The ready meals sector is particularly innovative when it comes to new product activity, with creative use of packaging and flavorful creativity with proteins.

A recent Innova Market Insights review of launch activity highlights key product trends; including ongoing interest in healthy options, more authentic-style ethnic recipes, more emphasis on natural, organic and locally-sourced ingredients, and more interest in restaurant-quality products for in-home dining or home entertaining as an alternative to eating out.

Thus, despite the difficult economic situation in some countries, consumers are continuing to buy ready meals, in individual and family-size packs, and even trading up to premium lines, both chilled and frozen, in order to benefit from their convenience while potentially still saving money by using them on some occasions rather than home-delivery, take-out or eat-in restaurant options.

Analyzing tracked U.S. new product launches during 2010 (see Figure 1) found a dominance for the convenience style positioning of “microwaveable” product launches (46.3%). Far more interesting however, is the rise in the number of products positioned on a health platform.

More than 34% of the ready meals tracked in 2010 featured a “no additives/preservatives” claim. With regulatory pressure mounting around artery-clogging trans fats, nearly 20% featured a “no trans” claim. Weight management was also high on the new product development agenda, with 16% featuring a “low fat” claim and nearly 12% positioned on a “weight management” platform. More than 11% of the new products tracked in 2010 had a “wholegrain” claim.

One of the key trends isolated by Innova Market Insights is the still rising levels of interest in spicy and hot products, with common flavors like “Peri Peri” that enjoyed a boost around the World Cup soccer in Africa and hot flavors inspired by Mexican or Asian cuisine.

Flavor trends worldwide find an increased focus on ethnic varieties, with African-style flavors, such as Moroccan on the rise. Innova Market Insights tracked 249 new products featuring the word “Moroccan” from 2009 to 2010, with the UK (73), the U.S. (56), Australia (23), South Africa (14) and New Zealand (13) the main markets featuring the use of this word on new products.

North African and Middle Eastern flavors are increasing in popularity and Ras El Hanout, a complex, aromatic blend of spices with origins in North Africa is one of the flavors tipped for success. Ras El Hanout has a strong, spicy kick and a floral fragrance, and is ideal for use in Moroccan and North African-style starters, sauces and ready meals.

Product activity featuring Ras El Hanout has been low so far, with Innova Market Insights tracking just 31 products from 2005-2010 featuring the ingredient. A clear opportunity exists, and it has been used in the UK in Moroccan-flavored soups, Alfez Ras El Hanout Classic Moroccan Rub and Tesco Finest Ras El Hanout Rub Spice.

Chakalaka is an African-style sauce that enjoyed popularity during the World Cup but continues to be used in new sauces and meat accompaniments; indicating longer-term potential.

For example, in Germany, Schwarmstedter Party Box Potato Pillows features servings of Chakalaka, Tomato Chutney and Jamaican Reggae Filling. The German market included products such as Frosta Chicken Chakalaka Dish and the limited-edition Wiesenhof Chicken Drums with Chakalaka African Spices during 2010.

Asian and other spicy-style flavors are also on the rise in new U.S. meat products. Adding a spicy note to new chicken launches is particularly trendy right now.

Kroger has introduced Asian Inspired Family Favorite Sweet & Sour Tempura Chicken, which features a tangy sauce and is offered in a 30-ounce resealable plastic bag. Kroger’s Healthy Meals Made Simple Sweet and Spicy Chicken with Brown Rice contains boneless chicken breast with rib meat in a tangy sweet and spicy sauce, with brown rice.

Private Selection Seared Thai Red Curry Chicken Breasts consists of two individually wrapped entrees of seared Thai red curry chicken breasts with edamame and shallots.

Market Pantry Honey BBQ Seasoned Wings are fully cooked chicken wing sections coated with honey BBQ seasoning, in a 28-ounce plastic pouch. The products feature natural smoke flavor and added caramel color.

In Europe, the Birds Eye brand has also gone down the spicy route with Chicken Chargrills Peri Peri featuring marinated chunks of chicken breast in a spicy pepper glaze. Birds Eye Mini Chicken Chargrills Sweet Barbecue consists of mini chicken chargrills made with marinated chopped chicken breast, seared and coated with a sweet barbecue glaze.

Several recent on-the-go introductions have incorporated barbecue flavors for a tasty “BBQ smoked” flavor note — Landshire Supreme BBQ Pork Rib Sandwich being one of those products capitalizing on this trend. T.G.I. Fridays Anytime! Sliders: Friday’s Cheeseburger with Sweet & Smoky BBQ Packet Sauce consists of four thick and juicy cheeseburgers with separate packet of sweet and smoky barbecue sauce.

Caribbean flavors are another trend to watch, with Innova Market Insights tracking 143 new products worldwide featuring the word “Caribbean” in 2010. Caribbean flavors convey the relaxed lifestyle for which the region is known, and this may connect with busy consumers.

Innovative launches have included those in the ready meals segment such as Findus Caribbean Ready Meal Fish Fillet, which has begun appearing in Scandinavian markets. In the Netherlands, Heinz brand Honig has launched a new Herb Paste for Caribbean Chicken.

But the UK, with its traditional ties to the Caribbean region, features the highest levels of new product activity using these styles. Launches include Iceland Foods From Around The World Caribbean Chicken with Rice and Very Lazy Caribbean Chicken Cooking Concentrate. Levi Roots, who achieved popularity in the UK following an appearance on BBC entrepreneurial program Dragon’s Den for his Caribbean style sauce, has expanded his line of products with Levi Roots’ Caribbean Hot Chili Beef.

Of course, more traditionally popular styles of cooking such as Italian and Indian are still the leading ethnic-based flavors and are not going away soon. In fact, these flavors are only becoming more region-specific.

New authentic regional dish and flavor specialties are emerging all the time in the Indian flavor space. Tikka, Jalfrezi, Masala and Korma variations are becoming mainstream for a variety of snack, soup and ready meal products. Newer, emerging Indian flavors include Bhuna, Pasanda, Mulligatawny and Karahi. In the U.S., Tandoor Chef Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Infused Basmati Rice consists of chicken breast that is marinated, roasted and simmered in a robust, creamy sauce served with basmati rice. Tandoor Chef has also introduced spicy, roasted chicken wings marinated in an authentic Tandoori sauce. Culinary Circle Complete Skillet Meal For Two Chicken Tikka Masala is a frozen skillet meal for two featuring grilled seasoned chicken with rice and tomato, in a rich Tikka Masala sauce.

Finding the right flavor to go with your protein in a new winning ready meal product could come from an undiscovered regional specialty or a hot and spicy combination to meet the consumer calls for extreme flavors.