KANSAS CITY — This week the National Restaurant Association released its annual What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, and the results say a lot about the current state of food and beverage innovation and entrepreneurship. For many companies, innovation is becoming less about creating a new concept and more about finding ways to enhance a story in order to differentiate a traditional product or concept.

The top 10 trends cited in the report, which features nearly 1,300 responses from chefs to a survey conducted by the N.R.A. this fall, include:

  1. Locally sourced meats and seafood
  2. Locally grown produce
  3. Environmental sustainability
  4. Healthful children’s meals
  5. Natural ingredients/minimally processed food
  6. New cuts of meat
  7. Hyper-local sourcing
  8. Sustainable seafood
  9. Food waste reduction/management
  10. Farm/estate branded items

Storytelling has become a key component of food and beverage innovation and it is clear from the N.R.A.’s survey that it is top of mind among food service product developers. Focusing on such subjects as local, sustainable and natural allows companies to differentiate but also maintain a premium price point.

The focus on storytelling should not be surprising given how challenging it is to truly innovate in the food and beverage category. In other industries there is a lot of talk about disruption, the introduction of concepts and ideas that may radically alter a category.

In food and beverage, such efforts are daunting given the capital required, the industry’s rich history and the consumer’s penchant for familiar products. Anyone who has heard the NPD Group’s Harry Balzer speak about what Americans are eating knows it has not changed much in the more than two decades his market research firm has studied the subject.

What is changing are where foods are eaten, how they are formulated or prepared, and even how they are packaged. In these areas there is disruption, but when a third-party ingredient supplier or equipment manufacturer develops an idea that may be disruptive it quickly becomes the norm as companies adopt the technology.

So as the N.R.A.’s recent survey shows, storytelling is becoming a critical part of product development. Formulators are not just considering an ingredient’s flavor or functionality; they also are seeking the story that sets such a technology apart.

As discussion continues around the benefits of natural, local, sustainable, organic, and even the labeling of products manufactured using genetically modified ingredients, it is important to remember that the discussion is less about science or health and more about the story companies want to use in order to differentiate.