Convenience has been one of the food and beverage industry's biggest buzz words of the year. Snack-friendly and on-the-go foods have become a ubiquitous pursuit for manufacturers of all types, from meat processors to PepsiCo and Mondelez.
And why? Because more consumers seek out easy-to-prepare and easily consumable foods and beverages that suit their busy lifestyles.
Convenience isn't necessarily an entirely new concept, but its perception by consumers and the demands made of this segment have evolved.
Why convenience is one of today's food and beverage buzzwords
Convenience seems to be on every manufacturer's mind these days. But the application of convenience in food and beverage comes in many forms, from consumers' preparation and consumption of the product to packaging innovations like resealable pouches and car cup-holder-sized snack packs.
Michael McDevitt, CEO of meal kit delivery service Terra’s Kitchen, argued that the concept of convenience in food and beverage has been a focus for decades. The invention of the microwave in 1946 is a prime example, he said. But the importance of convenience has become only more important to consumers over time.
"Convenience usually came at a high price," McDevitt told Food Dive. "Due to increasingly busy schedules and demands, it is now more important than ever, and there are more options from which to choose."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an extensive report on the growth of convenience foods, both in and outside the home. The report identified four primary reasons why households increasingly chose more convenient food and beverage options:
Time constraints of family members
However, certain elements drove convenience foods in grocery stores more than fast food establishments, and vice versa.
"The demand for convenience foods in the United States between 1999 and 2010 is largely driven by relative prices of foods and food budgets," Abigail Okrent, a research economist in the Food Economics Division at the USDA's Economic Research Service, told Food Dive. "For example, the price of basic ingredients, which are foods purchased at grocery stores that are minimally processed and used in combination with other ingredients to compose a meal, grew at a faster rate than prices of their more convenient counterparts, like ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals and snacks at grocery stores."
The relatively steadier or more affordable prices of RTE and RTC foods became more attractive to consumers, especially when last decade's recession pressured households' food budgets.
Convenience evolves: Better alignment with "healthy" trends
Convenience foods often weren't correlated with health and wellness in the past because of the processing and cooking on the manufacturer's end. Especially when convenience foods were at lower price points, many consumers assumed cheaper, less nutritional ingredients and more processing were at the heart of the recipes, as well as the addition of various chemicals potentially needed as preservatives.
"Convenience and health didn't always go together," said McDevitt.
More recently, many manufacturers have found ways to better align convenience products with consumer health trends. Sometimes that means using healthier ingredients, such as removing artificial colors and flavors. Other times, manufacturers take traditionally healthier categories and transform or reposition those products into items like meat snacks or yogurt through reformulation, packaging or marketing.
Other evidence of convenience foods becoming healthier has come from the frozen foods sector. From Lean Cuisine to Birds Eye, brands have worked to overhaul poor health perceptions from consumers. One way to do this is by offering more products that contain vegetables, grains like quinoa or other trendy healthy ingredients.
Still one more industry trend born from the shift toward convenience foods is the rise of online-based meal kit companies and delivery services. These services take meal planning and grocery store trips entirely out of the equation, which is still another way foods and beverages can be more convenient.
Meal kits may provide increased competition for manufacturers, as they could detract from grocery store shopping. But manufacturers can also find partnership opportunities in meal kits, which could reduce the infrastructure involved in participating in the food e-commerce movement. Hershey announced a dessert meal kit partnership with Chef'd in September, and Campbell announced last month it is now the sole investor in personalized nutrition-based meal delivery startup Habit.
Is "convenience" now synonymous with "premium"?
Convenience foods' evolution has gone beyond adapting to consumer health trends to be able to breach the perception of "premium" products. This mainly comes down to the inherent value that convenient products can add to a busy consumer's lifestyle.
"Usually convenience foods do have a value added component that reflects time and energy once conducted by the household in preparing food, which is now conducted by the food manufacturer, retailer or restaurant," said Okrent.
Okrent provided the example of packaged salads, which often offer pre-chopped and pre-washed lettuce, vegetables, protein and other salad fixings in one package. That savings of time and energy is a clear value-add for busy, on-the-go consumers. The value-add translates to consumers' willingness to pay premium pricing over buying those components and assembling the salad themselves.
McDevitt sees convenience aligning with premium in a slightly different way — particularly when those products are also better for consumers.
"Convenience itself isn't a premium, however finding (convenience) where it also can be healthy is a bit of a premium," McDevitt said.
While manufacturers continue to "snackify" and otherwise make their products and packaging more convenient for consumers, the desire for nutritious ingredients is often a factor. However, many consumers enjoy convenience foods for their indulgent ingredients and frequently lower price tags.
But as movements toward sugar and salt reduction take hold in the U.S. and worldwide, manufacturers may feel pressured by consumers' changing opinions to make their convenience foods and beverages healthier by default.