If you haven’t met me, the basic introduction is that I’m using my time in the Oregon MBA to build a career that impacts sustainable food and agriculture. This path led me to interning with Mercaris, a startup that provides rare and valuable market intelligence to the organic grain industry. Also, nice to meet you, hope you’re having a nice summer, and welcome to the Oregon MBA!
Two weeks ago, I represented Mercaris at IFT16, an international convention of food scientists and industry professionals. The conference promoted professional development through shared research. Meanwhile, an accompanying trade show attracted a cross section of the industry, all vying to show their “on trend” ingredients, equipment, and processes.
Being new to the world of food science, I noticed a unifying trend: the prevalence of informed, discerning, and wary consumers. If you have paid attention to food advertising in the last five years, you’ll recognize terms like “clean ingredients” and “sustainable sourcing.” You might also know a little bit more about technical ideas like probiotics, antioxidants, or minimal processing. You might be attempting a diet that is “free from” ingredients like gluten, sugar, sodium, and even meat. You might even classify yourself as a locavore, a flexitarian, or just a foodie in general. And the most interesting part of this amazing development is how it has taken the food industry by surprise.
A keynote seminar underlined the gap in understanding between the food scientists and the food consumers. A marketing executive presented the findings of C+R Research, which conducted a marketing study on the clean label trend. He stated that clean label claims and minimalist packaging are “a backlash and a challenge to Big Food companies” and they target a mainstream audience. 69% of those surveyed reported consistent label-reading behavior. Consumers are certainly awakened to the idea that some food products have negative health benefits. More importantly, consumers woke up to the idea that some companies have a consistent track record of stakeholder care. 47% of those surveyed reported the use of simple strategies to meet their personal dietary requirements, including trust in certain retail outlets or packaged products.
In another age, health and wellness were confined to certain high-value customer segments. However, the final takeaway from C+R Research pointed to a tectonic shift in consumer behavior: when it comes to food, education and socio-economic status are no longer the reliable barometers they once were. Conscious consumption now cuts across class, with consumer age playing a key role for segmentation purposes. Millennials and Boomers are more receptive to clean label claims than are Gen Xers, but all generations exhibit some level of food literacy which impacts their purchase behavior. As one Gen X member of a live consumer panel remarked, “they put [high fructose corn syrup] in our food and we got fat as a nation… I’m mad at them.”
And so, to what cause do we attribute this disconnect between consumer and industry? Alarmist documentaries like “Cowspiracy,” and “Food, Inc.” paint a grim picture of multinationals that hide their nefarious production practices or actively sacrifice the health of people and planet in the name of profit margins. From my position on the trade floor, however, the disconnect seems to stem from reductionist science. As one executive from the GreenBiz Group noted, the purpose of a food company is to create products with an eye toward cost, safety, and taste. Within this spectrum of values, raw food commodities boil down to fats, sweeteners, and emulsifying agents. They are designed for shelf-stability and are marketed for mass appeal.
Once you add nutrition to this mix, the food scientists begin to scratch their heads. A food product is only the sum of its ingredients, and meeting dietary guidance is a matter of stacking nutritional values. Under this lens, food science looks more like product development, while nutrition separates into another discipline altogether. Food scientists are rapidly trying to address this gap in their education; one of my favorite seminars was amusingly titled “Nutrition and Food: An Obvious but Little Appreciated Partnership.”
The trend towards health and wellness has seismic implications for the entire supply chain. Going forward, consumers will reward food companies for their attention to nutritional economics and transparency, rather than for their cost economics and quality control. Furthermore, as the world shifts towards more sustainable diets, food companies will be rewarded for communicating the environmental impact of their ingredients. The IFIC reports that for 41% of consumers, the sustainability of a food product is an order winner. And Big Food is responding with agility. A seminar on sustainable proteins illuminated the development—and the opportunity—of supply chains based around plant, insect, and cultured proteins.
At IFT16, I tasted the future of food. Protein bars made with chia, amaranth, and algae oil. Egg-free chocolate chip cookies made with a chickpea flour. 100% Guatemalan dark roast served on a nitro similar to Guinness, and an Indian spice cold brew made with tamarind. Naan pizza. Spaghetti-and-mealworms. I also had updated versions of trending classics like the mango smoothie and the grilled cheese sandwich. IFT16 stimulated all my senses and sensibilities, and I am fortunate for the experience.