American consumers are becoming more discerning about their food – being prepared to pay more for less, it would appear.
A report by Washington State University found most consumers care about the technology and the ingredients used to make their microwavable dinners and other shelf ready meals.
The study found that many Americans are willing to pay a premium for ready-to-eat meals with a ‘clean label’ showing few ingredients and perceived health benefits.
They are also more willing to fork out their hard-earned cash when they know their processed foods are made with a new technology that helps limit the number of additives and preservatives commonly found in most ready-to-eat meals.
“Our findings emphasise the importance of providing consumers information about a new food technology and the resulting benefits,” said Karina Gallardo, a WSU professor of economics and author of the study in the journal Agribusiness.
“As foods with ‘clean labels,’ that is foods with few ingredients, become more popular, these types of technologies will also become more valuable to food manufacturers.”
The technology the study part-icipants were asked about is called Microwave Assisted Thermal Steril-ization or MATS.
Developed by WSU food scientist and Regents Professor Juming Tang, MATS works like a microwave oven, using heat to kill pathogenic bacteria, which ensures both food safety and preserves the taste, texture and appearance of processed meals.
“The MATS technology allows companies to sterilize food products in a way that retains their organoleptic qualities, making them more similar to a recently prepared meal,” said WSU economist Jill McCluskey.
It also enables using fewer food preservatives and additives com-pared to current sterilization practices, she added, which makes it possible to have an end product with the difficult-to-achieve clean label.
One of the reasons the researchers think their study participants pre-ferred the new technology is its name.
“It is based on and named after a massively adopted technology, the microwave,” Ms McCluskey said.
“The fact that the new technology uses the familiar term microwave is likely a factor that increases its acceptance by consumers.”
However, a large minority of people in the study, some 39 per cent, were unimpressed by the new technology’s claims.
“This group does not consider the message ‘absence of artificial ingredients’ as important in the labels but does consider a gluten free label as being important,” Prof Gallardo said.
“It really illustrates the fact that the decision of which foods to buy and consume is very complex.”