Familiarity with the food business over the years makes the current era strikingly different from the past in the way that present-day innovation is so powerfully driven by a singular interpretation of consumer wants and desires. In response to the belief that health and wellness are what consumers want from food, the industry has chosen to focus on simplicity in labeling. It encompasses dedication to producing foods and product lines promoted for offering health and well-being. This is hugely, if not totally, different from the past when food innovations largely resulted from the discovery of new ingredients, copying of products from different ethnicities or parts of the world, and advances in manufacturing and packaging. What is happening currently mainly reflects the breaking down of old ideas to come up with different, seemingly new products.
These developments have gone far enough that the temptation is great to compare what is happening in food to the restoration of antiques where added fabrics, paints or varnishes, even nails and tacks, meant to modernize a piece are removed in order to approach the original concept. As in antiques, the assumption is a denuded product has greater value than before these removals are undertaken. Examining statements that have recently originated from major fast-food chains makes the reality of such assertions quite plain. Removing ingredients that have played an important role in food preparation for many years without causing harm and actually having an important, positive effect in facilitating their making is what seems to be promised. These actions are meant to attract customers by producing food labels that feature fewer words, especially by eliminating words that smack of chemical compounds, is the current course pursued by many.
While it is a few food chains that have taken the lead in this simplification effort, at least in proclaiming steps that are still a year or more away from being executed, food manufacturers too have embraced this same movement. It may be deemed somewhat amusing to observe steps to remove ingredients or to replace long-used ingredients with similar products of different names. In effect, though, changing ingredients in this fashion signals concerns about ingredients that are still being used not just across the entire industry but often in products that are still being made by the same companies. Claiming a search for healthful ingredients as the reason for such ingredient switches makes little or no economic sense in the highly competitive food manufacturing business.
No sector of the food manufacturing industry is more caught up in this initiative than wholesale baking. Here the pressure for simplifying ingredients has spread like wildfire into every part, prompting baking companies to focus on developing new product lines and names that highlight the simpler label. The problem comes in advertising and promoting a product line as not containing named ingredients. That listing of removed ingredients cannot help being perceived by consumers as tainted and even undesirable. That is the last development the food industry needs just as the consumer focus on health and well-being intensifies to the point where it may be a real positive. Sure, capitalizing on this attitude may require new products in order to offer consumers fulfillment of their goals of totally healthy eating. In turn, these desires are mainly prompted by the just-arrived millennial generation and their eagerness to eat healthily. Most important, this tack works best by avoiding the awful consequences of ingredient manipulation.
The ultimate difficulty arises as food retailers of all sorts demand that products being featured in their stores carry simpler labels. Whether the first step in meeting these demands is taken on private label or food products marketed by the manufacturer, it is an approach fraught with problems and consequences. These make simplifying labels, rather than a positive, into a counter-productive effort that does little to encourage demand and may even prove troubling for its effect on consumers.