Standing in front of a vending machine, quarters in hand and hunger gnawing away while the train whistles in the near distance is not always the best position for one interested in nutrition. But according to a recent survey, in the United States, workers clocked 1,966 hours of work last year, up from 1,883 in 1980, and that probably means earlier trains and later returns and a fast commute through the drive-by window or to a gas station convenience mart. What to do?
Food product developers are quite aware of the opportunity. Power and breakfast bars and nutraceutical beverages have proliferated recently, and Americans spend a little over half of their food money on food prepared for eating without much—if any—further cooking. This would tend to indicate that convenience is more important to the consumer than nutrition. However, the interest in nutraceuticals tends to counter this indication.
In looking at convenience, the question is precisely how convenient does a food have to be to win approval. The point has been made many times that food absolutely must taste good to gain acceptance. So, accepting that in a perfect world all new products will taste very, very good, what other characteristics must they have to gain significant market share?
Convenience Means Now!
Convenience comes by degree. A convenient food is one that takes less time to prepare than a non-convenience food. But there’s more. Convenience may also include the time to serve and clean up, and there is some evidence that convenience may also include the time to shop. A very large supermarket can be extremely inconvenient, if a customer must walk about two blocks to the back of the store where the deli is, then walk back to the front, where the cashier lines are. Some supermarkets such as Amelia’s, in Northwest Indiana, add drive-up lanes where customers can drive up and pick up phoned in orders. To convert these conveniences into sales, food processors will have to be increasingly savvy about the whole food chain between their loading dock and the consumer’s hands.
Changes in technology have fueled several generations of convenience foods with similar time-reducing characteristics. Retorted foods, especially soups and main dishes, only needed to be reheated, cutting time of preparation to a few minutes. Frozen meals and entrees took a little longer, but offered more variety and reduced food preparation to less than 30 minutes, generally. Microwave heating of frozen foods further reduced time requirements to 5-10 min. per item (more if several items were reheated at one time.) Fresh and pre-cut products reduce time for making salads to pouring the vegetables into a container, adding dressing, and tossing. So the current trend appears to be toward totally ready-to-eat, packed in throw-away packages. Not only is preparation time eliminated, but so is cleanup time. This means that the whole eating experience is reduced to the shortest possible time and least amount of effort for the consumer. It also provides more choices for family members or whomever is congregating for a meal. Or not congregating, if that is the situation.
Americans are not the only consumers interested in ready-to-eat meals. According to Great Britain’s Corporate Intelligence on Retailing publication, the growth in chilled meals has been double digit every year since 1993, and is expected to reach 1.06 billion £ by 2001. In the United Kingdom, chilled ready-to-eat meals are purchased by two-thirds of households at least once a week.
With convenience—and the more convenient the better—as a key attribute of foods, what role does nutrition play in the overall race toward market share? If foods taste good and are totally convenient to use, will the product with the best nutrition gain the biggest share of market, so long as price does not become a major differentiating point?
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Pinpointing Nutritional Needs of Consumers
Changes in the perception of nutrition makes selecting a nutritional profile somewhat more difficult. To target the nutrition preferred by its audience, companies can look at the demographics, which can be sliced and diced a number of ways. This isn’t always easy, as manufacturing plants, built to reduce cost through larger throughput, can make specialization a challenge. Companies are finding that some new equipment that permits multiple products to be packaged at the same time are starting to solve some of those problems, so that a similar base product can be tailored to meet needs of several different population segments.
The Growing Elderly: the Food and Drug Administration has published an article on the Web called “Eating Well as We Age” that gives some suggestions to food processors as well as to consumers. Addressing specific problem areas, the publication offers suggestions about what to do if the consumer can’t shop. FDA suggests that some food stores and some ordering systems will deliver foods. The consumer is more likely to select healthful foods if ordering by phone, according to Peapod, Inc., a delivery service in major city areas. Another problem suggested is lack of appetite, which carries several suggestions about eating in groups, etc., but also about using spices and herbs to improve flavor. Lack of appetite includes inability to chew and swallow easily, and this introduces more juices, soft foods, and more highly fortified foods so that the amount of food that is ingested performs optimally.
Needs of the elderly, which begin well before old age, are being addressed by a number of companies as preventive foods to be consumed by those in middle age. The needs for convenience—or ease of preparation—may be somewhat different for the upper middle aged and the extremely elderly. Even an easy-open poptop can may be a challenge to a frail 90+ year-old who is still living relatively independently.
It’s been noted that the extreme elderly are usually short on calcium in their diet, and may be deficient in vitamins E and D, the latter because they are infrequently outside in the sunshine. Vitamin C can be a problem too, particularly when the senior is diabetic, a condition that is increasing in the elderly. All of the antioxidant vitamins are needed in more profusion as we age, it’s thought. Foods that are rich in these elements,but still easy to digest with a less-than-perfect digestive system will be more and more popular as the elderly segment increases in size compared to the rest of the population.
The Nuclear Family: for the family with kids, the challenge is to find nutritious foods that can be eaten out of hand and on the run, while maintaining nutrition at the levels required for the rest of the family. And the habit of eating meals in the car or on the train extends through the working life of busy family members. At the same time, the retired but not elderly family members have specific needs, too.
Seeing an opportunity, Kellogg has expanded the product line marketed by its Convenience Foods Division, emphasizing breakfast products, including Eggo Toaster Muffins in three fruit flavors that are fortified with calcium plus 9 vitamins and minerals. For those who grab breakfast on the way out the door—forget the toaster—Kellogg has introduced Nutra-Grain Fruit-full Squares to provide an oatmeal-based, fruit-chunky bar that’s a little more adult in design, but also nutritious.
Good for all age groups, but particularly of interest to the office crowd is Tropicana single-service juice products in several sizes of gable-top containers with an easily insertable straw. The products are offered in a variety of fruit juices: orange pineapple, tropical orange, and others. A popular version is orange juice with calcium and vitamin C, which, according to our local convenience store, is in demand. Women, particularly, like the calcium version: they drink orange juice anyhow, and can get the calcium without extra calories.
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Yogurt is clearly a very convenient food, so long as the eater has a spoon handy. Colombo yogurt, owned by General Mills, has made it more convenient by adding a snap-out spoon affixed to the lid of the cup, under a plastic overlid to keep it sanitary. Depending on which survey one believes, somewhere between 20 and 35% of yogurt is consumed away from home. Stonyfield Farms includes several live, active cultures in its yogurt, including Lactobacillus reuterei, which acts as a probiotic and also produces conjugated linoleic acid. This version, introduced in April,1998 has gained significant market share as a premier version of yogurt for the extremely health-conscious. Will the probiotic emphasis, and/or the convenience aspect, bring yogurt consumption by Americans above the 66% level?
Campbell Soup is giving the convenience—nutritious complex another try after the disappointing showing of Intelligent Quisine, which should have been the ultimate convenient—nutritious food. The company’s Away From Home division continues to expand beyond grocery store outlets, with initial test market of Stockpot refrigerated soups and Campbell’s Plus, a new line of soups that are fortified with vitamins, calcium, and minerals is reported to be entering test market in 2000. The firm is adding its heated soup kettles as a fixture in convenience stores and cafeterias, to capture use of its products in fast-food settings.
Just for Kids: foods that are produced specifically for kids are usually different from the convenience foods eaten by the whole family. There are signs that, as convenient foods that are suitable for kids proliferate, Moms would like to see particularly healthy foods, fortified if possible, that figure into a healthy diet. Internationally, food for kids is a growing category, with some players that are not as involved in the U.S.
New products for kids is a major category for Nestle S.A., a company that has introduced a number of far-flung products, including a new product that debuted in Europe recently. Called Nestle LC¹GO, the new wrinkle is a small bottle of fermented milk containing Nestle’s patented LC¹ probiotic bacillus. In France, a complete meal for kids in a two-compartment tray, called Petit Menu, is heated by microwave energy for serving. The included products are formulated appropriately for kids. Dairy products are a strategic category for Nestle , and the development of their own probiotic gives the company a specific niche. The probiotic is included in LC¹ quark products in most parts of Europe. In the Phillipines, a product named Fit’n Fresh includes fermented milk and fruit, and is designed for young people. It’s sold in a plastic bottle, branded “Bear Brand.” Nestle has been active in fortification of milk-based products with extra calcium, particularly in foods for special population groups, such as children and young people. Nearly all of these new products are convenient: they are meant to be eaten or drunk without further preparation, or after mixing with water or milk. Most are consumed from their own containers.
So, what is The Current Wisdom about the interface between nutrition and convenience? In talking to a number of new product developers and new product marketers, we find that:
• Convenience is measured in time reduced from the entire obtain, prepare, eat, and clean-up experience. If it’s a children’s food, add time to clean up the child, and understand that the package and product may be preferable if it doesn’t wipe out two outfits, the living room, and the car during consumption.
• Nutrition sells, everything else being equal. Everything else includes flavor, texture, cost, and convenience features.
• Perception of nutrition changes with age and family situation, and can be modified by advertising, editorial coverage of specific nutrients, and their relationship to specific diseases.
• Nutrition is benefit oriented. Children don’t understand future benefits, so formulas should offer some now benefits. Disease prevention is a more effective sell to a population more likely to face the likelihood of the disease within a short time span.
• It’s probably easier to sell against an irritating present disease or condition than against a future life threatening one.
However, sometimes a favorite food gets a boost from new science that provides a positive nutrition message. Just this week, a new patent application from M&M Mars U.K. was published that claims positive effects on cardiac health and cancer prevention from chocolate with nuts. So it may not be necessary to feel guilty when standing in front of the vending machine with quarters in hand, after all. . .
by FRAN KATZ