One tiring day, you are in no mood to cook but have a ravenous family waiting for a good meal. Your eyes settle on the RTE food packets lined up on the shelves in the food section of the departmental store. You reach to grab a couple of those but then stop as you are not sure if it is the right thing to do. Several doubts crowd your mind. Is this product safe? Hygienic? Nutritious? So how do you decide whether or not to use a RTE food product? Is it really safe or unsafe?  To know this it is important to understand what exactly “RTE food” is.

What is RTE Food?

Packaged RTE can be generally defined as pre-cooked food packed in suitable material, and requires no additional cooking and minimal preparation like heating or rehydrating with warm water to make it ready for consumption. Though RTE is a broader term, this topic is about packaged RTE in specific. Various other terms used for RTE are convenience food, instant meals, ready meals and ready to serve food, among others.

An outline of the preparation process

Methods used in the manufacture of RTE meals depend among many factors on, the nature of the food (dry or wet product),vegetarian or non vegetarian food ,the purported end product-that is if the food just requires heating before it can be consumed or if it has to rehydrated, the intended shelf life and so on.  The general process can be summarized as follows:

  • The raw ingredients are cleaned and diced into appropriate sizes,
  • Based on the recipe, the raw materials are mixed in different proportions and cooked accordingly at ambient temperatures
  • Required spices are added to the product which gives it flavor and consistency
  • According to the requirement of the purported product, specialized techniques like freeze drying, retort sterilization, etc are used to stabilize the food quality and elongate it’s shelf life.
  • By use of filling machines a predetermined amount of the finished product is filled into pre-designed individual packing containers which could be retort pouches, cans, tins, mylar bags etc.
  • Random samples from each batch are tested for quality control
  • Then the individual packs are thermally sealed and labeled

The main purpose of using a specialized food processing technique and use of the above mentioned packing containers is to ensure that the product has an extended shelf life. One must ensure that there are no Preservatives in the food.

Advantages of RTE food

  • Saves time and effort that goes into cooking, conveniently suiting the busy schedule of the modern generation
  • Portable and non cumbersome, available in easy to carry packs.
  • Available throughout the year at reasonable prices
  • If the manufacturer follows the set standards and rules laid by the government, then is quite safe to consume.

 Disadvantages of RTE food

  • Chemical Preservatives which can be harmful
  • High salt content which according to medical reports leads to many health problems like heart ailments, high BP and kidney associated ailments
  • Taste and freshness of the food is debatable
  • Use of certain packaging materials can cause damage to health and environment.

How to choose a RTE food wisely

  • Read the food labels completely to see if the nutritional value is of requisite amount.
  • Avoid food which has trans fats and high amounts of salt or sugar
  • Read the list of ingredients carefully. If you do not understand any of the ingredients or it sounds like a chemical, you should avoid it even though it is approved by the food safety authority.
  • Foods preserved by freeze drying methods are safer and conserve the taste and freshness of the food better.
  • Try avoiding as much as those RTE foods which have chemical preservatives like sulfites, BHA, sodium benzoates and nitrites.
  • Foods which have natural preservatives like ascorbic acid, citric acid, vinegar (acetic acid) are better options.
  • Always check the date of expiry. Never buy an expired product
  • Check the seal of the package.
  • Never buy a puffed packet as puffing is one of the indications of spoilage of the contents inside
  • Read the manufacturer’s instructions on reheating or rehydrating the food before consumption and follow the same strictly.
  • It is always better to consume an opened packet in one go , even if the instructions say otherwise.

Choose wisely according to your convenience

Weighing the merits and demerits it can be concluded that occasional use of RTE food need not be unsafe provided that we as consumers are aware of the important factors that we have to consider when we choose a product. Given the tight schedule that people follow in today’s modern era, use of RTE food is obviously convenient. So the next time when you reach for a packaged RTE food, read the labels, weigh your options and choose wisely to suit your convenience.