A bag of snack carrots instead of a chocolate bar? Ready-made salad, including a fork, instead of a burger and fries? When it comes to consumers’ picks for fast food, preferences have changed. But making food ‘convenient’ is not always simple. The food needs to be ready-to-eat, in a single-serving size, and it also needs individual ingredients with ‘convenient’ qualities. For example, a tomato and mozzarella sandwich bought in the morning has to remain fresh by lunchtime; soggy bread would spoil the sandwich. To achieve a balancing act like this, food experts, companies and vendors have to work together to prepare the foods that today’s consumers want.
Take fresh tomatoes, for example: specially-bred sandwich tomatoes have a special feature – a dense structure. This means the tomato’s juice remains inside the fruit, even under the pressure of being cut or packaged, so it can be cut into very thin slices. This quality makes it ideal for sandwiches, which would otherwise become soggy after only a few hours. Increasingly, even hotels, restaurants and food processing companies like caterers prefer this type of tomato. They understand that consumers also appreciate higher quality convenience food.
Listening carefully to consumers
Food production is about invention: From seed producers to processing professionals, and machinery manufacturers to packaging designers, the entire food chain has its eyes on optimal quality food. But it’s fruit and vegetable breeding, in particular, that occupies a growing role in convenience food development. So seed breeders are listening carefully to consumer preferences: Cherry tomatoes should disappear in a single, sweet mouthful, while heart-shaped tomatoes are a popular party appetizer. To meet consumer desires, new fruit and vegetable varieties, on average, are the result of a ten-year process of cross-breeding and seed selection.
Healthy Snacks on the Go
New products that evolved in the global food market in the recent years are mini carrots and cucumbers as snacks-to-go. Consumers have moved toward healthy snacks instead of chocolate or cookies. Still, healthy snacks have to be a pleasurable experience. So, mini cucumbers, for example, have more taste and crunch, while being easier to eat, than a typical salad cucumber. And mini carrots come in a variety of colors with enhanced nutritional traits, such as higher levels of lycopene or a higher carotenoid value. Both mini carrots and cucumbers are strong examples of breeders responding to the consumer desire for small, healthy, pre-packed snacks.
Special varieties required
While consumers may demand single-size portions and portability, large food chain players have specific requirements for the raw commodities that make these convenience foods. Take melons and watermelons, for example: Processors tend to prefer larger fruits for making fruit salads than most consumers do. This is because the processing recovery rate, the ratio of fruit pulp to fruit waste, is much higher with large sizes.
More and more food retailers stipulate strict cultivation conditions to suppliers of its salad vegetables, peppers and grapes. The basis for this is GlobalG.A.P. (Good Agricultural Practice), which sets standards for the global certification of agricultural produce to assure quality and food safety. “GlobalG.A.P. is the internationally recognized standard for farm production. The goal of this program is safe and sustainable agricultural production to benefit farmers, retailers and consumers throughout the world,” emphasizes Ronald Guendel, Global Head of Food Chain Relations at Bayer Division Crop Science. “This certification system makes sure that producers meet international standards and follow sustainable growing practices.”
On top of this, retailers very often tolerate only certain percentages of the legally-permitted maximum residue limits of crop protection products, and they check this through systematic, intensive monitoring, starting in the field and continuing into retail trade. And it is essential today that processing plants can obtain a steady supply of fresh products throughout the year. Although the consumer may not notice the difference, a processor might need to use varieties from different growing regions. Depending on the season, fresh-product companies based in the Benelux countries might process varieties that have been grown in Spain, Senegal, Brazil or Central America.
Consumers around the world want to know where, and how, their food was grown.
Having a uniform product is particularly important when fruit and vegetables are processed automatically: For example, the machines that cut watermelons and honeydew melons into bite-sized cubes for pre-packaged fruit salads only work well with a particular size and shape of fruit. This processing requires special melon varieties that can be grown to the same quality standard in different countries.
Optimizing industrial processing
The manufacturers of processing machines also play an important part in the value chain since “the growing convenience food market can only be satisfied through optimal industrial processing,” explains Stephan Zillgith, Managing Director of Kronen Nahrungsmitteltechnik (Food Technology) GmbH, a machine producer based in Kehl am Rhein, Germany, that specializes in processing equipment used world-wide. Their machines chop, cut or slice up to 2,000 kilograms of fresh produce an hour: Cabbage heads are chopped into strips for salads, carrots are peeled and cut automatically into thumb-length pieces and crisp apples are turned into bite-sized slices. Zillgith explains that his most important customers include companies in the US, Great Britain and the rest of the EU. But he also observes growing demand for processing machines in the Middle East because of the region’s increasing market for convenience food. “You see more and more finished food products in airports, hotels and tourist centers,” he adds. And even in developing countries with relatively lower wage levels, producers of convenience foods are keen on technology – using it, for example, to cut already popular pineapples into bitesize pieces. “Sterilized machines increase product shelf-life considerably,” explains Zillgith. He has also supplied machines to Turkey for destoning apricots, and even the traditional strawberries served at Wimbledon have their stalks removed by Kronen machines before being filled with vanilla sauce.
Innovative convenience food marketing
Large retail chains such as Del Monte are also constantly looking for innovative ways of introducing new convenience products in the market. For example, they offer grapes, pineapple chunks, apple slices, baby carrots, celery sticks and even grape tomatoes. “We’re responding to the demand for healthy food in new markets by offering fresh products in places such as schools, universities and theaters,” explains Dennis Christou, Marketing Vice-President, North America, for Del Monte. Christou also sees a growing demand for convenience foods in other major markets in Europe and the Middle East.
The growing convenience food market can only be satisfied through optimal industrial processing.
The successful introduction of new convenience products requires not only novel ideas for products but also accurate knowledge of the needs of all market participants. Experts from Bayer, therefore, establish close links with, and between, growers, consultants, processors, food wholesalers, importers, exporters, retailers and catering specialists to develop a better understanding of consumer demand and industry needs. “Consumers around the world have become more demanding in terms of the quality of fruits and vegetables. They want to know where, and how, their food was grown,” explains Guendel. The Food Chain Partnership program at Bayer benefits consumers as much as it does transporters, distributors, food distributors and farmers around the world by connecting everybody involved in the food sector. It also helps them to keep pace with the healthy trends which are may be just around the corner.
What will we snack on next? It may be grasshopper burgers or even worm pasta: Some food trend experts think insects are next on the healthy snack menu. Already a standard food in many areas of Asia and Africa, insects can be a nutrition powerhouse, with high levels of vitamins and protein. It seems that more and more consumers can already picture it on the menu. According to a study by the Nestlé Future Forum, 53 percent of Germans say they would try eating insects that are prepared carefully and are not visible in the food. With experts in the food market already specialized in making food appealing and healthy, insect snacks-to-go could be joining fruits and vegetable as Europe’s next nutritious consumer favorite.
Complex Like a Symphony
US Professor Harry J. Klee is a researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He and his team at the university’s Horticultural Science Department study the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in tomatoes. Using statistical analysis, the scientists identified those chemicals that have significant correlations with likeability scores.
Which tomato compounds are relevant for a good taste?
Sugars and acids, in a proper ratio, are essential. But you need volatiles that are derived from amino acids and carotenoids (the pigments in the plants cells). Many of these are individually characterized as fruit or floral in odor. But it’s important to note that there is no single chemical or even a simple mix of a few that is easily recognized as a tomato. In that regard, it’s unlike some other fruits, such as oranges or bananas, which have one or two dominant notes that we immediately recognize. The tomato is complex like a symphony. You need all the parts to achieve perfection.
Why does the quantity of tomatoes sometimes also lower its taste and quality?
A large part of flavor is sweet. Breeders have focused on larger fruits that have lower concentrations of all the flavor chemicals, but particularly sugars. As they have emphasized larger fruits and higher overall yields, the photosynthetic machinery of the plant cannot keep up with filling the fruit with the building blocks for flavor chemicals. The overall effect is to dilute out the fruit. The added weight of the fruit is largely water. The breeders have been very s uccessful at increasing yield, measured in weight. But the plant is simply incapable of keeping up with the added demands of more and bigger fruit.
To what extent can your research influence agriculture in future?
We have determined exactly which chemicals are deficient in the modern tomato. We have identified the genes controlling synthesis of those chemicals and the alternative forms of those genes – known as alleles – that have been lost through the last 50 years of breeding. The exciting thing about focusing on volatiles is that we think we can make significant increases in these flavor chemicals without major negative consequences on yield, since they are active at way lower levels than sugars and acids. It takes a lot less of a flavor volatile to have a major impact on the taste of a tomato.
There are also subtle differences in cultures. How we use the tomato in our cuisine is critical to the type of tomato that we like.