A new report published by Zion Research predicts the global fruit and vegetable processing market will grow at an impressive annual rate of 7.9 percent through 2020, reaching a total revenue of $320 billion by that time.

So what's behind this explosive growth projection? Let's take a closer look.

Eating habits have changed significantly in the past decade. Consumers want more nutritious options, but they also want quick, processed meals. However, the term "processed" means more than simply prepackaged food, for today it also includes foods like fruits and vegetables, jams, jellies, juices et al, at a fresher and higher quality. Technological developments and innovation in processing techniques have further aided in the growth.

The term "processed food" is often vilified these days, but when it comes to the fruit and vegetable segment, "processed" has more of a positive connotation. Here it means fresh and healthy products that are well-packaged to preserve their freshness and longevity — products that are easily available in the market.

The growth in the fruit and vegetable processing market is, of course, more evident in developed economies, with North America leading the way. These countries have seen major industrial growth and increasing urbanization. These trends have not only led to higher per capita incomes, but have also resulted in less time for people to buy and cook fresh meals every day.

Rising consumer demand for healthy foods — out of which processed vegetables and fruits cover approximately 52 percent — that need minimum preparation time has fueled the rapid growth of this segment.

Yet even emerging markets are witnessing rapid growth. The developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region have steadily seen a rising demand for processed fruits and vegetables. China and India are leading this market with their huge agricultural production, and their increasing urbanization and disposable incomes.

Another major development that the industry is witnessing is rapid infrastructure development. With increasing exports and investments in the offing, business owners and their investors are keen to grab a larger share of the pie.

The processing method has therefore undergone a sea change and is in fact changing every day. Fresh, fresh-cut, canned, dried, frozen and convenience products pass through semiautomatic and automatic processing equipment. The various stages of washing and dewatering, preprocessing and processing, filling, seasoning and overall packaging all pass through stricter restrictions than before.

Each step of the process is focused on retaining the integrity of the product and increasing shelf life.

Growing consumer awareness has coupled with the need to get their hands on ready-to-cook and ready-to-use products. The result is a whole new range of processed fruit and vegetable products that are wholesome and nutritious.