“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health—and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”
– Wendell Berry
The food industry today presents many challenges but also opportunities.
Opportunities come from new research that transforms our understanding of nutrition and food design. Challenges come from a very fragmented market, where consumers expect to find niche personalised products.
If they want to thrive in a competitive marketplace with crowded retail shelves, food companies will need to evolve and adapt, reformulating their products or developing new ones.
Product development is challenging, though. It’s not just about staying up to date with the latest trends and listening to consumers’ needs. It’s necessary to adopt a systematic approach that takes into account the benefits for the consumers, product integrity and commercial viability.
Here are a few key aspects to consider in your R&D journey to achieve those goals. Ultimately, you will need to consider and execute all these aspects to launch a new product successfully.
Functional Ingredients. Having natural, ‘clean label’ products with one or multiple health, functional, emotional and/or nutritional benefits is a requirement of modern consumers in developed countries, but it doesn’t stop there.
The need for more nutritious food is also a way towards solving the health challenges of a growing world population. When sourcing new ingredients, R&D teams will need to make sure they provide the desired benefits and have a guaranteed availability all year round at a reasonable cost.
Formulations. Using ingredients with nutritional benefits is just the first step. In order to obtain a robust formulation, their nutritional profile has to remain stable during the different processing stages and until the end of shelf-life. In their due diligence, R&D teams will have to consider several variables that can be found in raw materials that come from different suppliers, seasons, and batches.
Processing. The overall characteristics of a food product are greatly influenced by processing technology and parameters, which will need to be investigated thoroughly.
For example, heat will directly impact taste, colour, texture, nutritional qualities and shelf-life. The choice of time/temperature combination will therefore be critical in maintaining product quality throughout its life cycle. Additionally, processing steps will need to allow for little or no use of additives and artificial ingredients while maintaining the safety and quality of the product.
Prototyping. Benchtop samples will be required early and at different stages during the development project. Their purpose is to test the product’s functionality against current or competitors’ products and ensure that it meets (or exceeds) consumer’s expectations.
Prototypes are most successful when consumers and the project team can interact with them and provide immediate feedback. Quite often, a test with a benchtop sample in relevant packaging may be enough to determine if the product has the potential to succeed.
Packaging. It’s the first and last interaction that the consumer has with the food product. The purpose of its artwork and design is to contribute to the differentiation of the products and producing a “multi-sensory awakening” in the consumer.
Analytical testing. Just like prototyping, analytical testing is a due diligence exercise that should be conducted at different timepoints, during manufacturing and at the end of the product’s shelf life to capture the worst-case scenario. The purpose of analytical testing is to confirm the nutritional values on the label, as well as regulatory compliance.
Storage and transportation. Many changes in the product characteristics can occur after leaving the production line, during transportation and storage. Its shelf-life can be influenced by oxygen, moisture migration, physical and chemical interactions.
During product development, you will have to be aware of these factors too, by understanding what the product will be exposed to and conducting a transportation study – if needed – to confirm its suitability. Additionally, you could also leverage packaging and processing to increase shelf life.