Long since, the four fundamental functions of packaging (contain, protect/preserve, transport, communicate) are broadened by active, intelligent or smart features in packaging, or whatever you want to call them as the definitional lines aren’t set very sharp.
That certainly is true for ready-to-eat meals as result of the newly developed and introduced sterilisation technologies. In these days the product is often branded as “ready meal”, because the feature “ready-to-eat” isn’t valid as many a modern “ready meal” needs a little bit more treatment by the consumer than the traditional “ready-to-eat” meals, which only needed a few minutes microwaving. But I think few consumers want to go back to the traditionally prepared and presented microwaveable “ready-to-eat” meals after they have experienced the results of the new sterilisation technologies.
Today it isn’t solely the young generation, the so-called Milleniums, who travel more and are consequently confronted with and experiencing foreign influences and its food kitchens. Certainly Baby-Boomers and the recently retired, still feeling young and active, are much more adventurous and open to experimentation than past generations.
They might not have the time on their hands to cook a full meal and they might not have the culinary expertise to prepare these kinds of foods, but they like to show off and share their culinary view with their friends. This means that just putting something flat-tasting in the microwave for thirty seconds, isn’t on their list. It isn’t necessarily about speed of preparation but rather to come up with something special and still have time left to share with your friends. Ready meals are increasingly seen as a way of getting more from the time spent preparing.
In terms of packaging, ready-to-eat meals have been using the tray as one of the most popular formats either using a modified atmosphere or gas flushing on fresh ingredients. Once the trays have been filled, they are sealed and then tested for any leaks to ensure product integrity at all times. Many meals are then placed in cartons to provide optimum shelf presentation.
In recent times, there has been a plethora of other packaging formats used for ‘fresh meal kits’ including stand-up pouches and rigid plastics pots but the traditional, more high volume ready meal continued to be packed in trays.
Often, after filling the trays proceed to an autoclave for retorting to provide a shelf life of three months.
Sterilisation by retorting in an autoclave always has been seen as a quality and taste killer. The long processing time and the high temperature are negatively influencing the quality of the product. It is no surprise that in the last few years we have seen a whole range of alternatives for retorting and consequently an uplifting of the quality and taste of the natural ingredients in today’s ready meals.
There are four advancing technologies, which I will describe today.
1. The MicVac pasteurisation concept is a microwave technology, with which preparing food involves a thermoformed tray filled with raw food ingredients (meat, poultry, vegetables) and certain partially pre-cooked ingredients such as potatoes. The filled PP-tray is topped and heat sealed with a peelable PA/PP flexible film, after which a patented valve designed to open or close when needed, is added.
This system is used, among others by Sweden’s Lantmännen Gooh, about which I wrote some time ago here.
2. The microwave-shielding technology from Shieltronics, which makes it possible to control the intensity of microwaves in a microwave oven so that foods requiring less microwave energy than others can all be prepared in one convenient cooking cycle lasting four to six minutes.
This system requires a two-compartment injection-moulded PP-container that is filled with vegetables in one compartment and raw or partially cooked protein (fish, chicken, meat) in the other. The lidding film also is added with valves. More details about this system in a minute.
3. The third technology is the result of an evolution of the susceptor technology, which Heinz as first one introduced years ago for its Smart Ones.
In these days the frozen-food tray incorporates two technologies: DesignerWare, a paperboard/plastic hybrid, and MicroRite, which provides shielding and even-heating benefits to frozen meals heated in the microwave. The technology is developed by Graphic Packaging and now used in the ConAgra ready meal packaging, as we will see.
4. All of the above mentioned technologies create steam in one form or another to cook the food. That’s why they use valves on top of the lidding film to let escape excessive steam from the tray. It is well documented that steaming food is the best way to cook your meal.
The last technology for ready meals represents this best way of cooking meals in its most pure form. It is a system recently introduced at the WorldFood 2013 exhibition in Moscow by the inventor Aleksey Parovarov. More details in a minute.
These four heating technologies and their future evolutions will and are changing the world of ready meals as we will see. That means that we have moved from the 30-seconds microwaveable flat-tasting ready-to-eat meal to the ready meal, which includes ingredients in different states of preparation and isn’t at all ready to eat at the moment the consumer buys the packaging, but fulfils perfectly well the consumer requirement for decent, even posh, tasting food without requiring any cooking ability.
Satisfyingly replacing that lack of “cooking ability”, is extremely important. According to the 2013 Power of Meat Report, published by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, less than one-third of consumers indicate a high comfort level in knowing how to prepare chicken, meat, fish and seafood.
Ready meals remove the guesswork from home cooking by providing a product that is (partly) cooked, seasoned or marinated prior to packaging, with simple preparation instructions on the products’ exterior package.
In my next article four recent examples of high-quality ready meals and its relevant techniques.