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elderberry plant high in antioxidants

Where is the food and beverage ingredient landscape headed next? Consumer desire for ingredients that resemble natural foods and offer rich nutritional benefits are key factors driving change, says James Gratzek, a food science and technology faculty member and director of the Food Product Innovation & Commercialization Center (FoodPIC) at the University of Georgia.  

During his more than 30-year career in food and beverage product development, Gratzek has kept his finger closely on the pulse of ingredient trends. He’s worked with soups, sauces, dairy, alt-dairy, fruits, vegetables, and snacks in settings ranging from startups to major corporations. Since joining FoodPIC in 2022, he’s helped companies take new products from conception and consumer research to shelf-life testing and launch.  

Food trends come and go, Gratzek says, but he expects today’s focus on deriving functionality and great taste from real foods—what he calls an “anti-ingredient trend”—is here to stay. “A movement is afoot to formulate smarter,” he says, “and to do this, we need to be on top of our chemistry, but in a new, natural way.” Read on to learn more.  

What is trending in new ingredients right now?  

Clean label is where it continues to be ‘at,’ and this means a desire for more functionality with ingredients that people perceive as real food. For example, a change from using, say, xanthan gum to using citrus fiber would be seen as positive, as people understand what ‘citrus’ and ‘fiber’ are. But ‘xanthan gum’? Not so much. A change from sodium acetate to vinegar is a true winner. Gums, buffering salts, preservatives—the things that the more seasoned food scientists among us grew up with—are falling out of favor. I’ve used these all my career. They work and they’re great, but I would argue that the trend is moving in a different direction. If there are ways to modify protein such that phosphates are not needed, then that will be a better consumer path. Would-be ingredients that address living longer are another trend. Anti-inflammation is the one area I’d personally bet on given what we are seeing and hearing.  

What do you think is driving this?  

Even while we continue to rely on nationally distributed products, consumers still want something that is not a concoction or an industrial outcome. There’s a lot of cynicism about what we do, and big food continues to be vilified. There’s caution and skepticism among consumers—and among young upstart companies—because they’re following the consumer’s lead. I think this is the biggest factor driving [ingredient] decisions. We worked on a project recently [at FoodPIC] involving something that had a chemical-sounding name. I can’t mention the company or the ingredient, but I can share that there was an about-face well into the project, and a decision was made not to proceed even though, functionally, we were nearly there. This is the reality now.  

What opportunities do innovative ingredients offer for new product development—and what challenges do they pose?  

The opportunities include cleaner labels, new functionalities, and health claims that are real. Cleaner labels are becoming table stakes. Consumers want to buy food that they think they could make in their own home—and that trend’s not going away. I had a mentor who used to say, ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing.’ This underscores the importance of common language on labels. Yet while labels are shrinking, function is not. What we’re looking for today is function through ‘non-ingredients.’ By that I mean achieving potential health benefits through real foods such as mushrooms, beets, oats, avocados, berries...Other challenges include cost and lack of product developer experience and know-how. When using something new, unlike the things we know, the learning curve starts all over again. The easy decision is, however, not the best decision.  

On that note, what’s the learning curve for food scientists?  

The role of food scientists and food design is more important now than ever because you really have to understand all the things we learned about in school—all the basic chemistry. Our chemistry has to be sharp because what we’re trying to do is use the natural chemistry of foods without using chemistry. This requires us to keep on learning. I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m still learning every day. 

Can you share an innovative ingredients success story from your work with FoodPIC?  

We have been working with elderberry farmers in Georgia and northern Florida. Their ingredient tops the charts in antioxidant power, and the consumer trend behind it—immunity—shows no signs of stopping. We helped an entrepreneur process and bottle a simple juice with one ingredient. People are buying it for immunity and the extremely high antioxidant levels that elderberries offer. 

Given your take on innovative ingredients, where do you see the future of food heading?  

I’m expecting the local food movement to explode. Farmers markets. Local, small-scale production. Building entire brands with simple ingredients. Could this be the future of food? I really hope so.  

Join James Gratzek on Monday, July 15, at 1:45 p.m. in Chicago for the IFT FIRST Featured Session F&B Ecosystem of the Future: Harnessing the Power of Innovation, Collaboration, and Diverse Thinking, where he and an interdisciplinary panel of experts from academia, industry, and nonprofit organizations will explore the unprecedented challenges facing the food and beverage ecosystem and how leveraging collaborative partnerships are shaping the future to navigate disruption in this dynamic landscape.  

Are you coming to IFT FIRST? Members save big on registration. Reserve your spot today!  

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