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How shifting priorities are driving industry innovation

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Industry R&D faced a lot of uncertainty at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, but surveys suggest that innovation has continued despite the pandemic – and a lot of new product development has been inspired by changing consumer priorities in a post-Covid world.

The latest innovations in food and beverage were on show at Fi Europe 2021, which took place both online and in-person. Despite an extremely challenging couple of years, new products, technologies and ingredients have been in continued development, including for immune health, digestive health, and plant-based foods and beverages – and there also has been a marked increase in solutions to help industry transition to a more sustainable future, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Innovation Award.

“The pandemic has had a massive impact on how consumers plan their meals, cook and eat,” said Jamie Rice, Director of Global Data and Insights at Food Trending in a webinar entitled, ‘From zero to hero, the rise of plant-based dairy and ice cream’.

Healthy plants, healthy planet

While sales of indulgent and comfort food enjoyed a temporary boost in early 2020, more far-sighted trends have emerged around taking care of one’s personal health, as well as the health of the planet.

“One of the major success stories of the food industry in 2020 was the continued growth of plant-based foods,” Rice said. “Already well-established, driven by the flexitarianism trend, popular culture, media and ethical concerns, 2020 was the year that plant-based really took a hold.”

Sales of meat and dairy alternatives grew considerably in 2020, and Rice suggests this was fuelled by fear of zoonotic diseases and stories of outbreaks in meat processing plants.

Alongside rising sales, plant-based foods and beverages also have seen a huge increase in innovation, according to LuAnn Williams, Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights.

“Plant-based is the canvas for innovation,” she said. “You can do something around convenience or some sort of culinary innovation. The sky is the limit,” she said during her presentation entitled, ‘Plant-based: The canvas for innovation’.

Indulgence and eco-claims

Plant-based brands now carry more indulgent claims, for instance; they include more upcycled ingredients; and are increasingly drawing attention on-pack to their sustainability and humanitarian values.

Consumers have become more aware of the environmental impacts of food, too, and vegetarian meat alternatives are becoming more sophisticated. Improvements in taste and texture have come from diverse new ingredients, such as cell-cultured and fungi-based fat, and new solutions for a more meat-like juiciness, such as a recently introduced red microalgae ingredient from Israeli firm Yemoja.

“The choice is greater than ever before,” said Rice. “Mainstream brands have entered the arena, such as Green Cuisine from Birdseye or The Vegetarian Butcher from Unilever…Whole aisles in the supermarkets are dedicated to plant-based lifestyles.”

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Immune health

Products for immune health also gained ground, as consumers have sought new ways to take control of their health.

“Consumers were only too willing to try new products if they promised to boost their nutritional intake or have a positive impact on their health and immune system,” said Rice.

Europe leads the way for immune health innovation, according to Innova data. Globally, 45% of all newly released products in 2020 with an immune health claim were launched in Europe.

Gut health for immunity

According to Megan Eade, Innovation Technologist at Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL), digestive health and wellness has benefited from this interest, and is now a priority for nearly eight in ten consumers globally.

“One of the drivers of this increasing popularity of gut health is its link to immunity and immune health, which is a trend we are also seeing growing a lot in the food industry, particularly in the climate we’re currently in. […] There are many functions of the gut microbiome in immunity,” she said in a presentation entitled, ‘Trends in ingredient innovations to support digestive health’.

Eade added that probiotic bacteria remained the most popular ingredients with which to make digestive health claims, followed by prebiotic ingredients like inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides.

“There’s an opportunity to innovate considering consumers’ growing interest in these products,” she said, although she warned that companies should be wary of making immunity-related claims, as EFSA has not approved any immunity claims on digestive wellness ingredients.

Food for mood

In addition, Eade suggested there was growing interest in the link between gut health and brain health, with more consumers looking to probiotic and prebiotic ingredients for stress reduction and improved mood.

“This is a really key area that I think consumers are becoming interested in as they look to consume foods that contribute not only to their physical health but to their mental and emotional health as well,” she said.

These overarching industry trends were well-represented at the Fi Europe 2021 Innovation Awards, where winners included a plant-based fish flavour from DSM, a certified carbon neutral organic butter from Fonterra subsidiary NZMP, and NutriLeads’ soluble fibre immune health ingredient made from upcycled carrot pomace.

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