Tag Archives: Food scientist

Unexpected game-changers for our future food supply

[NOTE:  If you are getting this post in an email, click on www.thearmchairmba.com to see the accompanying graphics.]

I recently participated in an IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) workshop on the long-term future of our food supply.  These are the same food scientists that midwived the difficult births of Count Chocula, Betty Crocker and Chef Boyardee, but they have also developed fortified, functional and better for you foods and beverages. And they play a critical role in defining our food future. (I previously wrote about IFT’s FutureFood2050 initiative).

chipotle2

Supply Chain as rendered by Chipotle

You may think: How complicated can food be? Haven’t we been farming, shipping, making and eating for quite a while now?

It turns out that managing the food supply to meet future consumer, economic and regulatory needs is about as simple as airline scheduling logistics.

ComplexFoodSystem

Supply Chain – Actual

And as the workshop revealed, it will only get more complicated going forward.  Why?

First, consumer demands continue to increase: lower cost, variety, customization, easier/faster shopping, nutrition, natural, sustainable…and of course great tasting. Not all simultaneously compatible.

Second, farmers, manufacturers and distributors are pressured to meet these needs and still make a profit.

Finally, innovations, often seemingly not food-related, will play a critical role as the food industry evolves.

This future could be very interesting.

Consider these trends /technologies that might impact the future of food, all of which are happening now:

Farm drones/robots/blimps – – to monitor crop conditions continuously, greatly increasing farming efficiencydrone-corn720x540

Resource-sharing – – rather than time-sharing a car, how about meat-sharing a cow?   More accurately matching supply to demand.

CowShare

Crowdsourcing product design – – leading to higher success rate of new products

CrowdSourceFood

Versatile manufacturing – – economical short production runs, allowing more customization

Urban farming – – new technologies enable repurposing declining urban areas (Detroit-like)

VerticalFarming

Automated delivery – – driverless delivery to homes (drones, copters) – taking cost and time out of supply chains

Rise of B Corporations – – (“a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”) Transparency in social benefit, an additional differentiator.

B-Corp

Shorter IP protection – – forcing faster innovation and creating increased competition

Remote smell – – transmitting tastes/smells through the internet, making product development quicker and more successful. (Were this previously available, we may have been able to avoid Brussels sprouts.)

o-phone-smell-text-message-designboom03-300x200

oPhone

Genetic consumer cohorts – – low-cost genetic typing enables segmenting consumers by health-driven factors like allergies, facilitating meeting needs of key segments.

DNA

Expanded definition of acceptable food – – e.g. ground insects as source for cheap, high efficiency protein, creating an affordable ingredient for billions, and one heck of a marketing challenge for some.

Jiminy

What does all this mean?
Well, we don’t know yet.  That’s why they call it the future.

One set of outcomes could be:

  • Greater ability for consumers to quickly get foods customized to their wants/needs
  • More tools for farmers, manufacturers, retailers and distributors to drive down costs

A parallel set of outcomes could also be:

  • Benefits limited to those who can afford customization and speed (and the tools that enable them)
  • A more commoditized supply chain complementing the customized offerings, with lower cost, slower delivery and less choice – – for those who cannot afford (or just do not value) the more tech-enabled offerings

There would likely be huge collateral impacts, like increased complexity in regulation, labeling and distribution; new retailing models, etc.

Like it or not, food science and technology professionals will need to be prepared to meet these potential future challenges.

The rate of change in the food industry is accelerating.  I’m all for it, as long as there’s still bacon.

Chicago IFT: Michael Jacobson, CSPI, the Food Babe and the curious impact of social media

I had the privilege of attending a recent meeting of the Chicago Section IFT (Institute for Food Technologists).  The guest speaker was Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Chairman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who spoke about America’s progress in becoming a healthier-eating nation.

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Over the last 40 years or so, the CSPI has helped to reduce saturated fatssodium and sugar in our food supply, among other things.  While CSPI has often been a thorn in the side of Big Food in America, its efforts have resulted in meaningful change, usually brought about by government mandate (as opposed to corporate altruism).  And Jacobson is no party-line activist –  – he independently assesses the social benefits vs cost on any initiative, including things as controversial/PC as GMOs (he’s open-minded on this, in case you were wondering).

My key takeaway:  regardless of the advances in food science, our chances of becoming a healthier nation lie in the hands (and mouths) of the consumer.  The locus of influence in food and nutrition is becoming decidedly less institutional.

Food Scientists – heal!
Dr. Jacobson offered that while food scientists have culpability in having created most of the ‘Franken-foods’ that he reviles (“…a breakfast cereal that is nothing more than vitamin-enriched marshmallows…”), these scientists now play a key role in creating healthier alternatives that can be adopted by mainstream America.  

Two things occurred to me during Dr. Jacobson’s presentation, illustrating both the weakness and strength of the consumer:

1) You can build it but they will not necessarily come.  These healthier foods need to appeal to intended consumers for this to work, as was brought home by an attendee who commented that her school district’s new, more nutritional lunches, in addition to costing more, are also discarded much more often by the kids.

The problem is that consumers typically don’t want foods that make health claims.  Putting ‘reduced sodium’ on a package, for example, is almost like saying ‘don’t buy me’.

So the conundrum is:  how do you get people to eat healthier foods without them knowing it?  Not easy.

2) According to Dr. Jacobson, the rise in social media has accelerated the process overall, despite consumers’ sometimes misguided crusades.
Consumers, who previously had no voice, are now collectively applying pressure through social media.

Just this week, the so-called ‘Food Babe’ helped prompt the removal of azodicarbonamide from Subway bread, through a petition that is at 78,000 signatures and counting.  We have been unable to detect one shred of relevant credentials in the area of nutrition, food science, or science in general, about the Food Babe.  She apparently has an undergraduate degree in computer science.  But she cleans up well, is able to get access to influential people, and operates a successful blog.  And guess what – she’s helping dictate your food options!  Deal with it.

Vani Hari - the Food Babe

Vani Hari – the Food Babe

Earlier examples of removed ingredients include:
Kraft Singles removing an artificial preservative (sorbic acid)
General Mills’ Cheerios removing GMOs
And that’s just 2014.
Other recent examples are here, including Starbucks, Gatorade, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Chick-Fil-A.  These are not inexpensive or simple changes to make, and speak to the power of the consumer.

Yes, the consumer is a fickle, capricious creature and quite often prone to acting immediately (or signing petitions) without checking facts.  But overall, the ability to project a collective voice is starting to make a difference in the food landscape – – and on balance, it appears to be for the better.