If you thought all consumers cared about was price and convenience, think again. More and more people are sick of processing and want fresh, natural fare. And they're prepared to pay. Is the industry taking notice? Belinda Gannaway reports Ask a gaggle of food industry experts' for insight into the demands of tomorrow's consumer and you'll have it in one word ­ convenience. Consumers are time pressed and cash rich, we are told (all too often). All they want is a quick and easy meal solution. In a bag, in a packet, anything microwave, lunchbox or car friendly will do. But could this addiction to the accepted wisdom be selling the industry short? Consumers don't see meals as solutions'. A meal or snack ­ on the move or around the not-so-usual kitchen table ­ is about food and nutrition. And with or without hectic schedules, failure to get the right sort of fuel makes us sick. And the consumer ­ including supposedly chips and burger obsessed kids ­ knows it. In the US, where the real food agenda has already made inroads into the mainstream market, supermarkets and manufacturers have realised that natural convenience foods offer the time-starved consumer an option they are willing to pay more for. And as these innovation driving babyboomers start to hit retirement in 10 years' time, things will heat up even more. Never will there have been a retirement generation as active, wealthy and health obsessed. Carol Radice, senior editor of Grocery Headquarters Magazine in the US, says: "Today the same zeal consumers showed when dietary supplements flooded the markets a few years ago is being directed toward frozen and convenience natural foods of all descriptions." The Food Standards Agency monitors public sentiment on this side of the Atlantic. Deputy chair Suzi Leather believes consumer concerns are becoming more sophisticated and identifies a new determination to make diet choices that "fit in with long-term health". The primary obsession with price and latterly convenience to the exclusion of all other requirements no longer applies. That is a growing trend the food industry needs to respond to, Leather says. But the message from the consumer is that the industry is not keeping pace. Specially commissioned research by Taylor Nelson Sofres on behalf of The Grocer shows that over half (52%) of consumers are "concerned at the number of ingredients in processed foods". Some 27% routinely look for information regarding additives, colours and flavouring. And in total 64% of shoppers look for convenience foods that are "fresh" and "unprocessed". Whether they find it is another question. The results of this research and that by the FSA demonstrate how much more information today's consumers want about what's in foods. They want full ingredients listings and they want to know how the food has been produced. In addition, we are increasingly concerned about animal welfare and food allergies.And in a particularly damning indictment, consumers across the board feel the current labelling regime is "inadequate", according to Leather. But this undercurrent of sentiment is more than simply concern over the information black hole on the supermarket shelf and on the packet. The demand for meaningful information is symptomatic of a much wider trend ­ the growing importance consumers place on the nutritional value of the food they buy. And their ability and desire to make value judgements in terms of their long-term health about the sorts of things they eat. Nutrition labelling is, Leather points out, a marker for concern about health. "It is the mechanism through which people can make health choices and comes very high up priorities in our research." Colin Morris, TN Sofres PhoneBus manager, was responsible for the latest research and believes quicker for me' is no longer enough. Increasingly, convenient will have to mean good for me' too. "Convenience in the mind of the consumer is no longer just about food that is simple and easy to prepare, but also food which is healthy," he says. In recent years the industry, with a bit of tweaking to existing processes, products and packaging, has tapped some of that trend. But it's been hardly what one might call revolutionary. And Ian Tokelove at the Food Commission believes the industry is doing itself and the nation's health no favours in half-hearted efforts to meet consumer anxieties. "High sugar foods are advertised as being low in fat' and enriched with vitamins'. High fat foods are advertised as being sugar free' and nutritious'. Consumers are misled, and in an attempt to make healthy purchasing decisions they actually buy products that harm their health." But shoppers are increasingly aware and frustrated by such marketing tactics. The six month old FSA is negotiating with stakeholders for a voluntary scheme to crack down on misleading labelling. This will prove a major test of its ability to work with the industry to achieve a step change in thinking. And the industry had better measure up to the new voluntary guidelines or it could face European legislation ­ even if that does take several years to surface. But simply labelling the same stuff more accurately will not match changing consumer expectations. Judy Larkin, co-director of reputation risk management specialists Regester Larkin, is urging the industry to wise up and start investing in new product development that meets the new criteria. In the US big retail brands are turning to smaller niche players to meet the needs of this category at the expense of the less imaginative and slower footed larger suppliers. And entirely new retail concepts are springing up to service the new market. Fresh Choice natural HMR centres on the West Coast and Eatzi's are two such concepts. But there is still some way to go. At McKinsey's Atlanta office, associate principle Michelle Horn advises the US food industry. She says: "If I was looking for gaps in the market in the next five years I'd definitely see if I could hit that segment with a complete HMR offer. "There are a lot of people experimenting at the moment, but few have exploited it on a large scale. Not too many players are sat bang in it at the moment." A raft of European regulation being drafted this year and the legacy of GM anxiety make it vital the UK industry is not caught on the back foot by the real food agenda as it has been with so many public health issues. As in the US, current consumer concern over processing and additives focuses largely on children's foods, but the battleground is spilling out into new categories. Responding to parental concerns about processing is key to safeguarding and building reputation and opportunity in all categories. Never before have so many consumers been so prone to "cross over" ­ and the children's sector is the gateway category for many. Larkin says: "The children's food and nutrition agenda is an emotive and compelling one, and will be used increasingly by campaigners as a vehicle for other concerns about food standards, processing and production." So how does the industry square up in the face of such a broadside? If the abuse of the healthy image of organic is anything to go by, not too well according to the Food Commission's Tokelove. "Already we find that the healthy' image of organic food has been hijacked to sell a variety of organic junk food to less suspicious shoppers." Director general of the Food and Drink Federation Mike Mackenzie on the other hand believes the industry is already matching and will continue to meet consumer expectations while offering choice, value and taste. "The food industry lives and dies by its responsiveness to consumer demand and has responded to the call for less preservatives and additives in food for many years. "Consumers vote with their purses. If they don't like a product, they won't buy it, it's as simple as that. But it makes me laugh when I read quasi-nutrition columnists advising people on how to avoid processed foods with suggestions that they should eat more bread, houmous, tinned sardines, grapefruit juice, sun-dried tomatoes, pasta, wholemeal rice, yogurt­.processed food is real food." Others are less optimistic the industry is sufficiently forward thinking. Gareth Jones of Longhouse has been a consultant to the UK industry for 30 years and believes the resistance to change ­ primarily on the grounds of cost ­ still dominates thinking and freezes out those prepared to challenge existing structures and processes. It is a stand many may come to regret, he says. "The industry can't sell people any more calories. There are physically no more opportunities for us to eat. The smart move for the industry is to sell people less calories, less weight and less volume but for a higher return. You do that by reducing the number of ingredients, and improving the quality and freshness of the right ingredients. By doing that you add real flavour and real value." Even Stateside there is nobody who has yet got the whole thing right. McKinsey's Horn is encouraging the industry to adopt a "shift in the way we look at products". "Concepts and products that offer both convenience and a healthy alternative as long as they can make taste part of the core proposition will succeed. The mainstream consumer will pay a bit more for wholesome and healthy as long as it is tasty." The challenge for the British food industry is real. It has been world class, if not pioneering, in matching it's offer to the lifestyle demands of the consumer. But, for many critics, the industry has gone too far down a road where innovation is process, not results, driven. The attitude is add a bit more ­ process, colouring, flavouring ­ to the same old thing rather than rip it up and start again. And that is what is needed. Particularly among younger buyers there is a willingness to think differently, and the early signs of a dawn of a new culture in mass market food production and retailing. But at the same time Jones believes some NPD people are "among the most frustrated in the industry because they can't get past go because of the cost issue". But niche players in the US have proved that people will pay for what they want.Get the food right and the profit will follow. And the prize for those that get it right is worth fighting for. We do have very pressurised lifestyles and we need foods and eating patterns to fit in with our lifestyles. The challenge is to create healthy patterns. It will require new thinking. And a willingness to start again, but the real food agenda should not be sidelined to a few worthy campaigners. Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at the Hayward Centre, says: "Whatever the food industry can do to minimise unnecessary processing, spraying and manipulation of foods will be positively received, but not at the expense of convenience and availability. The truth is that we really do want our cake and eat it." If the existing industry can't produce the goods somebody else will. There are many established and respected names in food to go ­ Prêt à Manger for starters. What's to stop them moving into a home meal replacement offering on every high street, office block and train station in the country. The writing is on the wall. Who's prepared to read it? {{COVER FEATURE }}