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Food Technology caught up with Ryan Riddle, senior product development specialist at Nestlé Research & Development, to get the scoop on the creation of Sweet Earth’s Mindful Chik’n Strips, featured this month in New Products. Riddle, who holds an MS in food science and technology from The Ohio State University, has also led the development of a variety of other Sweet Earth products, including the Sweet Earth Awesome Burger, Awesome Grounds, and the Garden Gourmet Sensational Burger. Previously he served as an ingredient specialist and product developer for Nestlé USA brands Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, Toll House, Carnation, Libby’s, DiGiorno, and Buitoni.
Riddle: From the beginning, we talk with consumers to identify what kinds of new products might add value to their lives and where current products on the market are falling short. Meanwhile, our global team of food scientists and engineers is proactively developing the technologies of tomorrow that will help bring the quality of plant-based products to the next level.
Once an opportunity for a new product is identified, the job of the product development team is to bring the concept to life by connecting the needs of consumers to the technologies that can address them. We leverage our vast network of ingredient suppliers and manufacturing facilities to make sure the product can be made at scale in a way that is safe and sustainable. Throughout the entire process we bring the consumer along for the journey, seeking feedback on prototypes and judging our products against the competition. Finally, even after the product is launched, we continue to listen to consumer feedback so we can make the product a little bit better every day.
Riddle: As we all know, there has been an increase of consumer interest and consumption of plant-based foods recently, which explains the expansion in the variety of plant-based products in the market. In addition to variety, consumers are also looking for flavor and convenience. At Sweet Earth, these three elements are always top of mind for us: variety, flavor, and convenience. We now offer more than 80 delicious plant-based products across many different product categories.
Riddle: When we’re developing new products at Sweet Earth, our goal is to make it easier for consumers to eat the way they want to eat, and our consumers are constantly telling us that while they want to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, it’s not always easy. That’s where the partnership between marketing and product development is crucial, with marketing identifying the biggest opportunities to delight consumers and product development working to bring those opportunities to life. When both groups are working in harmony, we can bring products to the market that not only sell well but also make a big impact in consumers’ everyday lives.
Riddle: Food science has a history of incredible innovations that have improved the lives of millions of people, and Nestlé has been at the forefront of that process for over 150 years with products spanning from coffee to seasonings and bouillons, to cookie dough and so much more.
When it comes to R&D today, Nestlé has around 300 scientists, engineers, and product developers dedicated to plant-based innovation. To complement our internal capabilities, Nestlé also strategically collaborates with researchers, suppliers, startups, and various other innovation partners, offering Sweet Earth the benefits from that wealth of knowledge and the incredible sourcing power of Nestlé as well.
Riddle: I love seeing a finished product that I helped develop on the shelf and hearing from consumers how they fold it into their lives. One of my favorite things to do is take a “shelfie”—aka a selfie with the finished product on the shelf at my local grocery store, and while it’s always exciting to find your product on the shelf in your neighborhood, the great thing about working for Nestlé R&D is the opportunity to shape the landscape of food products all over the world. Knowing that my work is helping to accelerate the global shift toward a more plant-based diet brings a sense of purpose that pushes me to give my best every day.