Blogger’s Park: Changing the way we eat

Updated: January 11, 2019 12:16 PM

A look at what is driving the growth in acceptance of convenience foods in India

Manufacturers have to bust the myths consumers harbour about packed foods — that they are bad and contain preservatives. (Representational photo)

By Sahil Gilani 

Ready-to-eat food was an unfathomable concept in our country a few generations ago. When this category arrived in India in the 1960s, it did not evoke a hugely positive response. Perhaps it was a product innovation much ahead of its time. We Indians never considered any other fare besides fresh, traditionally cooked food. The era of convenience food began when the government research agency CFTRI developed the technology to preserve food without preservatives in a dehydrated form for commercial usage.

Instant mixes are dehydrated and contain no preservatives or artificial additives. Since these products are not exposed to any outside air or water, due to their strong packaging barriers, they have a longer shelf life. The popular products in the category are dessert mixes like gulab jamun, rabdi, breakfast mixes like idli and dosa, and snack mixes like dhokla.

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The growing need for convenience gave rise to the ready-to-eat or ready meals category in India. Yet again, companies looked for preservative-free methods to get longer shelf life and retort technology was the chosen route. This technology was developed by NASA and further used by the armies of several countries, including India. Thereafter, it was commercialised with several companies adopting this cutting-edge technology.

Today, brands are actively engaging with consumers and addressing their apprehensions about the category. Packages denoting ‘No Preservatives’, ‘No MSG’ and ‘No artificial colours and flavours’, etc, inspire increased consumer confidence. Some brands go a step ahead to explain the technology used to keep the food at its freshest best. To further educate consumers, social and digital media play a crucial role. This is what empowers the consumer to take an informed and judicious decision with regard to consuming
convenience foods.

Growing appetite
The convenience food sector struggled a lot in its early days; companies had to focus on the export market catering to NRI audiences to build volumes. Thanks to rapid urbanisation, dual-income families and more women entering the workforce, the need for convenience foods increased in India, too. Today, the ready-to-cook (RTC) mix and ready-to-eat (RTE) retort meal category is worth over Rs 1,000 crore, growing at 15% y-o-y.

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The global opportunity is even larger, especially for RTE foods. Indian cuisine’s popularity has grown rapidly over the past years; nearly every major metro city on the planet has an Indian restaurant. Authenticity is the key and Indian RTE meals manufacturers have the edge of sourcing local Indian produce to make their products. Global consumers have shown great levels of acceptance for these products and thus international supermarkets like Walmart, Whole Foods, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc, now have aisles dedicated to Asian/Indian foods.

Future Prospects
The rapid rate of urbanisation, diminishing culinary skills, improving income and the rising millennial workforce are a few factors boosting the RTE category. Another very important reason is the exponential increase in the number of travellers. Indian travellers prefer to carry along their favourite comfort food to any corner of the globe.
Manufacturers have to bust the myths consumers harbour about packed foods — that they are bad and contain preservatives. We are just scratching the surface at
the moment.

  • The author is director, sales and marketing, Gits Food Products

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