CORVALLIS - There is a strong, new trend among American food consumers that already is changing the way supermarkets do business - and it isn't necessarily driven by nutrition or even cost.
The lure is convenience, and experts say it's here to stay for a while.
From bags of pre-mixed salad to hot deli chicken, consumers are spending more and more of their food dollars on "fully prepared" or "easily assembled" grocery items, according to Carolyn Raab, a professor of nutrition and food management at Oregon State University.
Raab said new studies have shown that 46 percent of the food dollar now goes to meals prepared or eaten away from home.
"A major force behind this trend is the working woman," said Raab, who is a nutrition specialist with the OSU Extension Service. "An estimated 70 percent of all mothers with school-age children are in the work force and they don't have time for lengthy meal preparations."
Convenience used to be the domain of the fast food restaurants, but supermarkets began cashing in on those same consumers with tantalizing displays of prepared chicken, roast beef, potato salad, ribs and a variety of other items. Lately they've added easy-to-assemble salads, fruit trays, ready-to-cook pizzas, stuffed pork chops and seasoned roasts, among other things.
And they're helping shoppers who still want to cook, but don't have much time by offering packages of cole slaw mix, stir fry ingredients, trimmed cauliflower and broccoli florets, and hot, freshly baked bread.
"A lot of people still see the benefit of eating at home," Raab said. "For many families, take out has become take home."
Other, related trends also are shaping the food industry as we move toward the year 2000, Raab said. Among them:
- Ethnic foods. Spicier, flavorful foods are becoming more popular, a trend fueled by America's increasingly diverse population;
- Freshness. Sales are skyrocketing for anything labeled as "fresh."
- Portability. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of all meals are eaten in cars, according to Elizabeth Sloan, contributing editor to Food Technology magazine. And in the home, an increasing number of meals are eaten in the living room or the bedroom.
- Baby boomers. Often with dual incomes, and not afraid of spending a little discretionary cash, baby boomers are a major force in shaping the food market.
"Baby boomers have always had a major influence on trends and now they are beginning to seek the fountain of youth," Raab said. "They are purchasing what Elizabeth Sloan calls 'hope foods' to help prevent disease and gain energy. They're big on natural foods with anti-oxidants like beta carotene and vitamins C and E, as well as manufactured foods fortified with vitamins."
Likewise, Raab said, sales of cosmetics and anti-aging remedies are rising as baby boomers hit their golden years.
Cost may be less of a concern to baby boomers, Raab said, but it still is a major factor in food selection for other shoppers. The difference in trends between baby boomers and other segments of the American population is a dichotomy which the food industry needs to acknowledge, she added.
"There are an increasing number of single parent households - mostly female - and a lot of them are low income," Raab said. "Cost obviously is a major concern to these single parents, but they also are the ones who would really benefit from the convenience of prepared foods."
A growing market for the food industry may be children and youths, Raab said. More and more teens are doing the family cooking and shopping, and food marketers are beginning to reach out to them. The prepared or easily assembled products can cater to young or inexperienced cooks, she pointed out, since they often are simple.
The trend toward convenience has included many products aimed at the health-conscious, Raab said. As a society, though, Americans are inconsistent.
"Half of all new items on supermarket shelves are billed as no fat or low fat," she pointed out. "At the same time, rich, fatty dessert items have never been more popular in this restaurants."
A caveat to consumers: Raab said many items labeled as low fat are just that, but they're loaded still with calories. "Read the fine print," she said.
And while convenience is the major force behind today's food market, Raab warned, manufacturers and supermarket managers should remember one thing.
"Trends come and go, but taste is still the number one factor in selection," Raab said. "If it doesn't taste good, consumers won't buy it."