CHICAGO — The rapid pace of change in technology and consumer preferences is having a dramatic effect on food and beverage ingredient research and development. Product developers are embracing new tools to keep up with food and beverage companies that are demanding innovative ideas and faster product development cycles.
“The pace in which technology is changing is impacting all aspects of R&D,” said Cindy Stewart, global cultures and food protection technology and innovation leader for DuPont Nutrition & Health, and president of the Institute of Food Technologists. “We are faced with balancing the needs of the consumer here in the US and the consumer from around the globe. We have big challenges and still must provide safe products that taste good.
“We are seeing rapid developments in digital technology, artificial intelligence, big data and bioinformatics. These are giving us more and more tools. What is exciting is this new frontier of digital technology tools, which can help us understand the complexity of food.”
Adding to the complexity of the product development process is consumer demand for ingredients that are perceived as natural.
“Today, 75 percent to 80 percent of new products contain natural colors, but only about a third of the market is natural colors,” said Paul Manning, chief executive officer of Sensient Technologies, Milwaukee. “We’re seeing brands that have been around for many, many years using more natural ingredients.”
Manning finds his business at an intersection between meeting the need for ingredients perceived as natural and embracing new technologies that allow the company to grow and expand. In early July, Sensient acquired Mazza Innovation Ltd., Vancouver, BC, a plant-extraction company.
“They have a total water-based extraction process,” he said. “We’ve been using that technology in our cosmetic business, and it has applicability for natural colors using only water. Same thing for flavors or extracts that use (a) water extraction process.”
Manning predicted that more plant extracts will be used as a part of flavor development due to the ingredients’ favorable label declaration.
“For example, we’re seeing extracts as the flavor or an element of the flavor,” he said. “What is really neat about it is you can have traceability from seed to the shelf. It really bolsters the product, the supply chain. It offers a nice label, a clean label with an ingredient from an entirely natural product.”
Being faster and better
A key component of the product development process is developing insights about consumer interests and expectations to create differentiated products. Today, the ubiquity of information makes developing such insights a challenge.
“Everything is available at the tip of your fingers,” said Maggie Harvey, new product development manager at Mizkan America Inc., Mount Prospect, Illinois. “In some cases, it means everyone has access to the same information. That means we have to be faster getting to market.”
Juliet Greene, corporate chef with Mizkan America, said rapid ideation is the norm today.
“We don’t have 18-month development cycles anymore,” she said.
Adding to the pressure is consumer and manufacturer demand for transparency.
“People are asking for faster development times, but they also require documentation,” Harvey said. “In some cases, we are sending more documentation, sometimes 20 or 30 documents.”
Stewart sees advances in data technology helping alleviate some of the pressures from more rapid development cycles.
“Is it challenging, for example, to continue to develop natural antimicrobial products that can play a larger role in ensuring a safe, sustainable food supply?” she said. “The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’
“And this brings us the opportunity in this ingredient space, and others, to be creative and find innovative solutions. As we continue to build our knowledge and generate data about food and its ingredients, and how they interact in these complex, biological systems, we can continue as well to find the solutions.
“As tools continue to develop, such as whole genome sequencing, systems biology approaches, bioinformatics and other IT tools, they will enable us to bring larger, complex sets of data together, to mine for potential solutions, speeding up the empirical processes we typically employ in the labs.”
Manning said Sensient has adopted a solutions approach to accelerate product development.
“Natural products and natural ingredients tend to be more complex to utilize,” he said. “A compelling part of the offer is we can work at a faster pace for launching, for optimizing natural ingredients. We have found a lot of success with this. It may involve using a natural color with an extract or a natural color with a flavor.”
He added that it is not just larger manufacturers that are seeking faster product development cycles. Smaller, emerging companies have similar expectations.
“They want speed and sophistication,” Manning said. “They don’t believe the normal rules of the industry apply to them. Many of them are very focused on six-month and nine-month cycles.”
Big ideas on the horizon
Innovation is the lifeblood of progress, but progress can have several different definitions. When asked about the biggest change he is seeing in the market, Manning pointed to consumer interest in how a product has been processed.
Consumers want to know “how a product is grown to how it’s received by the customer,” he said. “Does the product contain ingredients that are harmful? Are the (raw materials) grown in such a way the land can be replenished? They (consumers) are interested in the human element of sustainability. Who is growing these crops? Is the labor being compensated fairly? Consumers are changing, and, in some ways, we are seeing the market changing with them.”
Stewart expressed an interest in 3D printing and what the technology may mean for the personalization of health and wellness.
“It’s becoming more and more affordable, allowing for broad use of the technology, from printing parts for machinery, medical applications, to building houses and printing food,” she said. “There is interesting space in the customization and development of ingredients to support this technology, especially when you think about the convergence of health, nutrition, food and medicine.
“Think about our personal devices like the iWatch (also known as the Apple Watch) or an insulin pump. These devices are going to tell us more and more about our health and wellness needs. If you can tie digital technology into translating personalized nutrition needs, then you could utilize 3D printing to create customized food for your specific health and wellness needs. It’s coming. And one day soon, you may be able to 3D print your personalized food at home, or it could be used in restaurants or meal delivery services, for example.”