Technology in Agriculture
Life scientists are working closely with market researchers in the food and beverage industry to understand consumer trends and meet shoppers’ needs with new products and flavourings. A renewed focus on health, an appetite for adventurous flavours, and the explosive growth of plant-based alternatives are among the consumer leanings being met with product innovations in today’s marketplace.
Consumer-Focused Food Innovations
Modern science, such as CRISPR and enhanced genetic modification, are key weapons in the battle for the public grocery dollar, and are being used to drive increasingly customer-focused innovations.
“Early genetic engineering focused predominantly on crops such as soybeans and corn grown by farmers to boost yields and make them resistant to pests or able to withstand chemical treatments,” reports Food Dive. “More work today is being done on consumer-centric foods like mushrooms, apples, potatoes and lettuce that can be tweaked to include attributes important to consumers.”1
Life Science and a Tastier Tomato
Consumers have long made health an important consideration when selecting food and beverage products, but the pandemic has really brought this into sharper focus. Nutrition alone will not cut it, which means that food manufacturers and providers must consider flavour, texture, mouthfeel, and other factors. Scoring a winning combination is the ultimate goal.
An interesting example is the tomato. At the behest of grocery stores, efforts have been made over time to breed a thicker-skinned tomato in order to expand shelf life. As is so often the case, one thing comes at the expense of another.
“Over time you breed your varieties for attributes other than flavour,” explains Franco Fubini, founder of fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora. “The flavour attribute starts falling in importance, and as nature has it, if you breed for other traits you breed out flavour.”2
Trends in Flavour Innovation
Fubini calls flavour a ‘re-emerging trend’, citing the work of scientists who are having success with tastier thick-skinned tomatoes and better tasting kale. Other innovations, such as pit free cherries, are designed to improve the experience of eating fruits and vegetables.
Flavourists play a role in meeting public demand as well. Throughout the pandemic, consumers have looked to comfort foods as a source of normalcy while embracing exotic and creative flavour combinations as a way of ‘spicing up their life’, both literally and figuratively. These are trajectories that seem poised to continue into the future and life science R&D will be key.
“The flavor industry increasingly needs to build a bridge between delivering authentic taste and helping to maintain the key sensory characteristics of consumer products,” explains Agneta Hoffman, marketing manager for flavours at Bell Flavours and Fragrances. “Flavors will therefore further evolve in terms of functional attributes as well as taste profiles, providing taste solutions for sugar reduction, masking off-notes, salt reduction and much more – all while simultaneously focusing on clean labeling.”3
Improving Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
Plant-based meat alternatives are a corner of the food market where the stakes are particularly high. Environmental, animal welfare, and health concerns have propelled their popularity with consumers skyward with no end in sight. As companies compete for lucrative market-share footholds in plant-based beef, sausage, and chicken, they do so on the basis of flavour, texture, and nutrition. Marketing to vegans, balance-seeking meat lovers, and everyone in between means that a ‘one style suits all’ approach is non-existent.
Choosing the right protein involves careful scientific and marketing analysis. Soy provides nutritional value, functional properties and versatility, but is an allergen. Peas, gluten, rice, algae, and peanuts are just a few alternate protein options, each of which present their own benefits and challenges.
“Appearance, flavour and texture attributes of plant-based meats are key to acceptance,” says New Food Magazine. “Consumers have concerns over a range of ingredients/additives which can be found in plant-based meats, but it’s worth noting that traditional meat products also include a range of ingredients and additives.”4
Look for clever marketing, intensive market research, and large investments in R&D as plant-based alternatives increase their presence on grocery store shelves.
Synergy and Transparency in Food Science
Nothing exists in a vacuum; the efforts of life scientists in the food and beverage industry must work in unison with marketers who are attempting to satiate a public hungry for transparency. CRISPR technology remains hugely contentious in Europe, but is not without its benefits.
Research from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization aims to enable ‘genetic scissors’ to create glowing eggs, which can identify the gender of a chicken prior to hatching. This technology could potentially eliminate the controversial and expensive practice of culling less desirable male chicks after birth.
Communicating these types of stories will be an important objective as the industry attempts to combat negative perceptions.
Meanwhile, ‘flavour inventors’ will seek to hit the sweet spot with evolving consumers.
“We anticipate consumers will be more adventurous with their food and beverage choices,” says flavourist Marie Wright. “We expect product developers to combine comfort foods with exotic ingredients, such as frozen desserts that pair chocolate with heat-inducing spices like cayenne or ginger.”5
For Wright, who spends her days tinkering with recipes, getting it right is one part science and one part art.
She says “It’s similar, I’m sure, to painting a picture. It’s knowing the depth and knowing how far you can go before you go over the top and it becomes something artificial”.6