increase their performance.
In reality, UK supermarket strategies are continuously aiming to deliver healthier foods, either voluntarily to meet consumer demands or to comply with governmental targets and regulations. Nevertheless, delivering fresh healthy foods with extended shelf life can sometimes be very challenging from a sensory and technical point of view. These challenges are, for example, represented by lack of consumer acceptance of less salty soups, or outlined by shelf-life reduction due to a decreased amount of added sugar in a confectionary product. In spite of these facts, it is worth mentioning that some considerations for healthy production can be simply and easily implemented without any challenges.
Several recent surveys have investigated the nutritional quality of ready meals offered by UK supermarkets. A study found that a significant number of food products (38%) sold as ‘meals’ did not contain enough calories (<500 kcal) to constitute a proper meal. Another research on 100 chilled ready meals from three leading UK supermarkets found that none of the analysed meals complied with all World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. Finally, a survey published in 2015 that looked into the nutritional profile of 166 ready meals from 41 food stores found that only 20% of those meals were low in fat, salt and sugar, including two-thirds of ‘healthier’ meals. This percentage even at 20% indicates that it is indeed feasible to sell healthy and tasty industrial food products.
At the moment, supermarket ready meals contribute to 7.4% of the ‘food to go’ market. Most current retailed meals need intensified research for controlling their nutrient composition, portion size and satiety effect, but evidence suggests that such achievements are possible if the demand is there. In the future, supermarkets will play a bigger role in supplying ready meals especially when methods of personalised nutrition and nutrigenomics are developed.
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• IGD, press release (2016) IGD forecasts food-to-go to take bigger bite of UK grocery https://www.igd.com/about-us/media/press-releases/press-release/t/igd-forecasts-food-to-go-to-take-bigger-bite-of-uk-grocery/i/16150
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