IFT17 highlights worrying industry cross currents

by Keith Nunes
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Keith Nunes

Visitors attending this year’s Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition may have felt somewhat disoriented if they split time between visiting exhibitors on the show floor and sitting in many of the education sessions held during the meeting. On the show floor the key trend, as it has been in years past, was clean label and meeting consumer perceptions of what is clean and natural. In many of the education sessions, the focus shifted to innovation and communicating scientific breakthroughs to consumers.

The ingredients consumers perceive as “clean” or “natural” vary by application. This lack of consistency or clarity has manufacturers attempting to hit a shifting target. Adding to the challenges manufacturers face are indications the clean label trend is transforming into a focus on total transparency.

The market research company Innova Market Insights presented data during IFT17, which was held in late June in Las Vegas, showing how the quest for transparency is rippling through the supply chain and product attributes such as “environmentally friendly” are becoming more common on labels. The trend is readily apparent in animal agriculture, where new product launches featuring an animal welfare claim rose 45% between 2011 to 2015, and new dairy product introductions featuring a grass-fed claim rose 60% during the past year.

Food transparency
The clean label trend is transforming into a focus on total transparency.
 

Food and beverage companies are moving in a similar direction. Via labeling claims and Internet-based applications many are offering significant amounts of information about where and how raw materials and ingredients are sourced and manufactured.

IFT17 also featured the premiere of Food Evolution, a documentary underwritten by the I.F.T., to spur discussion and show the role science and innovation play in creating a safe, nutritious and sustainable food supply. Specifically, the film addresses the challenge of feeding a growing global population that is projected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050.

The documentary highlights the debate over the use of genetically modified organisms in ingredient production and food manufacturing and shares the science supporting the technology. The I.F.T. calls the film an important contribution to understanding of the critical role sound science plays in the global food system.

As the education sessions at IFT17 made clear, such an endeavor is sorely needed. While the current focus may be on the perception of what is “clean,” “natural” or even “local,” there are several exciting technologies on the horizon that may have significant implications for food manufacturers, but may not align with consumer trends directionally. Such technologies range from the concept and commercialization of “clean meat”, nanotechnology, advances in cold plasma, emerging trends around nutraceuticals, and the latest uses of Crispr.

A review of this magazine’s archive shows how food and beverage trends run in cycles. A decade ago concern emerged regarding the potential blurring between functional food development and pharmaceuticals. Today, the fear appears to be food science advances are being hampered by consumer demand for products closer to nature. Given the breakthrough technologies on the horizon, it is hoped future I.F.T. shows feature a less strident view of what is perceived as clean and natural.

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