The food industry thrives on innovation. Without constantly reimagining or making foods better, the industry gets static. Meeting consumers’ needs with new innovative products is the key to sales and longevity. Understanding what consumers are looking for is a vital piece of food innovation.
The Role of Nutrition in Food Product Innovation
Trend surveys indicate that consumers are concerned about and focused on foods that provide health benefits in addition to taste. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) predicts that with the recent focus on health during Covid and the aging of the baby boomer, more consumers are looking for “the Plus” of extra nutrition in a product. 1
Consumers are searching for foods with added protein, vitamins, better types of fat, or even a boost from probiotics and antioxidants. Those trends lead food companies to develop new products or shift current products to achieve “the Plus.”
Innovation in the food industry involves:
- Focusing on the desired change
- Executing the change without negatively impacting taste
- Maintaining a cost that consumers will accept
Food and ingredient companies often collaborate on food innovation since some improvements occur in the nutritional quality of the ingredient and others in how ingredients come together in the final product.
The Crossroads of Technology, Nutrition, and Food Product Innovation
The use of technology in food product development has allowed for many advances in terms of nutrient content. For example, food fortification adds nutrients to foods to increase their nutritional value. That makes it easier for people to consume nutrients that they might not otherwise eat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides clear guidance on what foods can be fortified, what nutrients can be added, and how food companies must disclose that information on labels. 2
In addition to fortification, foods that have nutrients removed during the processing of the raw ingredients (especially true with grain products) can add those nutrients back through enrichment. Enrichment of grains means adding back iron, thiamin, folate, niacin, and riboflavin to the product. The nutrient profile then reflects the grain in its original state.
While enrichment and fortification are standard techniques used to boost nutritional content, other technology can also help provide “the Plus” consumers search for in their foods. Techniques used in developing plant seeds can change the fat content of oils, boost viability, and provide other benefits. In addition, food production technology removes the lactose in milk for those with lactose intolerance. Other innovations include gluten-free products, plant-based meats, dairy-free milk, and many other products to meet the growing needs of consumers.
One of the challenges food companies face is knowing when to respond to a consumer interest versus seeing the interest as a fleeting trend. In addition to the focus on health, consumers are conscious of how food, its production, and its packaging, impacts the environment. Sustainability is a big topic for many, but the definition is not always the same. Food companies should survey consumers to determine if their interest is in water or energy use for production or does it tie to packaging or is it about the use of land and the care of animals. Based on how consumers view sustainability food companies can develop products that will meet needs and not just be for short-term. Collaborating with Registered Dietitians who understand consumer needs is another way that food companies can develop a better plan for product development.
A Role for Nutrition Experts in Food Innovation
As consumers look for more healthful, easy food options, the opportunities for new products will grow. As food companies search for ways to meet consumers interests, they should remember to develop new products while educating consumers about their benefits and value. Consumers look for innovation, but they only buy new when they see the value – financial, nutritional, and personal – or when they feel comfortable with the technology used to develop the product.
Collaboration between food companies, registered dietitians, and consumers can help lead to new innovations that meet a need and fit nicely into the food system. One example; a few years ago I collaborated with a Chocolate company – yes chocolate – to develop “better for you chocolates.” The idea was to make chocolate candies that contained ingredients that had research behind them to support potential health benefits. The result was chocolate covered almonds, chocolate covered sunflower seeds, a piece of dark chocolate, and a few other varieties that came together in a box of seven pieces – one for each day of the week. The concept was – enjoy a treat, once per day with potential health benefits. A fun project that yielded a catchy product that consumers felt good about purchasing.
- Institute of Food Technologists. 10 Food Trend Predictions for 2022. https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/digital-exclusives/10-food-trend-predictions-for-2022
- US Dept of HHS, FDA, and CFSAP. Questions and Answers on FDA’s Fortification Policy Guidance for Industry (2015) https://www.fda.gov/media/94563/download
About Connie – Connie is a Registered Dietitian with extensive experience communicating in the food and nutrition space. Taking the science of food and nutrition and translating it to simple messages, new products, or exciting menus is her expertise. Making nutrition messages clear, accurate, and engaging aids all consumers.