"The Future of Food" Convention - Insights & Thoughts

A few weeks ago I attended and presented at the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology's (AIFST) 50th Anniversary Convention The Future of Food at ICC Sydney. The Convention hosted a great variety of presentations on current areas of interest to the food industry, along with some thought provoking perspectives on health and nutrition. Here are my top three takeouts from the conference:

1. How consumers define health is changing. In his presentation on understanding the iGeneration and Millenials, Justin Nel from Mintel highlighted that for younger generations, good health is no longer about what your weight is, or the results obtained from a visit to the GP, but rather it's defined by a broader perspective that encompasses living an overall healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep are seen as key - along with cooking at home. This indicates a swing back to balance and simplicity, and away from more complex or hard to follow hipster food trends.  

Implications & opportunities: traditionally, food marketers have drawn on the physical aspects of food, such as nutritional content or the absence of certain ingredients, to highlight health values. Current and future opportunities lie in broadening the definition of 'health' to incorporate the role of food in mind health and the important social aspects of eating together as part of an overall healthy lifestyle approach.

2. Working with values drives trust. Craig Heraughty, National Agribusiness Leader at Price Waterhouse Coopers, presented the closing keynote on day 1 which centred around trust, transparency and the bigger game. He said that unless you are adding value in a value chain you don't deserve to be in it. It’s therefore important to think about what your value proposition is. With health and nutrition being one of the key values driving consumer purchasing decisions, it is imperative that food businesses develop values around health and nutrition and identify how these values need to be applied in their business to remain competitive in the future. 

Implications & opportunities: while transparency helps address the trust issue, communicating with values is also a key driver. Gaining clarity on your values around health and nutrition in order to resonate and connect with consumers now and in the future is an important strategic activity for food businesses.

3. Solving food problems makes good business sense. The presentation by Brianna Casey from Foodbank was one of my highlights of the conference. With 1 in 6 Australians experiencing food insecurity, individuals and businesses have a responsibility to address food waste and food loss in particular. It makes good social and business sense for food companies to be part of the solution. 

Implications & opportunities: with more people today looking to work for businesses with a purpose, food companies have the opportunity to boost staff loyalty and team morale by getting involved in solving food related problems. Examples include helping address food insecurity, food waste and food loss and making it easier for people to eat better. 

Why 'slow' is growing faster than 'fast'

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Just like the tortoise in Aesop's tale, The Tortoise and the Hare, it seems slow and steady is winning the race.

Mintel's Global Food and Drink Trends 2017 highlighted how consumer interest in slowing down is starting to translate to claims on new food and drink products.

In the five years up until August 2016, new food and beverage product launches with claims incorporating the word 'slow' grew four times as fast as claims that referred to 'on the go' consumption.

It seems busy lifestyles are taking their toll and the idea that food can can be 'slow' rather than 'fast' or consistently eaten 'on the go', is appealing to consumers desire to push back on overly hectic lifestyles.

While many of the products using a 'slow' claim still provide convenience, the appeal of slow food likely reflects a consumer mindset that associates slowing down with greater care, greater nourishment and a reassuring sense of nostalgia.

Eating slowly and sharing food around a table with others, also makes a difference to our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

It creates a social connection that can have profound implications for our relationships.

It also helps to reduce the risk of over-eating. Studies have shown for example that eating slowly by taking more chews per mouthful can reduce calorie intake. One study found those who doubled the number of chews they took when eating, reduced their calorie intake by around 15% - an effect that could be useful for weight management.

Referring to 'slow' in product claims is just one way of tapping into consumer sentiment that is encouraging a more relaxed approach to food that in turn can contribute to better health.

Food businesses can engage with consumers in this area by encouraging them to try slow cooked recipes themselves, providing tables for people to sit and eat their food while not rushing them on, and advertising food in a way that shows meals being shared and enjoyed with others.

For food businesses interested in innovation and helping people to eat better, considering how 'slow' could be introduced into the marketing mix may provide some 'food for thought'.

Why 'downsizing' will replace 'upsizing' over the coming decade.

After an era of ‘do you want fries with that?’ and current widespread offers to upsize for little additional cost, many are starting to realise that ‘value’ measured in dollars, is not always real 'value' when it comes to personal health. 

Excessive portions are one of the key contributors to rising levels of obesity in Western countries. A significant amount of academic research shows the amount of food that’s in front of us is strongly correlated to the amount we eat. 

We find it hard to resist eating when food is readily available – even if it tastes bad.

In a classic study by researchers at Cornell University - Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets - movie goers were given free popcorn that was either fresh or stale (14 days old) in either a medium sized container (120g) or a large bucket (240g). 

At the end of the movie the researchers measured how much popcorn had been eaten and found those who ate from the large buckets ate 45% more than those who were given the medium sized containers. 

Even if the popcorn was stale, they still ate 33% more if the container was large.

Mindlessly eating what’s in front of us is common human behaviour. And many people know they need help to manage the amount they eat.

Ipsos Food CHATs research identified last year, that the second highest priority Australians had for the 12 months ahead when it came to their food habits was to reduce their portions.

One of the key phrases I hear in practise is ‘I know what to eat, I just don't know how much to eat'

Helping people eat less is important and rewarding.

It’s good for business as small sizes sell well. The uptake of medium sized meals when eating out and the growth of baby cakes and mini muffins are two examples.

It’s good for people’s health. It helps reduce the risk of ‘stuffocation’ by training us to eat to our needs rather than eating more than we need just because food is there.

It’s good for the planet as smaller portion sizes mean food goes further, drawing less on the resources needed to produce it.

But food businesses can be afraid of downsizing. Afraid that customers will walk away hungry, that they will think they haven’t received good value, that they are inferior to their competitors because they are offering less. 

But as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book ‘Big Magic’ - fear is boring. ‘Fear is a mass-produced item available on the shelves of any generic box store’.

Addressing fear requires courage and the reward is creativity. Creativity leads to innovation, differentiation and a potential competitive advantage.

In the area of downsizing, food businesses can face their fear and create a point of difference by:

  • Focusing on quality rather than quantity
  • Advertising food enjoyment over value based on price
  • Providing education and/or an atmosphere conducive to slow and mindful eating
  • Offering ‘medium’ sized plates and portions
  • Developing foods and meals based on health and taste, rather size and fries

For individuals, the fear of eating smaller portions is based on a fear of being hungry. This can be addressed by trialling:

  • Eating mindfully. Eat without distraction and notice when you feel satisfied.
  • Being fussy - value taste over volume.
  • Eating until you are 80% full then stopping.
  • Serving yourself 20% less. Then waiting 10 minutes before deciding if you need to go back for seconds.
  • Choosing 'medium' or 'small' over large or extra-large.

 If innovation is about solving people's problems, 'downsizing' presents a significant opportunity.

Why investing in food & nutrition values could be worth $14 billion

While Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods Market in the US late last month sent shivers down the spines of some traditional food retailers, it also sent a strong signal of confirmation that the trend toward purchasing food that’s good for the health of the person and the planet is here to stay.

No doubt Amazon is preparing for the future and the future of food retailing is looking healthier and more sustainable than ever.

One of the differentiating factors that likely contributed to Whole Foods Market’s long term success was their investment in establishing and working by a set of core values that not only reflected their business goals, but their values and beliefs about the nature of the food they are committed to stocking and selling.

Their decision to put products on their shelves is evaluated against a set of core principles and beliefs that address not only their business goals, but the values they hold around the presence of additives, freshness and wholeness, taste and pleasure in sharing food with others, nutrition and the contribution that foods make to health and wellbeing.

It’s relevant to note that while many food businesses have corporate values that guide internal behaviour and corporate culture, fewer have food values that serve to connect these corporate values with consumer values – the things that people really care about. 

A review of the corporate commitments outlined by the Top 100 food and drink companies in Australia last year, shows that of the 55 companies selling food through retail, only 40% had food and nutrition related values and commitments.

Unlike corporate values, food and nutrition values reflect what a food business believes about the way their food is produced, how it contributes to health and wellbeing, the nutritional value it aims to provide and the way that information about the food is communicated to consumers.

For at least 60% of food businesses, this gap provides a significant opportunity to establish a strong platform for the future.

The spending power of Millenials is one of the key factors supporting this assertion.  This cohort of consumers will double their spending over the next 3 years, and will be seeking food that is produced with their health and that of the environment in mind. Research shows that 70% are willing to pay more for food produced responsibly meaning food providers with genuine food related values in place and well established commitments, will be well positioned for long term success.

If not done already, establishing your food and nutrition values and developing commitments that demonstrate these in the market, differentiates your brand for consumers, highlights what you stand for and communicates how your foods can enhance consumers lives by helping them to eat better.

Who knows? – it could be an investment worth $14 billion.

What exactly is ‘real food’?

Many food makers and producers have recognized the growing importance consumers place on the degree of processing as an influencer of food purchasing decisions. 

Scrutiny of the ingredient list and the skepticism and concern that comes with seeing numbers and unpronounceable, chemical sounding names means some have taken steps to be more transparent about what these ingredients do in a food to make them seem more ‘real’.

However transparency alone doesn't mean a food is defined by consumers as ‘real food’. 

So if it’s not just about transparency, what exactly is 'real food'?

At a recent event I attended this question was discussed and the definition provided was that ‘real food’ is whatever consumers believe it to be.

This answer got me thinking. 

If the term ‘real food’ is that subjective, all food is potentially ‘real’. If this is the case, it removes any marketing advantage the term might provide. However this is an unlikely scenario as its use is becoming increasingly prevalent in the market place.

So I did a bit of research.

Not surprisingly, there are a variety of definitions of ‘real food’. The most common ones are that real food is food that has undergone little to minimal processing and still retains its nutritional value. It is food that has had nothing removed and nothing added to it. Examples include fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, fresh meat, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.

Food that is not ‘real’ on the other hand is generally considered food that is made from ingredients that have been highly refined to the extent they no longer resemble the original food. Examples include ingredients such as inulin, corn syrup, sweeteners, starches and additives.

An alternative definition is provided by Kimbal Musk, founder of The Kitchen and Next Door, two US based restaurant chains operating under a mission of providing 'everyone with access to real food'.  Musk defines ‘real food’ as:

... food we trust to nourish ourselves, our community and our planet.

If this is adopted as the definition of ‘real food’ it means food that has undergone minimal to no processing may or may not be real food. For example, if food is minimally processed but is grown in a way that harms the community by being produced without returning a fair price to the farmer, or if it’s grown in a way that harms the planet, under this definition, it’s not real food.

On the other hand, food that has been processed but which has been produced in a way that contributes to the community in which it came from, and it’s processing involves practises that nourish the planet, would be considered ‘real food’. An example may be Sweet Earth Foods in the US.

Limiting the definition of ‘real food’ to focus just on the food itself limits our thinking to the end product only. When consumers say they want real food, it’s likely it's Musk's definition they are most aligned with.

For those using the term ‘real food’ in marketing, the definition of what this means is worth considering carefully and being completely clear about. 

One of the key battles facing food makers and producers today is the lack of consumer trust in the food supply. Developing and marketing ‘real foods’ is certainly one way to address this and to engage consumers in a way that also contributes positively to their health. However being clear on how the term is defined for your business, and ensuring this is communicated and understood throughout all layers of the company is essential to working with integrity and developing and building long term consumer loyalty and trust.