In the 50 years I have been involved in food science and the food industry, I have found myself reading many scientific and business publications from all around the world. Thankfully, today Food Technology has become my one-stop reading for food matters, as our recent reader survey shows it is for many of you. So I’m both honored and delighted that I have been asked to be the interim Guest Editor in Chief.
I believe that it’s important that we continue to provide you with timely, relevant, and stimulating content. One example of this is the keynote article this month by Mary Ellen Kuhn on meat alternatives, which got me thinking about consumers’ expectations and how our industry responds to them.
In the 1970s, I recall developing meat analogue products based on extruded soy protein for use as meat extenders to reduce costs, particularly in the institutional foodservice business. Over the next decade, this evolved into “veggie burgers,” where the primary benefit was to a small, but growing, group of vegetarians. Since then the product offerings have improved with advances in food technology, and the source of the protein has moved from soy to other plants, as well as fungal and even insect protein sources. So initially, it was easy for me to dismiss the recent surge of interest in plant-based protein meat as hype. But as the article points out, this isn’t business as usual. There are many differences in what’s happening today, not least in consumer perception.
For the past 25 years, the food industry has been increasingly challenged by criticism of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), processed foods, and food additives. Clean label presentations proliferate at food conferences, and food companies have spent millions of dollars to meet this consumer need. This despite the knowledge that the scientific evidence did not support the lobbying of the vociferous critics. After all, isn’t the consumer always right?
Yet this new generation of plant-based meat products are more processed than meat, have more ingredients, and in at least one case even contain GMO-derived material. Many of the consumers of these products are the same opinion leaders who drove the clean label movement. So have they changed their minds? Probably not. More likely, their growing concerns about the environment combined with nutritional benefits are more important to them. I see a similar pattern with the new concern for sourcing practices, sustainability, and the environment that is reflected in many of the products introduced by the growing number of startup food companies.
Could this be the new blueprint for the beleaguered “big food” companies? The food industry was originally created and grew by providing the combination of taste, quality, and convenience at an affordable cost. But today that isn’t enough. A shift of R&D focus to providing the new benefits that matter to consumers and less following the crowd on the clean label road could be the answer.
If so, we could be seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel and the return to a world where sound science and innovation are universally used to provide a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone.