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Key Takeaways from World Food Innovate Summit

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We're back from the 2019 World Food Innovate Summit and have identified the top takeaways and trends for the industry. We do know one thing for certain: the future of food is in the hands of a new generation of innovators. 

Disruption and technology were the key topics on the agenda for global food companies at the World Food Innovate Summit. Speakers touched on all facets of new product development, from consumer-led innovation to trends driving the shape of future innovations.

Future Food Leaders: Scientists and Engineers

Today’s most talked about disruptive food companies are spear-headed by data and food scientists. Keynote speakers included Dairush Ajami, Chief Innovation Officer at US-based meat-free company, Beyond Meat and Tim Finnigan, Chief Scientific Adviser at Quorn Foods whose professional experiences stem in bio-med and food science. Innovators like Darius and Tim are putting food through the microscope, dissecting ingredients at a molecular level to produce a new generation of foods such as the Beyond Burger that excel in their ability to firstly, mimic the texture of meat and secondly, to match consumer desire around health, taste, texture and nutritional preference.

The response has been overwhelming for their meat-free products. UK’s leading retailer, Tesco now has 31 SKUs for meat alternatives on their online store, offering much greater diversity than a few years ago.

Alternatives for Plant-based  

A takeaway from the summit was that these new innovators are increasingly concentrating into the meat-free space.

Plant-based companies like Quorn and Beyond Meat are trying to dispel the perception that plant-based is nutritionally inferior to meat and taste inferior too. 10 years ago, we saw plant-based products exiled to penalty zones in supermarkets where only consumers following diets like vegan or vegetarian would actively search these products out. Today the story is quite different thanks to a new generation of plant-based producers.

For Quorn, their priority was to change consumer perception that meat is essential for muscle growth given that their target consumers are athletes and gym goers. They ran a study with Exeter University comparing muscle growth of individuals on meat versus Quorn for three months and found there was no difference in the amount of muscle growth. Substantiating claims with third-party-led market research has been a key strategy to credibility for the company.

Companies like Quorn are looking to re-position their products from ‘alternatives’ to ‘replacements’ by competing for the attention of meat-eaters directly in the meat aisle. Technology has been central to the development of these products.

Beyond Meat are using gas chromatography, a chemical process used to analyse and separate molecules for their products. Chilean meat-free start-up, Not. Co has turned to Artificial Intelligence algorithms to map the pattern of food molecules. Their aim is to provide a direct substitute for meat that competes in terms of nutrition, taste, texture, visual appeal, colour that consumers will turn to especially given their better environmental credentials. If consumers are offered products that taste as good as beef burgers but have a lower environmental impact and animal-friendly, why wouldn’t they choose them?

There are clear signs of success of new innovators in plant-based space in developed markets. Companies like Beyond Meat have successfully been able to transform consumer behaviour and disrupt the meat-free space. Plant-based has gone mainstream but plant-based companies have excelled by winning meat eaters as their main audience.

Consumer-centric Brands Will Win

Consumer empowerment can transform a declining brand to a growing one. Another important takeaway message from the summit was that innovations should create value for consumers and there may be a lesson for big food to be learned here.

The presentation by Danone on rejuvenating the kids' category in Egypt highlighted the importance of knowing your audience and their preferences. Marketing kids yoghurts to moms don’t make sense if the end product doesn’t appeal to children. Connecting to consumers early on in research and development can help to establish the market potential for a brand.

Britvic’s Head of Technical Insights, Halakh Parikh, pointed out that success isn’t just about changing consumer behaviour, but also changing corporate behaviour stating that eight out of 10 companies often validate products just before launch when there is little room to make adjustments. Ultimately, companies need to connect with consumers early on in R&D but first, they will need to re-think their approaches to product development.

Final Thoughts

With experts from Siemens sharing best practice on supply chain efficiency and data providers such as Black Swan showcasing the value of data in predicting future innovations, the future of food will increasingly rely on technology and science to bring new products and experiences to consumers globally.

Reconciling these modern production techniques with the growing demand for natural and minimally processed products will be a future challenge for companies like Beyond Meat and Quorn whose long ingredients lists and complex production techniques go against the ‘clean’ eating trend. Will the benefit of eating more sustainable meat alternatives outweighs the desire to eat clean, natural foods?

There was one common theme among all the topics discussed at the World Food Innovate Summit: technology is central to disruption but cannot succeed without first understanding consumers and the markets they live and shop in.

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