During the last two years, innovation and growth have been the watchwords of the ready meals market in many countries worldwide. And with a comprehensive overview of the latest developments in the prepared meals category, Mintel's Amanda White argues that the best is yet come.

Some countries have seen as many as 850 new product introductions within this prepared meals category between 1999 and 2001, pointing to a sector with potential for incredible growth and innovation.

For further analysis of these possibilities, there are many ways to break down the meal and meal centres category. In the Global New Products Database (GNPD), which is compiled by consumer intelligence group Mintel, this is done by segmenting the market into several key areas; meal centres, pizza & pies, meal kits and prepared meals.

The total meals & meal centres category has seen steady growth in the last few years, with prepared meals accounting for most of the new products (4,549 global introductions), followed by meal centres, pizza & pies with 3,023 global introductions, far ahead of meal kits with only 596 global new products. The comparatively high level of new product activity in prepared meals is due largely to the fact that the market relies on recipe innovation to maintain consumer interest.

Prepared meals not only represent the largest share in terms of new product development, but they are also experiencing most of the growth. Between 1999 and 2000, new product launches increased by over 40%, from just over 1,200 to over 1,700.

Classifying the launches

Extensions of existing lines are particularly prevalent. In 1999, new variety and range extensions accounted for only about a fifth of launches, whereas genuine new products took the vast majority. This proportion changed significantly during 2001, with variety and range extensions now accounting for over 40% of the total launches.

A breakdown of launches by region meanwhile shows that most contemporary new product activity is confined to Europe, with the UK particularly active in this sector. In contrast, the US and Canada saw comparatively few new products during the first nine months of 2001, a situation which can be attributed in part to the advanced level of saturation in those countries. The comparatively low level of private label activity (versus Europe), and the relatively high levels of activity in meal centres, also account for the low number of launches in the US.

The simplest way to classify the prepared meals sector is according to storage type, namely ambient (shelf-stable), frozen and chilled. The availability of each type varies to some extent by country, and also varies according to factors such as target audience, occasion or budget.

Ambient meals

Within the ambient sector, shelf-stable meals have recently seen an increase in NPD activity, this having doubled during the past couple of years. However, this boom is mainly confined to Asian and European markets, and is to a large extent taken by dry shelf-stable variants such as Unilever's Knorr Spaghetteria Pasta range, or Thai Preserved Food Factory's Wai, Wai instant noodle meals. In May 2001, GNPD picked up two new varieties of dehydrated pasta meals launched in the Spaghetteria range; these included Spaghetti Pomodoro and Lasagne Bolognese, both of which are available in Germany. In January 2002, Knorr added Spaghetteria Espirales al Pesto to its range, a dish with an improved recipe that is prepared simply by boiling in water for seven minutes. Packaged in a plastic pouch, it is available in Spain.

Various dried ready meals were also introduced in Asia during 2001 in the Wai, Wai instant noodles range. In the Summer of 2001, GNPD highlights the introduction of the Wai, Wai Instant Noodle Meal in Thailand. The Tom Yum minced pork flavour instant noodle meal is packaged in a foil bag.

Chilled and frozen

The biggest trend in recent years has been towards chilled ready meals, which currently account for the largest number of new product introductions globally. The UK, in particular, has seen extensive new product activity in this area, accounting for more than half of all the launches recorded during the past couple of years. A major factor behind this development is growing consumer demand for premium meals, although the GNPD has recently recorded a slowdown in new product activity in this segment. This can however be attributed in part to market saturation, and also reflects a recent increase in NPD in frozen meals.

Frozen prepared meals seem to be coming to the fore again, beginning a fight back against their chilled counterparts in some European markets. In fact, some frozen lines appear to be specifically geared at chilled meal aficionados, such as the Birds Eye Wall's Enjoy! range of frozen ready meals in the UK. Varieties include tender beef with noodles and chicken breast with broccoli. The frozen prepared meals segment in the US continues to be strong, with introductions from most major companies.

Convenience not enough?

In many respects, convenience is no longer enough of a selling point on its own. Consumers expect a prepared meal to be relatively convenient in any case, and do not get overly excited any more when products claim to be "microwaveable" or "ready in under 10 minutes". Consequently, manufacturers are increasingly focusing on adding value to the meal in the form of taste, quality and innovative recipes - occasionally even at the expense of convenience, as the recent chilled meal boom indicates. With a shelf life of just a few days, and a recommended cooking time of up to 30 minutes, many chilled meals can hardly be considered convenient.

Premium, gourmet and luxury-oriented meals are all subject to growing consumer interest and NPD. Again, the majority of premium-oriented products are appearing on British supermarket shelves, home to undoubtedly the most developed market in terms of prepared meals. A good example in that respect is the Marks & Spencer St Michael Café Specials range of chilled foods, which was extended during the Spring/Summer of 2001 with Lasagne al Forno, Beef Goulash with Herb Dumplings, Meze Platter, Herb Crusted Cod with Roasted Garlic Mash, and Chicken Marengo. Other examples during 2001 come from UK retailer Tesco, under the Finest label (including Mediterranean Lamb Shanks with a Vegetable Confit), and from Sainsbury's, which launched Smoked Haddock Dauphinoise (natural, oak smoked haddock, poached in milk) as part of its Taste the Difference range.

Chef endorsed

The meals category is also still seeing a few chef-endorsed meals, such as International Culinary Group's Chef M.J. Brando "at home cuisine" line in the US. The range includes Beef Meat Loaf with Tomato Sauce and Triple Cheese Stuffed Potatoes, Smoked Salmon Tortellini with Tomato Alfredo Sauce, and Chile Lime Chicken Breast Platter with Rice and Mesquite Beans in a Rainbow Pepper Blend. In Belgium, retailing giant Delhaize has launched a range of premium prepared meals featuring recipes created by Yves Mattagne, the famous head chef at the Radisson Hotel in Brussels.

Meals to share?

"Sharing" is a relatively new trend that appears to have its roots in the meal kits category. Marks & Spencer, for example, launched Share the Taste Meals in the UK, range of chilled Mediterranean and North African dishes that have been designed to be mixed and shared among a group of people. This range is seeing continual additions with 2002 extensions including Taste of the Orient meal kits.  S&A Foods, a UK company previously known for its Indian dishes, has also developed a range of authentic Spanish Tapas dishes, again positioned on a sharing platform. Introduced during the summer of 2001, this range follows the recent UK trend towards Tapas and includes products such as meatballs in tomato sauce and sweet peppers and olives.

Ethnic excitement

Ethnic recipes continue to play an important role in the prepared meals market, perhaps more so than in any other category. Growth in international recipes indicates consumer interest in variety, and a willingness to try something that the consumer could probably not create easily at home. Today, almost one in five new products globally, and as many as half of all new prepared meals in the UK claim to be "international" or ethnic.

Asian markets, in contrast, see relatively few ethnic products although Italian food has been very popular in Japan, such as Meiji Milk Products' ready-to-eat Cheese-no Penne Gratine Carbonara-Style, or Cheil Jedang's My Restaurant Lunch Pop spaghetti pasta meal in South Korea. More recent additions under the My Restaurant Lunch Pop brand include the Kids Farm meal picked up in early 2002 in South Korea, and made with potato, onion, beef and mushroom, packaged in a 160g box.

Ethnic meals are also less developed in the US than in Europe, with few new introductions in 2001. While Indian and Chinese recipes dominate, there is also increasing interest in the UK in a wider range of recipes, including Thai, Mexican, Malaysian, or Spanish. British supermarkets are also offering more meals featuring regional ethnic recipes; for example Cantonese rather than simply Chinese, or Punjabi instead of Indian. In keeping with this idea, Sainsbury's has launched a range of Cantonese Meals, including Chicken and Cashew Nuts, Sweet and Sour Chicken in Crispy Batter, and Lemon Chicken, and UK food producer Bernard Matthews is offering Malaysian Chicken Curry as part of its Flavours of the World chilled meals line. Ethnic meals in other European countries are less common, however, and tend to be restricted to the more popular Chinese and Indian dishes.

By Amanda White, Mintel

Get more detailed research about the US prepared food market here and the UK here.