What is special about the meals that have been developed is that the ingredients have not been preprocessed, with the exception of pasta and rice. The meat, fish and vegetables are raw and taste very good after a quick trip through the microwave oven.
The Norwegian participants in the EU Double Fresh project have concentrated on two meals. One is a chicken dish consisting of a whole chicken breast, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, precooked rice and sauce. The other is a salmon dish consisting of salmon fillet, cauliflower, carrots, beans, precooked pasta and sauce. Both meals are about 500g in weight.
Fit the bill
These are healthy products. There is no added salt and they contain little fat. These are pure, natural products and the researchers have made sure they have used raw materials of high quality and with little delay between slaughter and processing. Since these meals were also praised by more than a hundred consumers, there is good reason to be satisfied.
"Right at the beginning of the project, we checked out the interest in producing and selling this type of meal among the industry and the retail trade. This was good background knowledge for others in the project when they started product development," explains Nina Veflen Olsen.
"When we had arrived at the two ready meal concepts, we observed five families, to see how they prepared the meals and whether they liked them. Then more than a hundred people got to try out the two meals in their kitchens at home. They collected the meals from Nofima Mat, together with a questionnaire. The feedback was overwhelming," explains Research Scientist Nina Veflen Olsen.
Shelf life to succeed
Over the course of the project period, the meals have been tested so often that we can say with certainty that they have a shelf life of 12 days at a temperature of 4 degrees.
"That is very good! In the Netherlands, for example, meals of this type have a shelf life of 5 to 6 days. That means that up to 20% of ready-to-cook products in the Netherlands have to be thrown away or sold at reduced price. From an environmental perspective, achieving twice the shelf life is important," says Oddvin Sørheim, who has been one of the main researchers in the Double Fresh project.
One of the reasons why a 12 day shelf life has been achieved is that a lingonberry marinade has been used for the chicken. This has been done to kill the bacteria that naturally occur on the surface of the meat.
"The meat lies in a lingonberry marinade for about 10 minutes. This has proved to be effective, in that we have managed to lessen the bacterial growth on the outside of the meat that can cause it to spoil. Because the chicken breast spends such a short time in the marinade, it leaves little or no taste on the meat. The only feedback we have got from the consumers is that the lingonberries give the chicken a redder colour," explains Sørheim.
Balancing the packaging is an art
During the project a number of different gas mixtures using oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen were tested. The gas mixture in the packaging must be delicately balanced. Vegetables breathe, so the cover needs to have small holes or perforations. But too much oxygen is far from ideal for the meat and fish.
"The top film cannot let in too much oxygen, because that would affect the quality of the meat. After much testing, we have found the correct balance, which safeguards the quality and the shelf life of all the ingredients. We have also had good results with a steam valve that opens automatically when the inside of the pack heats up in the microwave," explains Oddvin Sørheim.
Hoping the industry takes it up
None of the Norwegian industry partners that have taken part in the Double Fresh project have plans to market the products at the moment.
"There were two reasons why we wanted to take part in this project. One was to improve the products we already have on the market, the other was with the idea of developing new products. We have gained a lot from being part of it and the project has brought us a lot of new knowledge and important contacts. But there are still many challenges involved in the production and logistics of products with such a short shelf life," says Knud Søyland of Fjordland.
The researchers at Nofima Mat would like consumers to find these meals on the market soon and hope that other Norwegian companies will make use of the results of the Double Fresh project.
"We really believe there is a place in the market for these products as fast, healthy meals. The consumer testing has shown us this," say Sørheim and Veflen Olsen in unison.
Many development possibilities
The groundwork has been done. Even though the EU project is reaching its end, there is still work to be done and Sørheim and Veflen Olsen have had some thoughts about what direction it should take.
"There are some good possibilities for developing the concept further - marination with berries for example. It might also be interesting to check out interest for these meals in the catering market," says Oddvin Sørheim.
Fjordland is already involved in a new EU project through Nofima Mat.
"We are interested in every topic that affects us and we are very happy to take part in development projects like Double Fresh," says Knud Søyland.