A number of issues arise when trying to add a fresh component to prepared foods.

KANSAS CITY — Coined in the early 1990s, home meal replacement (H.M.R.) was created by grocers to more effectively compete with restaurants. What commenced as an extension of the deli and bakery departments today is an entire department in the grocery store, and in some cases, the focal point of the supermarket.

Data suggests use of the term H.M.R. reached its peak in 1997 and by the turn-of-the-century was seldom used anymore. It had become such an integral part of the supermarket landscape there was no point in making a direct reference, as prepared foods ranging from ready-to-eat steam table entrees to refrigerated meal kits had become a lifeline for most supermarkets.

Prepared foods purchased from supermarkets, drug stores and other retail outlets will continue to capture share of the meal and snacks market by stealing visits from restaurants, according to The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. The market research firm predicts purchase of such prepared foods will increase 10% during the next decade, compared to a 4% increase forecast for commercial food service traffic.

The H.M.R. platform has evolved in the past 20 years. From rotisserie chickens to globally inspired hot food bars to locally prepared gourmet heat-and-eat meals, eating a freshly prepared meal at home has never been easier.

Easier for the consumer, that is. The culinary personnel developing the foods are faced with numerous challenges in terms of delivering on appearance, texture and mouthfeel. All that, and consumers also want the ingredients to be items found in their grandmother’s pantry.

“According to research, consumers are looking for authentic products with greater meaning,” said Joseph O’Neill, president and general manager of Beneo, Morris Plains, N.J. “Authentic, homemade or ‘made with real ingredients’ have a high influence on food and beverage choice.”

Esther Van Onselen, category director of texturants and convenience foods with Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., said, “Changes in consumer lifestyles in both developed and developing markets continue to increase the demand for packaged and convenience foods. This demand for convenience is a key driver for specialty ingredients that provide added functionality such as stability, texture and extended shelf life. Globally, we’re seeing a rise in clean label claims across multiple categories, including soups, prepared meals and sauces, and seeing that consumers are willing to pay more for these products.”

For example, according to Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, more than 40% of soups introduced worldwide in 2013 had a clean label positioning. With that clean label came a 10% higher average retail selling price.

“Today’s consumers want made from ‘fresh-from-the-farm’ ingredients prepared in a way that delivers the fullest taste experience at home or in their favorite restaurant,” said Wendy Erickson, technical service manager, Cargill, Plymouth, Minn. “Culinologists are now using ingredients that were once foreign to the kitchen, and people are becoming more familiar with these techniques.”

Walter Zuromski, president and culinary director, Chef Services Group, Lincoln, R.I., and a consulting research chef for the American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill., said such prepared foods as dressings, sauces, soups and desserts are the most challenging to formulate “fresh,” as the products are all about binding water and suspending solids.

Tracy Mosteller, senior applications specialist with DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kas., said, “Such viscous solutions containing fat present stability challenges because the fat often separates from the water phase. The result is a product with undesirable appearance, greasy mouthfeel, less whiteness and a fat layer.”

Stabilizing emulsions

Oil (fat) and water are immiscible liquids because their oppositely charged molecular structures naturally repulse each other. Shear, accompanied by ingredients that emulsify and stabilize will create a creamy and smooth system called an emulsion.

When the outer phase consists of water and the inner phase of oil, it is considered an oil-in-water emulsion. Mayonnaise and ice cream are two common examples. When this is reversed, or in other words, water is dispersed in oil, a water-in-oil emulsion exists. The most common examples are butter and margarine.

Emulsion stability is required in viscous products to meet consumer expectations. Chef Blaise, a consultant to DuPont, said a product like butter sauce is particularly difficult to handle since it has a high tendency to break.

“This is especially true if the product is being used in food service where the butter sauce may be frozen, thawed, heated and cooled, then re-heated,” he said.

“It’s important to understand that an emulsifier will not fix a broken emulsion,” Ms. Mosteller said. “The emulsifier helps stabilize the emulsion, but it will not get any better than what is originally produced. To produce a stable butter sauce with a good appearance, adequate shear is required to form a good emulsion with small fat droplets.”

Demands from the refrigerator

There is no doubt consumers are gravitating toward the refrigerated case and moving away from the frozen prepared foods aisle, said Mr. Zuromski.

“Consumers don’t really understand the technology of frozen prepared foods,” he said. “While they remain as good as refrigerated, the perception is that refrigerated prepared foods are fresher than frozen.”

Janet Carver, culinology group manager, Ingredion, Westchester, Ill., said, “With frozen foods, you are dealing with a static system. Other than potential freeze-thaw abuse, frozen foods remain consistent. It’s the fresh, refrigerated, heat-and-eat category where culinologists need to discriminately choose the proper stabilization system to ensure appearance and quality during shelf life.”

"Consumers don't really understand the technology of frozen prepared foods," said Walter Zuromski, president and culinary director, Chef Services Group.

The starch or starch/flour combination used in frozen foods, as well as foods prepared for immediate consumption, may not translate well to similar refrigerated food items that continue to change over time. Ms. Carver explained that traditional food starches, such as corn starch, long have been used by chefs when preparing foods intended for immediate or same-day consumption.

“But when you put that food into a container and merchandise it in grocers’ refrigerated case, anything bad that can happen will happen with traditional starches,” she said.

For example, corn starch gels very quickly.

“In a refrigerated cream-style sauce such as Alfredo, corn starch will start to form gel balls that look like curdled milk,” Ms. Carver said. “The consumer might assume the product is spoiled.

“With soups on a steam table, traditional starches will continue to break down over time. The starch is no longer holding the water in suspension, and the soup will begin to thin. The standing soup may also form a film on the surface, which will eventually crack and fill with pockets of free water.”

Physically modified clean label starches and flours do not readily gel or break down.

“Our solutions were born out of the U.K. market, where freshly prepared convenience foods dominate at grocers such as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s,” Ms. Carver said. “Their chefs are preparing foods that might need to sit in the refrigerator for five to 10 days. When consumers look through the package’s cellophane window, the product must look like it was just made. Our functional native starches keep sauces and soups looking fluid, creamy and thick.”

For culinologists looking to meet increased consumer demand for clean label, Tate & Lyle recently introduced a line of functional clean label starches that function similarly to modified food starches in terms of process tolerance, appearance and taste.

“The line can be used in a broad range of applications and sophisticated processes, including soups, sauces and prepared meals,” Ms. Van Onselen said. “The line consists of three products, which differ from one another in their level of process tolerance.”

All varieties are declared on the ingredient statement as simply “starch.”

“Naturally derived rice starches have good freeze/thaw, acid and process stability, making them ideal for use in packaged sauces and frozen products,” Mr. O’Neill of Beneo said. “Their neutral taste profile and color enables a product’s true freshness, acidity and glossy finish to stand out.”

Rice starches function as a natural fat replacer, bringing creaminess to low-fat versions of dairy desserts, ready-made meals, soups and sauces as well as fillings.

“With its small granule size, neutral taste and short but soft gel structure, rice starch mimics a full-bodied, creamy mouthfeel, ideal characteristics for a fat replacer in low-fat and free-from products,” Mr. O’Neill said.

For certain applications, synergistic blends of starch and hydrocolloids work more efficiently than the individual ingredients.

“A good example is corn starch with gum arabic, xanthan gum and guar gum,” said Ana Maria Garavito, food scientist, Gum Technology, Tucson, Ariz., a business unit of Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo. “In sauces and soups, this starch and gum combination stabilizes emulsion, improves creaminess, provides suspension, promotes freeze/thaw stability and improves cling. The food maintains a thick and homogenous appearance during reheating, which is an advantage in steam table food applications or in ready-to-eat microwavable applications.”

Dairy proteins provide a range of benefits that improve the eating quality of convenience foods without compromising the wholesomeness of the finished product, said Kasia Kandulski Lindegaard, marketing and business development manager, Arla Foods Ingredients, Denmark.

“We offer functional whey proteins with superior emulsifying properties,” she said. “There’s a whey protein option to improve mouthfeel and texture in reduced-fat products. There’s also a high-fat whey protein concentrate with good emulsifying properties to provide an excellent covering and mouthfeel effect in sauces.”

When it comes to stabilizing emulsions, many culinary experts turn to egg yolks, a clean label inherent source of emulsifiers. The emulsifiers include phospholipids and lecithin, and are often used in various foods to hold water- and oil-based liquids together. For example, an egg yolk whisked into a sauce after it is removed from heat, binds fats and liquids for slight thickening and improved texture.

Depending upon the application, it is important to determine when egg yolks alone are necessary or if whole egg product may be used. While a whole egg provides the yolk’s emulsifiers, it also provides the fat-free protein of the egg white. When the proteins coagulate, they can pull moisture out of the system. Depending on the system, this may be either beneficial or detrimental.

Controlling moisture

Binding water is important in refrigerated prepared foods, in particular with those containing a pasta component.

“When pasta is sitting in a sauce in the refrigerator for any length of time, it continues to absorb liquid,” Ms. Carver said.

Near the end of shelf life, traditional wheat pasta may break down and become quite mushy.

“Pulse flours, which are higher in protein than wheat flour, produce a tougher dough that will keep cooked pasta al dente,” Ms. Carver said. “Pulse flours can be used with wheat flour or alone to make gluten-free pasta.”

Resistant starch also may help maintain desirable texture and mouthfeel in cooked pasta sitting in liquid.

“Our RS-2 resistant starch does not hydrate,” Ms. Carver said. “When used in combination with a flour or semolina, the resulting product is more resilient and helps maintain a good eating quality over time.”

Ibrahim Abbas, director of research and development at Penford Food Ingredients, added, “Resistant starches have a high content of dietary fiber, making them very suitable for enhancing the total dietary fiber of food without major negative impacts on the textural and sensory properties of food.”

Chicory root fiber also functions as a water binder.

“It is particularly useful with ensuring the texture and mouthfeel of pre-cooked, heat-and-eat pasta, even filled pasta,” said Scott Turowski, technical sales manager for Sensus America Inc., Lawrenceville, N.J. “In the filling, it provides a fat-like mouthfeel that contributes creaminess without calories. In addition to binding water, chicory root fiber increases the fiber content of pasta products without affecting the traditional taste and texture.”

Maltodextrins, which are water-soluble glucose polymers of varying chain length, may assist with maintaining texture and mouthfeel in lower-fat and lower-sugar products.

When pasta is sitting in a sauce in the refrigerator for any length of time, it continues to absorb liquid.

“When removing sugar or fat from formulations, something must be added to replace the solids,” said Celeste Sullivan, technical manager, Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, Iowa. “In soups, sauces and gravies, maltodextrins are used as bulking agents and dispersants in dry mixes.”

Ready-to-eat meal kits appeal to consumers who want some hands-on in the kitchen but without a lot of the messy preparation. Due to the fresh nature of the pre-portioned protein, sauce, vegetables and carbohydrates in these kits, manufacturers will often distribute them frozen. Retailers will merchandise them thawed in refrigerated display cases.

“At each stage that there is a temperature change, the texture and mouthfeel of the components change,” said Sean Choi, culinologist, TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md. “Most notably, these temperature changes affect the viscosity and visual appeal of sauces. As a sauce thaws, water migration occurs and can cause the sauce to break or separate. The addition of hydrocolloid gums controls water migration and prevents breaking, creating the same smooth, homogeneous texture for the end user as when it was originally made.”

When gums are incorporated into any formulation, additional water is usually required.

As the demand for premium convenience foods continues to grow, culinologists will need to explore more food science-based tools, rather than ingredients used by chefs or grandmothers. The good news is ingredient suppliers are making the tools more user- and consumer-friendly.