More and more consumers are opting for a light meal in response to growing informality and frequency of eating, health concerns and demand for convenience, according to a new report.

The report from independent market analyst Datamonitor reveals that by 2008, over four in ten meals will be light meals, representing almost 600 light meals per person per year.

"When life gets busy, planning and cooking meals become lower priorities. Lighter meals facilitate the diet regimes of many health conscious consumers and offer a quick, convenient solution for busy lifestyles," said Daniel Bone, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor and author of the report.

Heavy spending on light meals

In 2003, British consumers spent a total of £17.2bn (US$31.7bn) on light meals in retail channels and Datamonitor forecasts this will to increase by a further 30% to £22.4bn in 2008. Per capita, British consumers are Europe's heaviest spenders on light meals with the average consumer spending £286 per year on light meals, compared to £244 and £241 in France and Germany respectively.

Breakfast and lunch occasions are more likely to be light. In 2003, 45% of all breakfast occasions were 'light'. This compares to a European average of 34%.

"The reason why UK consumers are more prone to consuming a light meal is not because they are more health conscious than the rest of Europe. Convenience food solutions are widely available, especially when on the go," said Bone. "The fact that the UK's cereal bar market was worth £220bn in 2003, more than twice that of any other European nation is reflective of this."

As for other meals, 40% of UK lunches are now light, compared to only 26% of evening meals. This can be explained by the fact that demand for indulgence begins to supersede health concerns as the day goes on and because the evening meal is comparatively more orientated around family time and enjoyment.

Any time, anywhere

For the majority of consumers, in-between food consumption consists of a small snack: but this is changing. In the UK, 23% of all in-between meals eating consisted of more substantive light meals rather than small snack occasions, something Datamonitor forecasts to rise to 26% by 2008.

"Consumers skip more and more meals and they often seek to compensate for their nutritional and calorific deficits by consuming more substantial snacks or light meals," Bone said.

The market value of light meals eaten in-between main meals in the UK equalled £2.51bn in 2003 and is predicted to reach £3.4bn by 2008. Again, the trend is also particularly pronounced in the UK with 23% of all in-between meals actually constituting a light meal, compared to 18% for Europe overall.

Manufacturers are yet to capitalise on the 'flexi-eating trend' and the fact that consumers see products as 'all-day consumables'. The key factor to successful marketing of light meal solutions is the flexibility in the positioning or the product.

"An overly strong focus of what traditionally constitutes a meal means opportunities to target other food types for the light meal occasions are being missed. Ready meals for example. They can be revamped such that they move beyond consumer perception that they are a full hearty meal but also simultaneously, a suitable light snack," adds Bone.

Categories benefiting from light meals trend include hot snacks, meal replacement bars, prepared sandwiches and salads and even small ready meals.

For more information or to buy this report, click here.