Is it because we travel more ? Is it because of the influence that the US eating patterns wield over the UK ? Or because gastronomic traditions are far less marked in the UK than in some of our continental European neighbours ? Whatever the reason, a new report from UK market research company Mintel reveals that when it comes to adventurous taste buds and a desire for convenience food, the UK consumer is leaving continental Europe behind.
Changing lifestyles means changing habits, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way eating habits have and continue to adapt in Europe. New working and family patterns, with fragmented family meals and an emphasis on eating out, snacking and lighter meals have increased families' reliance on convenience foods. Ready meals represent the ultimate convenience food, requiring no preparation, and delivering a full meal once heated.
According to Mintel, this factor prompted strong growth in the market during the 1980s and 1990s, and between 1998 and 2002, sales of ready meals in the five major European markets - UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy - rose 29 per cent, from €5.4 billion to €7 billion.
But demand for convenience food is more pronounced in the UK than anywhere else in Europe with a massive 80 per cent of the population owning a microwave compared to only 27 per cent of the Italians. Mintel's consumer research shows that British consumers lead by a long way in the ready meal stakes with some 77 per cent of them having recourse to ready meals. This compares to the slightly lower figure of 71 per cent in Germany and 68 per cent in France, but dropping down to 46 per cent in Spain and as low as 35 per cent in Italy.
Mintel reports that ready meals are much more likely to be eaten by younger consumers, but usage is relatively broad, with only the oldest consumers showing lower usage. Consumption is at its strongest among consumers in the highest income bands and is markedly above average in households with children and among working consumers.
"This supports the industry view of consumption patterns - younger and middle-aged consumers are the most likely to experience time pressures resulting from trying to balance home and work," commented Anne Bourgeois, European consumer goods consultant at Mintel.
But while convenience has been a major growth factor, manufacturers have encouraged ready meals uptake by exploiting other current trends, such as the burgeoning interest in ethnic cuisine, the trend towards a healthier diet and the high media profile currently enjoyed by cookery and by celebrity chefs, several of whom have lent their names to ready meal recipe ranges.
"As the market has become more diverse and more sophisticated, purchasing decisions are no longer based primarily on convenience, but take into account a wide range of other factors including the price to value equation, cooking method, portion size, authenticity of flavour, perceived health issues, quality of ingredients, and packaging and product design," added Anne Bourgeois.
Total retail sales of ready meals in the UK were valued at some €2.9 billion at current prices in 2002, a massive rise of 44 per cent on 1998. Virtually unknown at the beginning of the 1990s, chilled ready meals are today dominating value sales. Between 1997 and 2001, sales of chilled ready meals rose by 90 per cent at current prices, while the value of the ambient sector rose by just 32 per cent and that of the frozen ready meals sector by just under 14 per cent.
"In the UK, the ready meal has undergone a change of image from being deemed as unhealthy, lazy food to being repositioned as a premium, indulgent option, and retailers have further enhanced the image of chilled meals by using premium packaging and premium positioning," said Anne Bourgeois.
Mintel reports that frozen and ambient ready meals fare better on the continent where there is a very strong market for canned ready meals, with a variety of traditional stews and meal centres being sold in this format, take the French speciality of cassoulet for example, sold in all supermarkets and in all price ranges.
The success of ethnic recipes in the UK is driving the chilled ready meals sector. According to Mintel, ethnic meals - Indian, Chinese and other Asian - now account for more than 40 per cent of the chilled ready meals sector, and international cuisines claim almost 50 per cent of frozen ready meals. The increasing visibility of ethnic recipes, claims Mintel, has helped to attract new consumers to the market, attracted by the possibility of enjoying meals often otherwise bought at takeaways and in ethnic restaurants.
"The traditionally insular British are becoming ever more cosmopolitan, a trend initiated by the spread of cheaper air travel and the democratisation of foreign holidays, and reflected in the wide range of ethnic restaurants mushrooming in high streets across the land," proposed Anne Bourgeois.
Mintel's research shows that some 55 per cent of the adult population claim to enjoy eating foreign foods, rising to 57 per cent of ready meal users, thus highlighting the potential for sales of all ethnic foods in the UK.
Apart from France, where some 58 per cent of the population claim to enjoy eating foreign foods, European consumers appear to be a lot more conservative than their UK counterparts. In Germany consumers need to be encouraged to try new food products, with four in ten enjoying foreign foods. And in Italy and Spain ? Only 23 per cent of Italians and 19 per cent of Spanish have tempted their tastebuds away from pasta and paella.