India’s food craving shifts to “out of the box” experience

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Packaged food may not be what the doctor would order for anybody, but the demand for nutritious meals that can be bought straight out of the box is seeing a spike in India.

Forced to stay at home for months, rich urban consumers are eating such packaged meals—especially traditional Indian food items—like never before.

After a drop of 20% in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, sales volumes have recovered in the third quarter (Oct-Dec) to nearly the same levels as prior to Covid, Hemant Malik, chairman of the food processing committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) told the India Food World conference on Wednesday.

Latest industry survey shows that the richest urban consumers have started relying on processed food for nearly a third of their food needs, Malik said. In comparison, other urban consumers get only 12% of their nutrition from out of a box, while rural consumers depend on them for only 9%. 

The trend in greater consumption of packaged food among the richer people comes as manufacturers have started offering healthier meal options.

Eating better at home

“Since the spending on travel and shopping has gone down, it has allowed people to spend more on health and wellness and food at home,” said Mohit Anand, managing director at Kellogg’s India and South Asia.

“We are not eating less, but eating at home. People are experimenting with food. We have seen a lot of that consumption going up,” he added.

Even after the movement curbs are removed completely, the hybrid work culture—where people alternate between from home and office—will likely remain for a long time, Anand said. Hence, the trend for better packaging will only grow, he added.

“There is a challenge of diabetes and obesity on one hand and on the other a large part of India suffers from malnutrition. In both the aspects, there has not been much improvement, Malik, who is also the CEO of ITC Ltd’s foods division, said.

He highlighted that 50-60% of India’s population remains iron deficient. “These are important areas where processed food manufacturers can work.”

More than a third of the world’s malnutritioned children live in India, while the country ranks only next to China for those with diabetes. High blood pressure is one of the biggest causes of premature deaths in the country.

Surge in demand for branded foods

The pandemic has already nudged more people to consume food products from well-known brands more because they are seen to be safer and healthier options, said Richa Arora, president of packaged foods, Tata Consumer Products Ltd.

Since there are greater risks of more pandemic-like outbreaks in the future, people are likely to increasingly switch to better food items to boost their immunity, she added. “With the prolonged stay at home, people have got used to making meals at home which are more nutritious.”

Already, traditional Indian food items such as tamarind to branded spices and meals such as Poha  (flattened rice) are seeing aresurgence in demand, she added.

Manoj Joshi, additional secretary at the Ministry of Food Processing, urged industry participants to strengthen the food supply chain starting from cold chains and warehouses to meet the growing demand. He said the opportunity should be seen as a larger one, which can help farmers as well as other workers.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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