In the food industry, there's always a new "enemy" that consumers want us to dispatch. In the 1980s, it was fat. In the 1990s, it was sugar. In the last decade, we have at various times been tasked with getting rid of trans-fats, carbs, gluten and now preservatives.
So in the face of constantly shifting consumer demands, how can food companies develop innovative foods that stay ahead of expectations? We have one word for you: research.
Know about the next super-ingredient before your competition does.
Thirty years ago, who would have thought that kale production would have become the industry that it has? What American consumer, in the 1990s, had any clue what stevia is? Did you eat much quinoa or drink much kombucha earlier this decade?
But someone along the way had to realize the potential value of these food products, then figure out a way to market them on a mass scale. The best path to developing innovative foods lies in increasing top-line research and development funding.
The burden of funding such research is increasingly being placed on private enterprise. Whereas a few decades ago, much agricultural and food development was funded, in the West, by governments— through ag extension programs, public research universities and the like— a 2014 study by researchers at Oxford found that public spending on food research is falling in developed countries even as the world faces increasing uncertainty about its ability to meet nutritional demand.
Food R&D isn't based on solid nutrition— it's based on solid nutri-lytics and consumer modeling.
International soda and snack food giant PepsiCo, for example, increased its R&D spend 25 percent between 2011 and 2014. The company opened a new R&D hub in Shanghai— its largest outside North America— in addition to its extant food development facilities in the United States, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom.
According to PepsiCo, its investments are paying off. It touts a recent uptick in success in the US consumer market, including having brought to market nine of the top 50 new food and beverage products in 2013.
It eliminated 402,000 metric tons of added sugar from its drinks and simultaneously reduced 3,900 metric tons of sodium in its snack foods. To do so, the company spent a great deal of effort and cash on searching for alternative, natural ingredients.
Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo executive VP and chief scientific officer, sees parallels between the rapid development of new food products and astounding leaps made, in recent years, in the consumer electronics market— the pace, he intimated, is nearly breakneck.
“We can see things now we didn’t see a year ago because the technology wasn’t available,” he said.
Getting out of the development kitchen and into the field.
One of the reasons PepsiCo believes it has been so successful of late is that it intentionally looked outside the food industry to bring in new talent.
The company has focused on hiring researchers with agronomical, medical and physiological science backgrounds, instead of making more traditional hires of nutritionists, chefs and chemists. Khan himself, for example, came from Minnesota's venerable Mayo Clinic, where he headed up Diabetes, Endocrine and Nutritional Trials.
It is that kind of out-of-the-kitchen thinking that could help many food companies to get ahead. As consumers— and even governments— become increasingly concerned with health and wellness and demand that the food industry shift away from unrecognizable preservatives, the pressure is on to find more (and better) solutions in nature.
To that end, PepsiCo has dispatched teams of researchers to far-flung locations, to "find various indigenous plants that are inherently sweet or salty, have fatty characteristics, are naturally sourced preservatives and could be useful in many product categories," it stated in a release.
“There are a lot of clues that nature gives you,” Khan said. “What’s interesting to me in the past couple of years is the merging of biology and chemistry and analytical technology that has opened up more applications with the potential to create more new products in our innovation pipeline. It’s exciting.”
Innovative foods are waiting to be discovered. But if you are not investing enough in R&D and consumer analytics, you're going to find yourself behind the competitive curve.