Nicholas Fereday

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Fereday identifies five areas of opportunity for food companies to shape the narrative of processed foods. Do you agree with him? Share your thoughts in the IFT Connect discussion.
High Pressure Processing Equipment

©  Fahroni/iStock/Getty Images Plus

High Pressure Processing Equipment

©  Fahroni/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Criticism of processed foods is not new. However, until recently, the finger-pointing was placed squarely on a specific ingredient or nutrient: too much sugar, too much fat, not enough protein.

What has changed is a growing appreciation of the foods and beverages that people actually eat, rather than specific nutrients. This includes a greater interest in the nature and extent of manufacturing that goes into making processed foods and the potential impact of those multiple processing steps on health outcomes.

This is not just a “Big Food” issue. Filtering foods by their degree of processing transcends the usual ways we classify foods. The NOVA classification system, for example, is agnostic about emerging versus established brands, better-for-you versus indulgent snacks, or even diet versus regular products. Many products, even across on-trend health and wellness categories, risk being labeled “ultra-processed,” leaning into ongoing narratives that prime consumers to view these products negatively while new food trends demand fewer ingredients, “clean labels,” and “clean-eating” diets.

So far, the term “ultra-processed foods” has barely registered with the general public in the United States. There is a narrow window of opportunity to shape the narrative, reminding consumers of the non-contentious benefits of processing, such as improving food security, taste, and safety, reducing waste, adding convenience, and, of course, increasing affordability.

To be clear, it is not an inevitability that this topic eventually becomes something the public picks up on. But simply defending packaged foods with variations of “Everything is processed,” is probably not a winning argument.

Companies must also focus on the opportunities afforded by the greater consumer interest in food processing that NOVA is likely to generate. There is too much at stake for food companies not to play a role and be a part of any potential solution. Five opportunities come to mind:

There is too much at stake for food companies not to play a role and be a part of any potential solution.

Down on the farm. The NOVA classification system is good news for large sections of the food, agriculture, and livestock industries, as many of their products leave the farm in a very natural and unprocessed form. If ultra-processed foods become an issue with consumers, these industries have a new marketing opportunity to help win them over.

Ongoing initiatives. Many food companies can already point to ongoing initiatives around product reformulation. Food companies have been responding to the consumer desire for clean labels, fewer ingredients, removing artificial, etc., for some time. If companies can add new lines for better-for-you snacks or plant-based options, surely minimally processed can be a new marketing opportunity.

Agtech and food tech solutions. Besides reformulation, greater attention to food processing could spur innovation in seed and food-processing technology. Take dietary fiber—adding fiber as an ingredient when reformulating foods is a relatively simple fortification process but retaining fiber during food processing requires greater innovation. Similarly, seed technology solutions that increase the fiber content of the raw ingredient will reduce some of the processing steps that currently exist.

Redesign and reverse engineering. Perhaps the real opportunity here is for food companies to reflect upon the drivers that created ultra-processed foods in the first place—the push toward lower costs to remain price competitive, and consumers’ need for convenience, taste, and affordability. For food technologists, this means figuring out how to reverse engineer and redesign their food production processes by rediscovering or revisiting processing techniques like freezing, fermentation, high pressure processing, and cutting-edge solutions that keep the integrity of the whole food intact.

Nutrition profiling systems. NOVA might be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how we classify foods in the future. NOVA represents just one of many so-called nutrient profiling systems (NPS) to determine the healthfulness of foods. For the food industry, NPS could help to encourage reformulation, new product development, and even investment choices.

What many are interpreting as the latest way to beat up on the food industry might prove to be an opportunity.

About the Author

Nicholas Fereday is executive director of food & consumer trends for the RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness division of Rabobank ([email protected]).

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