Changing lifestyles is driving the growth of ready meals in Asia, writes RAJESWARI RAMANEE and the Asian Agribiz team.
Changing lifestyles is driving the growth of ready meals in Asia, writes RAJESWARI RAMANEE and the Asian Agribiz team.
Vietnam’s ready-meal market is gaining ground as more young people look for convenient and hygienic food.
Ly Kim Chi, Chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Food Association, said the processed food segment has been growing by 8% annually, driven by changes in eating habits. Consumers have busy lives and often choose processed foods that they can eat quickly and conveniently, he said.
RTE foods, which are more affordable than eating out and more practical than cooking at home, favor the younger generation, Mavin Foods said in a statement. And ready meals with attractive packaging and a high nutritional value are getting more attention from consumers, according to Le Thi Thanh Lam, Deputy General Director of Saigon Food.
Health is an important factor for RTE foods, especially since the Ministry of Health last year issued a circular to specify which food additives can be used, and in what quantities. The Ministry wants food processors to lower their use of additives or even remove them completely.
S-Food, a Hanoi-based ready meals producer said all its lines are free of additives. “We stopped using additives and preservatives two years ago. Previously we used them, but only a small amount,” owner Pham Thi Duong Quynh Huong told Asian Meat Magazine.
“Because we don’t use preservatives and additives, we are forced to target the high-end market. Consumers in this segment prioritize their health over how much they pay,” said Ms Huong. She added that premium, refrigerated RTE foods have short shelf life and are best consumed within one week of production.
The raw materials used are premium too. “We use collagen casings and high-quality spices imported from Germany and Spain for our sausages. Pork, chicken, duck and shrimp are all sourced from organic farms, where the animals are raised on natural feed, without growth promoters or banned substances,” said Ms Huong.
As the Vietnamese pay more attention to food safety, nutrition and health, she believes demand for premium RTE foods will continue to grow.
In Indonesia, many families still cook their own meals, while an abundance of traditional food stalls provide breakfast, lunch and dinner cheaply.
RTE foods cater for mid-market consumers, the food service industry and convenience stores. They are also used for disaster relief, by Hajj pilgrims and in military rations in Indonesia. However, pricing must be addressed before ready meals can become part of the national daily life.
According to Chairman of the Indonesian Meat Processors Association, Ishana Mahisa, few of his members are in the RTE food business because of its small market size.
“Big players such as CP Indonesia, Madusari Nusaperdana and Canning Indonesia have been in the market for some time now. Small players are wary of joining as they know that Indonesians are still not enthusiastic about these meals,” Mr Mahisa told Asian Meat Magazine.
Customized ready meals
Nevertheless, Foodex Inti Ingredients has responded to demand from convenience-loving Indonesians by creating a special unit to develop customized ready meals.
Jenny Kartika Rusli, Foodex’s Business Development Director, admitted it is still early days for ready meals, though some retailers have started targeting well-heeled consumers, millennials and busy housewives.
“In general the ready meals segment is encouraging. Nowadays, people really like tasty and convenient food, so ready meals are a great option,” she said.
Foodex started making ready meals in 2012, with dishes including beef and chicken porridge. “We don’t have our own brand because we focus on the food service and OEM sectors that require fast serving, consistency and quality products,” she said.
The company’s ready meals are classified as healthy as they use fresh raw materials and no preservatives. Shelf life is 6-12 months, so they can be eaten as daily meals or in emergencies. “Our ready meals are produced using high-sterilization processes, so they don’t require additional preservatives,” said Ms Rusli.
Foodex’s premium range costs more than meals cooked at home and are similar to restaurant food. The premium price comes from the processing and packaging that ensure meals are consistent and have a long shelf life.
The ready meals are packed with aluminum foil laminated with plastic that is safe against sterilization temperatures. These retort packages can be heated for 3-5 minutes before consumption.
Still some way to go
While the number of RTE food lines is growing in the Philippines, no data or estimates of the segment’s growth is available. The only thing which is clear is that they are growing in tandem, fueled by lifestyles changes. Demand notably comes from young working Filipinos, who make up a big segment of the consuming public.
Busy lifestyles mean that consumers have little time to cook, while limited area for storage forces them to look for single-serve food. There has also been growth in healthy and wholesome ready meals, but at a much slower pace. A glance at the shelf space allotted to these meals in stores is indicative enough. In general, they do not have their own dedicated space yet.
At the moment, there are no standards to define what constitutes healthy ready meals. One meat processor told Asian Meat Magazine that this means producers can tack a claims tag onto their lines at their discretion, and for the most part get away with it.
“The Food and Drug Administration does have regulations regarding inclusion of preservatives and additives, but what can be marketed as “healthy” is not defined,” she added.
Healthy ready foods remain a niche market primarily because Philippine consumers are price sensitive. Because affordability is still the main demand driver, the industry tends to produce volume at the least cost per kilo.
“Producing healthy RTE foods means having to remove or minimize preservatives and additives, and replacing them with more natural ingredients,” meat scientist Roni Malvataan told Asian Meat Magazine. “These natural ingredients cost much more, so RTE foods will also cost more.”
He held as an example MSG, a common chemical flavor additive in processed food. A kilogram of MSG costs around USD 2, but natural alternatives could be as much as USD 40/kg. Most Filipinos freeze their food to preserve it, and many frozen foods have chemical preservatives for better shelf life. Replacing these preservatives with natural ones will add to the cost.
Nonetheless, some companies are providing healthier RTE foods. Among these is Fresh Options, which has several ready meal lines.
“We have RTE meats under our Lutong Bahay and Ulam lines like kaldereta, karekare and Bico Express,” Anthony Lozano, Sales and Marketing Manager, told Asian Meat Magazine.
He said these “are healthier than regular RTE foods because we use fewer preservatives”. Compared to cooking from scratch at home or eating at restaurants, these RTE meats are more affordable and give value for money, he claimed.
Fresh Options maintains stringent safety controls throughout production. After being packed in microwavable trays, the products go through a metal detector before being blast frozen to preserve freshness and extend their shelf life.
Another company that is also producing healthier alternatives is Fisher Farms. Many of its products are milkfish-based, and so are already considered healthier than meat.
Chief Executive Imelda Madarang told Asian Meat Magazine that local consumers are calling for healthier and more convenient foods. “The trend is being driven by millennials and younger consumers, as well as price point since the Philippines is more a D-E market,” she said.
Still in infancy
Over the last few years, many of South Asia’s larger meat producers have ventured into RTE as a way of adding value to the fresh meat they sell.
Some of them told Asian Meat Magazine that they first had to find a way to counter the inherent suspicion people in the region have over processed and packaged foods.
Ready-to-cook foods made their mark earlier than RTE foods, as customers are more open to buying marinated or half-cooked foods that they can further cook themselves.
“In Bangladesh more products are RTC than RTE,” Paragon Group’s Managing Director, Moshiur Rahman, told Asian Meat Magazine. The trend is similar in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Gourmet Lanka, a leading Sri Lankan RTE food company with close to 40 lines, has had a hard time with RTE than RTC due to misconceptions people have about frozen food.
In the last two years since entering the RTE market, Managing Director Roman Scott said the company had spent a lot of time teaching consumers about what RTE is.
India’s Nandu’s Chicken has invested in its ready meal ranges over the last year. Its COO, Vinay Gopinath, said the country’s RTE food market is still in its infancy, but it is growing steadily.
“It is a growing market, and is on its way to becoming a bigger one. Since we have this customer base, we are encouraged to also stock some of our RTE foods at our own stores,” said its Chief Executive, Narendra Pasuparthy.
The key selling point used by ready meal companies in South Asia is that the foods are “healthy” and “convenient”.
Mr Scott said Gourmet Lanka uses blast frozen to -40 degrees to avoid having to use preservatives, color enhancers or shelf life-extending emulsifiers.
“[After blast freezing] we then keep our foods in a -20 degrees cold room and use a cold chain that can keep product frozen at -20 to -30 degrees,” said Mr Rahman of Paragon Group.
Paragon, Gourmet Lanka and Nandu’s are looking to tap into a “convenience” market that is full of working professionals who no longer have time to cook.
“Convenience will be big in the next generation,” said Mr Gopinath. Meanwhile, Mr Scott believes “there will be more nuclear families and an ageing population who prefer RTE foods in future”.
As a result, producers have priced their RTE ranges to be as competitive as possible, or even slightly more expensive than other freshly cooked meals. Gourmet Lanka sells a meal consisting of 180g of meat and 220g of carbohydrates for USD 2.48-3.86. This is comparable to a takeaway dinner from a local restaurant.
In Pakistan, the story is slightly different. PK Meat’s Managing Director, Saqib Butt, told Asian Meat Magazine the company priced its ready meals to suit mass consumption, but found this approach would not work in Pakistan.
“When we started, people were not aware of the product, so it was difficult,” said Mr Butt. The company now sells its ready meals as frozen luxury products. This resulted in 30% growth in 2018 alone.
“Pakistan is a food-oriented market, so convenience is not a concern here. Quality and premium are what they are looking for,” said Mr Butt. He added that PK Meat’s ready foods use spiral freezing for a shelf life of up to two years.
Convenience comes into play in PK’s main export market in the Gulf. “Our market is of expats, working professionals who have no maids or time to cook when they get home,” said Mr Butt.
Covid-19 boosts demand for convenient meals
Movement restriction due to Covid-19 has exacerbated the need for convenient meals for most consumers in Asia.
In Malaysia, both food processors such as retort makers Ezee Foods and pork producer Chau Yang Farms have intensified farm to fork models. Chau Yang’s meat processing arm Tip Top Meat is actively putting out marinated RTCs and will increase its range of flavors as well.
Integrated poultry producer Cab Cakaran announced that their nugget, deli, sausage and patties production is running at full capacity as consumers stock up on products with longer shelf life.
Meanwhile in Singapore, the plant-protein sector is seeing heightened activity as investors pump more money into vegan RTE or RTC. Entities such as Temasek Holdings is investing in companies such as Impossible Foods, which is planning to open a factory soon in the region.
In Sri Lanka, companies such as Gourmet Lanka has seen a jump in their RTE sales and are even pushing the trend by offering different ranges. Their campaign focuses on groups such as the elderly, who may find cooking a chore and RTE as a solution. Even with delivery issues, the company has devised plans such as collection venues for customers to do a drive-buy-thru.
Vietnam meanwhile, is expecting a 10% increase in RTEs and the processing sector is running at full capacity to meet demand. Companies such as Vissan JSC has hired an extra 100 staff at its factory in Ho Chi Minh City, as RTEs are distributed to all retail and convenience store channels during the restricted movement period.
Indonesia’s Seafood Products Processing and Marketing Association is encouraging members to scale-up seafood ready meal production. They are even helping to put different sectors together in terms of formulation, flavoring and preservation to make it a reality.
Demand for frozen foods in Indonesia is also soaring according to poultry integrator Sierad Produce. It expects its Belfoods brand to hit sales target.
Thailand is already a leader in convenient meals, especially with the range of RTEs available at its 7-Eleven chains, which are located on almost every other street. CP Foods which owns the chain is recruiting 20,000 delivery staff to make sure business runs as usual for RTEs and sundries during the lockdown period.
A large younger population and changing lifestyles in the Philippines may increase RTE sales but, cost is always a factor here. Marinated RTCs tend to do better for home-cooked meals during this period. Gabrielle’s Organic Meat and Poultry is one example offering poultry, pork, goat and fish RTC products.
The 2016 arrival of Family Mart in Malaysia heralded a change in the way ready meals were available with its sandwiches, oden and other snacks that can be heated inside its stores.
This was followed by fellow convenience store MyNews, which has built an RTE food factory to produce similar Japanese and Malaysian-inspired chilled ready meals. The most popular dishes are nasi lemak, chicken and mutton biryani and fried rice.
There is little emphasis in Malaysia on healthy ready meals as companies focus more on the quality of their ingredients than their nutrition, according to Ezee Foods COO Syed Aziz.
“With retort, it is difficult to stabilize vegetables during the high-heat sterilization process. But using premium ingredients like sunflower oil, basmathi rice and cashew milk as a thickening agent falls on the healthier side,” Mr Syed said.
Nevertheless, Ezee Foods is considering introducing a ‘Healthier Choice’ RTE selection featuring steamed meat, more vegetables and less salt.
Demand in Singapore for RTE has been increasing due to busy schedules and less time spent cooking food at home. The country also has brands that makes low-calorie, high-protein meals.
Xndo, a subsidiary of large nutritional supplements retailer, offers RTE foods such as ground beef stew and herbal chicken.
Chef’s Finest offers halal-certified, low-GI ready meals that are diabetic-friendly. The Asian and Western meals are endorsed by the Health Promotion Board as healthier choice. Prices are generally at the premium end of the scale.