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Health, Sports & Psychology

The lure of the ready meal

Updated Friday, 6th October 2006

How much are we influenced by perception when we buy our food?

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Microwave meals on a production line Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Alterfalter | Microwave ready meals on a production line The growth of chilled ready meals, together with concerns about their "healthiness", highlights the important role perception plays when we buy our food.

For example, some of the reasons chilled foods have overtaken frozen foods is that they’re seen as fresher, more sophisticated, and offer a wider variety of recipes.

If you look at the packaging of ready meals, it tends to be more glossy and up-market than that of frozen foods. We can often see the contents of a chilled ready meal, which isn’t possible with frozen food or with tinned food, so we've a better idea of the portion sizes inside. The overall impact is that we "think" we know what we're getting.

In addition, the open chiller displays within supermarkets tend to stock products such as milk and cheese, which have a shorter shelf life than the products you find in the frozen food cabinets. This reinforces the idea that their contents are fresher. So we might not be completely to blame for thinking like this.

This isn’t the first time the chiller cabinet has been used to take advantage of consumer perceptions. Sunny Delight was placed in chiller cabinets in order to suggest it was a fresh fruit juice. In reality this drink, which was high in sugar and low in juice, could have been stored on ordinary grocery shelves.

Although technology has given us microwaveable meals instead of the "boil in the bag" variety, it hasn’t improved the flavour. One solution to this, increasing the amount of salt, has started to become a problem simply because of the sheer quantity of convenience foods we eat.

"clearly most of us are not clued up enough to appreciate the amount of salt often used in ready meals"

With these ready meals we might think we can see what we’re getting, but clearly most of us are not clued up enough to appreciate the amount of salt often used in ready meals let alone some of the other potentially harmful ingredients.

Since the approach in Britain is only to legislate as a last resort, the government often uses "social marketing campaigns" in order to change our behaviour. The idea is that if we’re better informed, we’ll be able to make better choices. An important part of social marketing campaigns is changing our attitudes. For example, with drink driving and anti-smoking campaigns we’re encouraged to think of those activities as being anti-social.

The current campaign by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is an example of social marketing. It highlights the high salt content of much convenience food and the dangers of excessive salt consumption. The hope is that with consumers being better informed, their perceptions of healthy food will better match reality, rather than being influenced by product packaging or the misplaced connotations of the chiller cabinet.

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