In an increasingly globalised world the assertion of traditional food choices is a forceful expression of national pride. The Japanese have their noodles, the Koreans their sea-weed and now the Indian diaspora their Haldirams. Today, India is recognized as one of the largest snack-food markets in the world. With an organized market of M1,530 crore which represents just a tenth of the humungous 3,00,000 tonne unorganised market, snack foods in India represent a huge business opportunity.
There is a popular jingle for a well known brand of mouth freshner which goes ‘Mooh mein Rajnigandha, kadamo mein duniya.’ (Rajnigandha in my mouth, the world at my feet.) This unambiguous expression of national pride in our traditional food represents a kind of reawakening in urban Indian society and more particularly among the NRI diaspora about everything that is desi and asserts the ancient wisdom of which we are all proud.
Such is the force of this resurgence that it can even be said to find expression in our food choices and our snacking preferences in addition to our choices of music, film, art, personal care and clothing (especially festive or wedding) products. This assertion of desi-pride (and therefore a preference for our habitual methods and tastes) by global Indians, NRIs, offshore workers and students travelling abroad on prolonged stays is considered to be responsible for the recent takeoff of the ready-to-eat market for precooked Indian food.
Packaged convenience food with (almost) authentic home-cooked flavours and entrée-on-the-go has captured the imagination of large swathes of the Indian market as well as around the world. Mohan Babu in www.garamchai.com refers to, “A wide assortment of desi-brands line store shelves even in the UK and US. Food-preservation and packaging technology developed by the military (called MREs: Meals Ready to Eat) has been successfully adopted to freeze and microwave even crispy dosas, samosas and vadas. Brands like Deep Foods, Haldirams and Shalini Foods have really been at the forefront of innovation, adopting many of the emerging technologies in processing and packaging foods. Amul has been similarly innovative in packaging Ghee that it is best known for, along with Gulab Jamuns and Rasgullas in heat-and-eat packs.”
Datamonitor refers to the ‘Changing Snacking Preferences’ of Indian consumers. (http://www.indiafoodbrief.com —“Do-you-have-the-new-knack-to-snack?”) In a recent consumer insight report based on a national survey it points out that, “Apart from the fact that snacking is an occasional indulgence, the difference in the consumer perception between fragmented meals and inbetween meal snacks is fast blurring, and therefore presents several new opportunities for novel product concepts and the emergence of new snacking categories.” This demand for new snacking categories with more nutrition and novelty could be said to be the result of a gradual shift in urban Indians’ dietary regime, from the rigid ‘three square meals a day’ system to convenience-led, smaller portions through the day.
According to a report by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), “A phenomenal 1,000 snack items are sold in India spanning various tastes, forms, textures, aromas, bases, sizes, shapes and fillings. Some 300 types of savouries sell here and the overall snack product market (inclusive of sweetmeats) is estimated at H25,000 crore. While savouries are expected to grow at 6% annually, sweetmeats are registering growth rates of 7%. The average annual per capita consumption of commercial savoury snacks is just 500 grams and its consumption by urbanites is 10 times more than that by rural consumers.”
The APEDA report adds that, “Consumers from Western India are the leading snack consumers, followed by the North. Another interesting observation is that no clear trend exists on the income-wise per capita consumption of snacks. However, the most significant aspect of the survey is this — While the domestic ethnic snack foods industry is hugely diverse, has easy access to indigenous technology and involves low entry barriers, standardisation of product quality and backward links to testing facilities are at woefully low levels. Naturally, opportunity is screaming from the rooftops.”
“This is the Third Phase of the evolution of the salted savouries (namkeens) market in India,” according to KP Sareen, executive secretary, All India Food Processors’ Association. The first two, he says, dealt with the development and nurturing of tastes respectively.
What better evidence of this aptly termed Third Phase of Evolution can there be than the recent conceptualisation and launch of the brand Aliva? With the Aliva launch Frito-Lay India has aimed to create a new segment, a new category of great tasting baked savoury crackers. The Aliva product range has been developed in India, specifically for the Indian consumer. Apart from the chatpata Indian flavours (toasted wheat and lentil with Pindi Masala, Tomato and Roasted Spices like Curry Leaf, black pepper and red chilly) even the biscuit shape has been specially designed by Tata Elxsi to resemble the ubiquitous Indian samosa. Frito-Lay claims it to be a step towards the company’s journey of portfolio transformation to provide healthier and tasty snacking options in line with evolving consumer needs.
Frito-lay is not alone in this quest for portfolio transformation. Several other new products by ITC (Bingo), Haldirams (Whoopies) and Frito-Lay’s own well known and more than a decade-old Punjabi-rajma flavoured Kurkure, serve as examples of this quest for ethnic novelty. Given the largely unorganised and fragmented nature of the snack industry the same transformative quest runs deep into the industry and finds expression not only at the national brand level but also at regional and local levels.
During a recent trip around Gujarat for the India Package Meet, I happened to meet Mr Vijay Shah, President of the Vadodra Chapter of AIFPA and CEO of Petals. He is a Consultant for Processed Food and offers a range of food industry related services — see www.petals.net. I asked him a few questions about the abundance of ethnic Gujarati snacks in evidence all over Gujarat nowadays.
Deepak Manchanda: Several types of traditional, ethnic Indian (or Gujarati) snacks are available nowadays on the shelves. What is the cause of this and what prevented it from happening earlier?
Vijay Shah: The reasons for this would be — Change in consumption habits. Informed choices of ethnic versus junk food. Acceptance of Indian traditional, ethnic products in international market. Balance of nutrition in the ethnic products as compared to fusion products. Awareness of the advantages as compared to past advertisement campaigns on radio/TV/. New advertising has impacted consumer minds for going with this kind of food.
DM: Are there any specific obstacles/innovations needed to establish recipes for ethnic foods and their packaging?
VS: Standardisation of parameters of raw materials, including the packaging that has to be used in these products are some of the obstacles.
DM: To what extent is it possible to standardise the recipes and products considering that these are traditional foods often made by skilled cooks without any modern documentation?
VS: One does not require skill. The recipes can be standardised, systematised and process controls can be established with SOPs for all the products. Manufacturers are geared up for this nowadays. The supplier has to gear up for this demand, and provide the RM, consumables, and packing details as per the standard requirements.
DM: What is the shelflife objective and does the limitation of short shelf-life impose any restrictions on the sales distribution?
VS: No. With the advancement of technology and various mediums to serve these products, shelflife can be sustained. For example. freezing technology, freeze drying, nitrogen flushing, retort, canning, vacuuming the products amongst other techniques. Specific standard packaging is needed to retain the shelflife of different types of ethnic Indian products. Khakhara needs a vacuum pack whereas other types of snacks need nitrogen flushing; pickles need a PET bottle to retain aroma and flavour.
DM: What degree of automation and scalability is possible while making ethnic foods? Does it demand a high level of machinery innovation to make it successful?
VS: Nowadays 100% automation is impossible. But semi-automation is the reality in practical terms. With R&D initiatives by machine manufacturers, more and more automation keeps coming in. Also, these ethnic products require indigenous machines and customisation — as processes vary from product to product. At the same time, these days you will not find a single thing that is 100% handmade. Support from all the machinery manufactures, packaging experts and designers is needed to develop semi automatic processes as needed and these can be tailormade for the requirements depending only on the size and scale of the operation and the particular items.
DM: Is there any other observation or incident you would like to share with our readers about packaging of ethnic food?
VS: Packaging plays an important role in the marketing of ethnic snacks and makes them easily available in the market. Proper packaging is the key to put these products in the market and make them marketable. For example, nowadays ethnic biscuits which are popularly called Khari are available in super stores and malls in fancy packs. This adds to their shelflife at the same time adding value and making the product saleable in global markets too.
DM: Is there any difficulty in procurement or availability of packaging for ethnic foods? Does it impose tougher conditions on packaging performance?
VS: No. There is no longer any difficulty in procuring the most suitable, worldclass, packaging material for ethnic Indian snacks. Gone are the days when laminate converters had pigeons roosting inside the factory rafters or the workers eating their lunch while sitting on rolls of finished, printed laminate. Several leading suppliers of laminates and other packaging material for food and pharma go to great lengths to ensure compliance with hygienic standards inside the factory. HACCP Certification of packaging plants is not uncommon. The entire supply chain, from design to materials, to ink and solvents, to converting plants and delivery has begun to align itself with the highest standards in food packaging. Packaging design, even of locally produced regional brands like Mr Puff Khari Biscuits or Real Farralli Chiwda mix can be observed to be of the highest class. No wonder, Maniarrs is a thriving brand of Khakhara (Gujarati snack) that claims to successfully make “three Khakharas at every tick of the clock” and has till date made 4 million kilograms of Khakharas in a 100% export oriented unit with a capacity to produce 5,000 kilograms of Khakharas per day. (http://www.maniarrs.com/packaging.php). This unit, located on the outskirts of Rajkot claims to have a capacity to employ as many as 2,000 women to produce handmade Khakharas in a hygienic, insect free environment that is registered with the US FDA.
Similarly, Ruchi (http://www.ruchifoods.com/products.php) offers a wide range of authentic Indian snacks based on traditional home recipes and made on modern machinery. The range includes perennial favorites like Muruku, Chakalu, Laddu and several namkeen (salty) mixtures.
Vegit is another brand that has carried the business to the next level by introducing Instant Snack Mixes for the HORECA/Food Service category of businesses. (http://www.vegit-merino.com/content/about_sm.html) The mixes are produced in an ISO 9001:14001 and HACCP certified plant and offers recipes developed by thefamous culinary expert, Nita Mehta. Convenient packs, as small as 1 kilogram offer a choice of snack mixes from Jhatpat Tikki, Mazedar Aloo Bonda to Pav Bhaji.
The Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese all take their traditional snacks with them as they do business around the world. Roasted seaweed, flax and melon seeds, and a wide variety of pot noodles are already popular all over the world. Today the Indian snack food market has also reached an impressive value of about H1,530 crore. This makes it one of the largest markets for snack food in the world. In spite of its size, the organised market for snack foods in India is estimated to be 10 times smaller than the un-organised maket — 3,00,000 tonnes! (http://www.thehindubusinessline.in/2000/06/15/stories/111502c1.htm)
According to a projection cited by Indrajit Basu, an equity analyst from Kolkata (Asia Times Online) “by 2020 no Americans are likely to cook starting from basic ingredients. They will either use ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat food. India is already reported to export about US$ 7 million worth readymade Indian food (in 2004) and the business is growing at around 20% a year.”
Clearly, Indian namkeens are poised to cross international boundaries in a huge way. While Haldiram’s continues to be the only national level brand, several other cash rich biscuit majors such as Britannia and Bakemans are scrambling to get there.
In addition to worldclass design, pricing, material selection, quality control, advertising and transportation need to be managed carefully. Looking forward ethnic Indian snack packaging is a huge opportunity. Imaginative Indian entrepreneurs can surely look ahead to (if we may borrow the Rajnigandha jingle again) having the snacking world at their feet and in their mouths, what else but chana, chiwda and chai!
This above article was originally published in September 2011 in the print issue of Packaging South Asia.