Consumers today could be forgiven for wanting a “food pill”—a compact, no-muss/no-fuss nutrient- and hydration-delivery vehicle that melds the best of Jetson’s-era futurism with … maybe Soylent Green, but minus the people?
In any case, the source of their yearning is elementary: The once-simple act of sitting down to eat and drink—let alone prepping in advance—has turned into yet another task on an already-overlong list.
Or, as Asim Syed, CFS, director, food applications R&D, Brenntag Food and Nutrition, North America, put it, “As lifestyles keep evolving in the direction of ‘live to work’ rather than ‘work to live, we’re finding less time to cook healthy and hearty sit-down meals at home.”
Alas, that longed-awaited food pill won’t arrive in time for dinner. (And let’s be honest: How much fun would it be anyway?)
So, until it does, “Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages are becoming essential parts of our lives,” Syed said. “The food industry is successfully developing ready-to-consume products that satisfy evolving consumer trends and needs.”
They’re doing so with the help of ingenuity, ingredient technology and elbow grease—because unlike that mythical food pill, RTE and RTD items don’t land on store shelves by magic. They do so by food science.
What’s in a three-letter acronym?
What, precisely, defines a food or beverage as RTE or RTD? According to Willy van Arkel, senior innovation manager, Corbion, the answer is “open to interpretation.”
Beverages are perhaps easier to define, with RTD denoting drinks that are, literally, ready to drink: no mixing, diluting, blending or squeezing required. That means bottled teas, coffees and flavored milks; canned sodas and seltzers; aseptic juice boxes and pouches; and, of course, bottled water all count.
As for RTE foods, the canopy covers more products. “These foods can be shelf stable, refrigerated, served hot or require some minimal heating—more from a preference standpoint than a safety one,” explained Courtney Schwartz, marketing director, Kemin Food Technologies – Americas. “This means a lot of foods qualify as ready-to-eat, such as snacks, deli meats, cheeses, canned soups, frozen bagels and more.”
Why the rush?
While these ready-to-consume products have been around as long as the food industry itself, a confluence of cultural forces gives them particular relevance today.
“Consumers’ shifting lifestyles drive the RTD and RTE categories,” said Micah Greenhill, beverage marketing manager, ADM. “They’re growing more urban and being pulled in more directions, which is driving the fragmentation of meals and the need for on-the-go, convenient and portable solutions that are culinary-forward and also align with consumers’ new views on the importance of health and wellness.”
Changing demographics at home also push the category. “The cultural shift to dual-income families and an increase in the number of working Millennials and women has strengthened demand for RTE and RTD products,” Schwartz said. “With less time for cooking, many are turning to these products for every meal.”
Van Arkel pointed to GlobalData research showing a fairly even split in ready-meal consumption between U.S. males and females—50.6 and 49.4%, respectively—while consumers aged 55 and older generate 26% of consumption. When choosing RTE products, these older consumers lean toward functional nutrition for healthy aging, said Andrea Craig, director of culinary category and product marketing at ADM, while convenience seems to dominate younger consumers’ decisions.
“Younger generations like Millennials and Gen Zs are blurring the lines between meals and snacks,” she said. “They’re more interested in RTE products that are convenient, incorporate global flavors and have functional benefits.”
That said, “There are Baby Boomers with families who look for both nutrition and convenience in RTE products—maybe being more likely to purchase a rotisserie chicken because it offers a convenient way to make a nutritious dinner for the family,” she continued.
Regardless of generation, Schwartz concluded, “Convenience is the real driver for RTE and RTD consumers. The less prep required, the more likely consumers are to gravitate toward a product.”
Not your parents’ ready-meals
That spells opportunity for CPG brands. “RTE and RTD are rapidly growing globally,” Schwartz said, pointing to a Mordor Intelligence analysis predicting the segment’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) will hit 4.3% by 2024.2 “Consumers are willing to pay for the convenience of RTE and RTD products, which means that manufacturers have an opportunity to capitalize on a big trend,” she said.
But consumers won’t pay for just anything, and they won’t be impressed by yesterday’s formulations. “We still see canned soups and TV dinners in the category, but the types of foods we see are far different from the frozen meatloaf and mashed potatoes of years past,” Schwartz said. “We see a lot more variety and products types.”
She pointed to “meals for every eating occasion”: egg bowls, refrigerated salads and more. Even delivery platforms have evolved, with apps and online grocery services getting in on the RTE game. “You also see many retailers make their own RTE products for consumers to grab,” Schwartz noted. “The concepts are the same, but the variety is vastly different.”
Craig agreed, noting quality and culinary ambition also characterize the new face of RTE. “We’re seeing growth especially in the market for RTE meals offering a combination of traditional foods with an infusion of ethnic flavor,” she said—RTE pastas with pumpkin-chipotle sauce, or grab-and-go sandwiches influenced by Vietnamese bahn mi.
Snack in a snap
But to witness RTE innovation at its most dynamic, head to the snack aisle. “The snacking trend has grown steadily over the past decade and shows no signs of slowing down in 2020,” said Philip Caputo, marketing & consumer insights manager, Virginia Dare. “According to Mintel, 94% of U.S. adults reported consuming snacks daily last year—a number expected to continue climbing. And snacking platforms are great for RTE delivery.”
Consider bars. “All a consumer has to do is open the wrapper and they get a fulfilling meal replacement or snack,” Schwartz said. “Some are targeted at those who want high protein, others toward gluten-free and others toward those who want indulgence.”
All of which underscores the appeal of health, indulgence and ease in RTE snacks and beyond. Caputo noted that consumers increasingly prioritize snacks that merge health and wellness with taste and convenience: dried fruit, nut packs, fruit cups and, yes, bars. He also sees renewed interest in “fresh snacking,” which he defines as items like snack packs, sippable soups, smoothies and yogurt, as well as refrigerated nutrition bars and more.
“Additionally, when it comes to the experience consumers want from functional snacks, new and innovative RTE platforms such as cubes, balls and bombs are beginning to displace the standard nutrition bar,” he said.
To your health
An emphasis on wellness pervades the RTD space, as well. “Consumer interest in products with functional benefits, such as protein-enhanced waters and energy drinks for rehydration, continue to drive overall growth in the RTD category,” Greenhill said.
He credits younger consumers for rewarding brands that formulate functionally. “Take energy drinks,” he said. “A few years ago, younger consumers purchased energy drinks strictly for the caffeine content. Today, we’re seeing subsets of younger consumers looking for RTD energy beverages with caffeine plus added functional benefits like protein, electrolytes for sports rehydration or vitamins for mental clarity and focus.”
Health and wellness have boosted demand for bottled water, too, which consumers perceive as a wiser choice than sodas. “The rise in sales and popularity of seltzer is one example of such growth,” Greenhill noted. “A few years ago, seltzer water was viewed as just as mixer, but today many brands are entering the space to attract consumers with fun, flavorful RTD beverages.”
Sports nutrition is another corner of the wellness sector that RTD options have colonized. Caputo considers convenient sports products “ideal intra-workout solutions because of their portability and opportunity for ingredient supplementation. Whether at the gym or on a hike, consumers can keep them by their sides so they’re available for reducing fatigue, preventing dehydration, maintaining blood glucose and more.”
Just as sports nutrition plays to consumers with active lifestyles, products that adhere to the “rules” of popular diet plans make RTD and RTE available to followers of lifestyle nutrition.
“Within lifestyle nutrition, products with the right balance of nutrition, convenience and taste aren’t just on trend but fill a gap in the market where new opportunities have opened up,” Caputo said.
Take keto-friendly foods. “Consumers adopting these diets often have to navigate many restrictions around which foods they can eat and which to avoid—a particular concern with convenience foods and snacks,” he said. “RTE and RTD products that identify themselves as keto friendly are primed for growth, as they help satiate the need for convenience that sometimes escapes this market.”
Craig added that as flexitarianism keeps mainstreaming, formulators are introducing new sources of protein to the RTE arsenals. “Plant-based proteins are increasingly popular in products like power bowls,” she said. “And blends of meat and plant-based proteins are popping up in meals and snacks such as blended-protein jerky sticks.”
On the shelf
The drive to cut sugar and sodium is another theme in the RT arena—as inescapable there as it is across food and drink categories. But given the unique production, storage, shelf life and safety requirements of the RTE and RTD platform, such cuts can have pivotal ramifications.
Consider sodium, which is “an important puzzle piece in controlling microbial growth in RTE meat items,” Schwartz noted. As a result, “Achieving reduced-sodium claims without sacrificing shelf life can be tough. By definition, reducing sodium means finding other means of getting to a shelf-stable product.”
Similarly, a cracker pack might lean on antioxidant additives to keep flavor fresh, she continued. But although synthetic preservatives like TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) did the trick in the past, “consumer demand for ‘healthier’ options with clean label ingredients now makes manufacturers turn to plant extracts such as rosemary to replace synthetics.” Rosemary and other clean alternatives like acerola help stabilize flavors and colors in dried-meat snacks, too, which is critical when packaging exposes the products to light, Schwartz added
Of course, “what qualifies as ‘clean label’ is a moving, dynamic target that depends on the consumer and brand,” Greenhill conceded. “There’s a lot of discussion around clean labels in the media and across social media, which has resulted in confusion among consumers about what is or isn’t good for them.”
What’s not a source of confusion is that a basic requirement for the RTE and RTD category is safety. As Kim Cornelius, senior food scientist, Wixon, said, “All consumers are at risk if a product isn’t safe to eat or drink. Any food illness is extremely dangerous for consumers.”
Yet the whole point of being RTE or RTD is to free consumers from having to engage in the processing that makes a product safe. So, without a kill step separating the consumers from consumption, an RTE or RTD product’s last line of defense against pathogens is its manufacturer.
“Food manufacturers prevent or reduce the growth of pathogens—and ward off spoilage—by ensuring a clean production environment and designing products with certain growth-limiting parameters like pH, water activity, heat treatment, storage temperatures, packaging and conservatively stated shelf lives,” Syed explained.
In addition to controlling these factors, “the development of natural and synthetic antimicrobial additives such as benzoates, sorbates and fermented carbohydrates, as well as processing techniques like pasteurization, UHT, HPP, aseptic packaging, deep frying and quick freezing, have allowed the food industry to develop high-quality ready-to-consume foods,” he said.
Keep it clean
But even when safety is on the line, clean labeling remains a priority. Listeria, for example, is concern in products like cold-filled dips and spreads—think hummus tubs—as well as in RTE deli meats and poultry. And while a label-friendly ingredient like vinegar can inhibit its growth in some of these products, “It doesn’t fit all needs,” Schwartz said. “Cultured dextrose and vinegar blends seem to help fill some of the gaps.”
Schwartz added that switching from synthetic preservatives to cleaner options entails significant cost increases, as well, “so manufacturers have to decide whether to meet consumer demand for ‘healthy,’ or stick with synthetics. Oftentimes, they’ll just remove synthetics instead of replacing them with more label-friendly alternatives—but this can lead to product-quality issues, as the flavor or color may change more quickly than the consumer expects.”
In Cornelius’s opinion, fulfilling consumer demands for “fresh,” “whole food” and “healthy” is still possible even in RTE and RTD. “You just need to do your homework,” she said. “As new ingredients emerge and consumers continue to look for ‘clean label’ and minimal-ingredient products, formulators will have to do their research on these new ingredients. Already, there are many grains, seasonings, spices and flavors available to create an incredibly flavorful and safe product that consumers will enjoy.”
But formulation needn’t be the only approach. Alternative safety strategies that don’t focus on ingredients include improved packaging and advanced processes, which Schwartz praises for strengthening the industry’s safety toolkit. That said, while RTD beverages can leverage a wider variety of processing options to ensure safety—UHT, HPP, hot-fill and more—the arsenal of safety-ensuring processes available to RTE foods is more limited.
All in good taste
From a quality standpoint, packaging technologies have proven instrumental in preventing in-pack moisture migration, Schwartz said, especially in products like grab-and-go meat-and-cracker trays. “Without the packaging advances we see in these products, you wouldn’t be able to put a starch-based product in the same container as an RTE meat without quality or safety concerns,” she noted.
Another paramount quality concern in RTD and RTE: flavor. And the more that RT products explore nutritional formulation and novel delivery formats, the more developers will have to work to get flavor right.
“Innovations in RTE functional ingredients and snacking platforms make flavor management even more critical to formulators,” Caputo noted. “Alternative ingredients with functional and nutritive benefits, such as pea protein, probiotics and ancient grains don’t always integrate seamlessly into applications.”
But ingredient suppliers keep working on solutions. “We’re focusing on improving the taste and texture of beverages with added functional benefits like protein,” Greenhill said. “We’re now developing high-protein beverages without off-notes that meet consumer expectations for flavor, texture and color. We also see an expansion of high-protein, low-pH beverages for athletes that offer a boost of energy and are easy to drink mid-workout.”
ADM’s “culinary-forward” bases are also moving the ball forward, Craig said. Made with “real, whole foods that’ve been roasted, braised or caramelized and then reduced and pureed to deliver authentic flavors,” she noted, “they not only taste great; they also simplify production, making it easier to create authentic, closer-to-nature foods while reducing production complexity.”
Almost makes that magic food pill pale by comparison. “Convenience is only getting more important in today’s consumer landscape,” Caputo said. “As such, RTE and RTD products are only going to become more a part of consumers’ lives. Expect to see many more of these products hitting shelves over the next few years.”
Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer. While her love of eating led her to study food science at the University of California, Davis, her love of the written word prompted her to minor in English. Since then, she's worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts, getting her hands into everything from cookbook projects for local chefs, to corporate communications and regular appearances on the pages of industry journals. Reach her at [email protected]