Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

The rise and rise of convenience food

by RogueTrooper Sat May 20th, 2006 at 09:50:08 AM EST

if the others are eating... promoted by DoDo

Interesting article/polemic from The Guardian

This was the gist of the news: baked beans on toast, Britain's most popular convenience food, was about to get even more convenient. "Instant" baked beans on toast, a frozen, fused sandwich that goes in the toaster, is to be tested by Heinz in New Zealand and if successful, launched in the UK. It's the subject that everyone is talking about, but you have to ask: why are they doing it?

Why indeed. More after the break

"If people take the time to cook beans and put it on
toast, why shouldn't we cut the process for them?" asked Heinz CEO Bill Johnson, presumably rhetorically, but let's answer him anyway. First of all, you don't cook baked beans; they're already cooked. You just heat them up a little, either on the stove or in a microwave, which takes about the time it takes to make the toast. There is no meaningful gain to be made timewise. Second, the new frozen product may be many things - "You would know it as a Pop Tart, almost," says Johnson - but it is not baked beans on toast. The competition isn't necessarily worried. Steve Marinker from Premier Foods, which makes Branston Baked Beans, said: "I don't think there will be a large demand for super-convenience products ... I can well imagine that there'll be different ways of bringing complete meals to people in an instant, but do people want this level of convenience?" Bill Johnson says his company needs to give people "new ways to use beans", as if he were answering some kind of outcry: Give us more ways to use your beans! We've run out of ideas!

Baked beans lie at the focal point of Britain's weird relationship with food. They're an American invention, a sickly tomatoey version of the classic dish, which may or may not be Native American in origin - but only in the UK are they held up as some kind of culinary tradition. They can sometimes baffle foreigners: a colleague tells of a Chilean refugee who was so confused by the sweet sauce which dowsed the haricot beans that he ran them under the tap. By some estimates, Britons buy 97% of the world's tinned baked beans. In recent years, Heinz has tried to rebrand baked beans as a healthy food - although a 400g tin contains about 20g of sugar and a good deal of salt - while it has also introduced Mexican and Indian-flavoured beans and baked bean pizza. When Jamie Oliver created a £7 baked bean starter dish for his restaurant Fifteen, this supper-of-last-resort gained some gourmet credibility, although it transpired that Heinz had bribed Oliver with a £15,000 payment to do it as a marketing exercise, and Oliver subsequently repudiated the whole episode, saying: "I should have been brighter. Baked beans have got absolutely no place in any restaurant with integrity."

I remember the baked bean pizzas too. They were a bit yummy to be honest


When manufacturers speak of "value-added" products, they generally mean the opposite: they're actually looking for ways to add cost to things you've been buying happily for years, ostensibly by creating convenience. Thus they add a pinch of oregano, and some salt and sugar, to tinned chopped tomatoes and charge an extra 10p. Baked beans manufacturers, upon hearing that consumers like to add chilli or spices to their beans, now add it on your behalf. It isn't as nice, of course, but it's much easier for you.

But does the convenience outweigh the cost? How busy do you have to be to need precooked rice? What are you going to do with the extra nine minutes? Let's bear in mind that rice simmering on the stove does not require the sort of concentration that's going to spoil the last bit of EastEnders. The value added here, from the consumer's point of view, is virtually nil. The cost, however, is considerable. Ordinary, unadulterated, precooked rice sells at about £5 per kilo, as opposed to 84p for the normal, just-add-water-and-cook sort.

Here's a trick question: what's the most expensive type of parmesan cheese you can buy in a supermarket? Taste the Difference? Tesco's finest? Jamie Oliver-sourced? The answer is the pre-shaved kind, which costs a whopping £25 per kilo. For that money you could import the best parmesan Italy has to offer, but then you'd have to shave it yourself. This is not a product born of convenience. Nobody is that time-poor. It's a testament to our unmitigated sloth.

The current exchange rate is about £1 to €1.40.

Now, it is obvious why the food manufacturers are doing this: The money they are making is quite phenomenal. But why  are people. It is often said, by cultural commentators that people are now cash rich, but time poor. I wonder whether this cultural archetype is an actuality or something that is aspirational. People actually do have the time to cook but they don't because they want to be the sort of person who doesn't have the time.

Or maybe they just don't know how to cook and big business is just exploiting that.

Agree. Having no time is a good and trivial excuse one can often use to justify one's negligence, lack of skills, and organization. Not only when it comes to food.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 06:27:06 AM EST

as so many concepts, the "convenience" moniker stands for "corporatized". corporatized food means edible substances with artificial flavour and massive amounts of chemicals added to them, sold in a package with a picture of real food stamped on it. like everything originating from a corporation, "convenience" food may be "convenient" just in the same way it is "convenient" to shag a hooker: its fast and it can pass for the original. but in both cases, "convenience" stuff always loses to the real thing.

case in point, here in vienna pizza hut, jerry's, and other corporate peddlers have a very hard time because the quality of what we already have here in comparable products by far surpasses them: pizza hut has gone broke and restarted several times because we have good pizza here, about 10 minutes walk from anywhere in the city. jerry's does not even exist but there is a belgian icecream parlor with a strange name selling their overpriced mush on exactly one corner in the city. we have native (and italian) ice parlors which surpass anything the corporates could ever make. only mcdonalds has succeeded, but they had no real competition from locals to begin with.

returning to beans, yes, they are healthy (the real stuff, before a corporation gets their hands on them) and i like them. but i buy beans and lentils on the market and cook them w/o adding "value" (read: chemistry) to them. ok. actually my GF does it, but i still go to the kitchen. we do not buy "convenience", but instead mostly fresh stuff from farmers at the market and our food bill - excluding restaurants - stays below 400 euro most months.

by name (name@spammez_moi_sivouplait.org) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 06:43:14 AM EST
we have native (and italian) ice parlors which surpass anything the corporates could ever make.

Indeedy. For example, two corners from Stephansdom towards the Danube, at the Lugeck, there is Zanoni & Zanoni - recommended to everyone. You can drink a coffee and eat ice there in the outside even during winter (tho', guilty feelings, that surely must be a big waste of energy).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat May 20th, 2006 at 11:18:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nowadays, you find pictures of everything on the internet..

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat May 20th, 2006 at 11:27:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just to introduce another stupid pun in a worthy diary: but you may as well change the title into "The rise and price of convenience food". But the pun on rise works too...
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 07:38:41 AM EST
If I were to change the title I would say "The rise and cost of convenience food.

Money is a sign of Poverty - Culture Saying
by RogueTrooper on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 08:40:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose if I said it's bean done, I'd be toast around here...

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 09:45:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary, RT, and how I agree. What strikes me is what I see at supermarket check-outs here in a supposedly gastronomic and healthy part of France -- more and more people buy nothing but convenience foods, packed and processed foods, micro-wave heat-up ready-mades, etc. Why I don't know. OK, both members of a couple may be working, and there's no reason for the woman to be slaving over the stove if her bloke won't share the work. But I also note copious amounts of TV advertising in favour of convenience foods, and whopping (and increasing) amounts of supermarket shelf space dedicated to them. It's not supply satisfying demand, it's demand creation.

This also reminds me of the other day's diaryThe 'Business Case' where the American Deputy Sec for Public Health was saying markets had to deal with this issue. There's no "business case" for making people eat what they don't find "tasty", said he. Conveniently forgetting that heavy doses of sugar or salt associated with fats make things basically "tasty", and that corporations direct huge resources into inventing easy, "tasty" stuff, marketing it, advertising and merchandising it, causing massive and rising obesity and other health problems in Western societies. Apart from that, well, you know, all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds. As usual.

As for frozen beans on toast, that's quite funny. I remember the first microwave oven I saw, in an English (upscale) café in the mid-1960s. It was used to heat up beans!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 09:29:04 AM EST
by exactly the phenomenon described here - the so-called value-added sales method.

I love cooking (and shopping for the ingredients). The only prepacked food I'll buy is out of season frozen veg - nowadays the tastes are pretty fresh and good and pricewise very cheap (in Finland).

But I am always shocked to see the amount of crap that people put in their trolleys - never reading the lable to see what synthetics they are putting inside themselves.

The worst is to see old ladies, struggling on a pension, buying Finnish sausages. Gram for gram they would be better off buying a small amount of quality meat and good bread.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 10:31:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know about elsewhere, but in the US we now have the following "great" food inventions:

precut lettuce leaves
precut apple slices
self heating coffee (still being debugged)
frozen toasted bread (with "butter" and garlic)

In addition most supermarkets now have salad bars,
hot whole cooked chickens and sushi.

The microwave allows cooking in minutes so the lack of time is not really an issue. A fish fillet takes 3 minutes, preparing frozen, breaded fillets takes 7.

This trend is a perfect example of how we can adapt to a post manufacturing society. We can over spend on "labor saving" prepared foods instead of buying more "stuff".

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 10:45:36 AM EST
I've seen those "food inventions" you're talking about, too. To me, they seem to be targeted at people who find absolutely no pleasure in having a good meal whatsoever.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 11:01:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey, the pre-cut lettuce leaves are good :)

Mikhail from SF
by Tsarrio (dj_tsar@yahoo.com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 11:55:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On prepared salads in a bag, there was this  not long ago.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 03:46:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Big business is exploiting them.  But I think one thing that wasn't addressed is the way the family structure has changed so dramatically over the past few generations.  People are waiting longer to marry and have children and divorce rates are high, leaving a lot of singles and childless couples out there.  And in families with children, both parents usually work.  Plus my generation was raised by those feminists who refused to cook out of spite </snark> and so learning to cook isn't something all girls are taught before their honeymoon, ya know?

I personally try to stay away from pre-processed food, but pre-packaged meals are quite handy.  I often don't get home until late at night and when I do get home early, spending a long time cooking a meal for one person or two, if Matthew doesn't have night class, sometimes seems like too much effort.  Cooking for other people is great fun.  Cooking for yourself can be a hassle. (Not always...)

I've found that keeping the kitchen stocked with "nosh" food like cheese and olives and bread and fruit is a good way to go for those nights when I have no time, but it should be noted that those things are considerably more expensive than the crap you throw in the microwave.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 02:37:31 PM EST
but it should be noted that those things are considerably more expensive than the crap you throw in the microwave.

aaargh. Think about how much money one spends on a prepackaged meal. Think how much money one actually spends on a meal of bread and cheese. Let's say the prepackaged meal will cost on average five dollars. The bread and cheese - a dollar worth of bread and a third of a pound of cheese at $12/lb will cost the same amount. Or do a basic pasta sauce. Butter and parmesan with some dried herbs thrown in, maybe a bit of cream - cheaper than your prepackaged meal. The parm might give you sticker shock when you buy it, but it'll last for many meals.  Lots more of that sort of stuff that can be done. If you actually calculate how much you're spending per meal you'll find it's generally cheaper or no more expensive to cook than to buy prepared food. That's especially true if you understand which 'luxury' food items make a major difference in small amounts. Dried porcini, good quality anchovies (mince one and it will enrich most meat based dishes without leaving any of its own taste), capers, prosciutto, good quality bacon, good quality cheese, high end broth concentrate (or make a lot on your own and ice cube it - one batch will last for months), good quality preserved sardines or tuna.

There are also meals like braises and stews that take a while to cook, but give days worth of good meals - also no more expensive. And that's another way of dealing with the problem of really not having the energy to prepare food - routinely cook larger amounts when you're doing stuff that will keep well in the freezer, then use them when you're tired.

Plus my generation was raised by those feminists who refused to cook out of spite </snark> and so learning to cook isn't something all girls are taught before their honeymoon, ya know?

 But us boys raised by feminist moms who didn't mind cooking got the benefits of that ;)  

by MarekNYC on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 03:07:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And how often do you spend cooking each night?  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 03:42:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I presume you mean 'how much time'. It varies from what I think of as none at all - reheat something while possibly cooking some starch to go with it or bread and cold cuts and/or cheese - to hours. I generally make two good quality meals per week with at least one of them meant to last 2-3 days, one of my quick standbys that take between half an hour and one hour to cook. The quality meals can take anywhere from an hour to many hours, with the latter generally, but not always, working out cheaper.

But I'll admit, I generally like cooking and I like food shopping in a good store or market. It's a form of relaxation for me most of time.  That's as opposed to other household chores which I experience as anything from mildly annoying to mental torture.

by MarekNYC on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 03:54:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree that cooking is relaxing. I used to spend more time cooking, and do it more often, when I was a student, and I miss it.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 04:09:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But I'll admit, I generally like cooking and I like food shopping in a good store or market. It's a form of relaxation for me most of time.


Once you know what you're doing, you can generally prepare a reasonably complex meal in about two hours. And the leftovers from that meal, properly refrigerated, will last two or three days for a family of four. If you've planned your meals well, you'll be able to prepare it differently each day with under 30 minutes of actual work. If you're on your own, you can do that in even less, and the food will last the better part of a week.

And it tastes better.

I'm actually unable to eat most convenience foods due to food allergies.

by Egarwaen on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 04:13:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd say my cooking habits are just about the same as yours.  Although I take the leftovers for lunch rather than leaving them for dinner, and can never get 3 meals out of anything...

And I love cooking and shopping.  Actually, I like the preparing more than the actual cooking, standing over the stove...

(Yes, that bizzare sentence is what happens when I rephrase a question mid-sentence and don't hit "preview.")

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 04:37:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't see what the problem is, other that the high probability that the product will be inedible garbage.

Personally, I hate cooking. It seems like a complete waste of time (just like blogging). If I can get a pre-cooked ham or chicken and eat it with a microwaved potato, what exactly is the problem? Where do you draw the line? Don't pre-slaughtered meat, or pre-picked corn, or pre-dried-and-imported salt count as convenience foods? My grandfather grew everything he ate. It took 100% of his time and meals were bland because so many interesting ingredients were too inconvenient to obtain.

by asdf on Fri May 19th, 2006 at 06:47:43 PM EST
I have no ideological problem with prepared food. To the extent that I eat stuff that's good for me - very little junk food or standard fast food and as much organic as I can afford - it's because it's what I like, not for health reasons. I'm also wary of the call for regulation for health reasons - give people information and let them decide - I want my unpasteurized cheese and traditionally manufactured uncooked hams and sausages, and if others want their chemical laced processed foods that's their problem.

It's just that the cheap stuff tastes terrible and the decent stuff costs a fortune. I also find that people badly overestimate the amount of time and money it takes to cook perfectly good meals - the equivalent of the good, expensive prepared food can be done quite quickly for very little money. Plus for those days when you don't feel you need a hot meal, bread with cold cuts or cheese isn't really much of an effort.

I can understand someone who hates cooking not doing it - the tradeoff of either eating crap or spending a fortune might work out well for you. Just like I understand that my hatred of picking up after myself and cleaning my apartment means that I live in a messy one.

PS microwaving potatoes doesn't make much sense. It does get done faster, but the actual preparation time for either boiling or baking a potato is the same, and it tastes better - they're not meant to be steamed from the inside out.

by MarekNYC on Sat May 20th, 2006 at 12:27:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]