Consumer Trends Driving Ingredient Innovation

Simon Norman – Sector Specialist

Through our Science Group companies we are very well-placed to  reach across, understand and influence the innovation space incorporating consumer insights, market analysis, product development and regulatory support. This means we have the privilege of seeing what innovations are coming down the pipeline as well as speaking regularly with consumers to understand what innovations are most important.

Consumer trends (February 2020)

In preparation for a talk planned for a conference in March, we ran an insights survey to our UK consumer database to build a forecast of key trends for 2020. (Of course, this data immediately became a little dated due to the COVID-19 crisis, but we’ll cover later in this post).

The aim of this  research was to understand what ingredient trends we may expect to see dominate the next year of innovation projects:  our key finding was that consumers want to see more inclusion of functional ingredients in day-to-day products.

In general terms, that means bringing to market products including ingredients targeted toward improving gut health, boosting the immune system, and building energy and alertness through the day. These desired benefits are conserved across all demographics, though there are some interesting nuances in demographic splits.

A desire for ingredients which help promote gut health commands an even higher demand within the over 65 demographic. Other potential product benefits are desired by 16-35 age group, like ingredients which will aid performance or sports recovery. Providing functional ingredients to benefit skin or hair quality is doubly important for women than for men.

 

Finally, we should also note the ongoing, and now long term trend, towards natural, clean label, low sugar, low salt, low fat products. For many consumers, this is the new baseline and any product development must build in these attributes as a hygiene factor, not a unique selling point.

Consumer trends (now)

Interestingly, a recent “impacts of COVID-19” study we ran doesn’t show too many differences in terms of what people are looking for. The majority of respondents suggested that they have not changed their feelings on sustainability and ethics of food in light of the pandemic. Specifically, respondents did not show any new concerns over food hygiene in the supermarket or food service industries. The biggest impact respondents noted are on the availability of certain ingredients, and the decision to go to the supermarket less often and buy more at once. (NB: our respondents are UK based only – where the food supply chain feels fairly remote.)

 

Ingredient Technologies

So, it’s important to think about how we can develop products that meet these dominant trends. We know that for many of our clients, communicating with consumers is all about the benefits we can deliver as product developers. Therefore, if we look back at the high priority benefits that consumers are demanding, we need to ask where we can expect to find those new ingredients.

If we were to pinpoint one single technology which seems to be top of everyone’s mind right now, it’s the continuing broadening of fermentation technologies to solve core consumer challenges. If you believe the hype, fermentation could be the answer to all your problems as a technology developer. That may or may not be the case, but it’s worth thinking about with respect to consumer trends:

  • Health claims – especially important given the consumer trend for Gut Health claims, amongst other “halo benefits”, with consumers believing that fermented products bring with them health benefits in a systemic manner. Building off the traditional credibility and consumer buzz of products such kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut seems like a winning proposition.
  • Alternative proteins – so much of the current technology underpinning the explosion in alternative protein products is at its heart, fermentation and we expect to see more big brands getting on board with this over the next few years
  • Preservation – of course, fermentation has been a traditional preservation technology for millenia, but we now see deep interest in fermentation products as preservation ingredients. One key benefit is to labeling – where consumers may perceive “fermented beetroot extract” for instance as much more preferable to a scary chemical name. Ingredient companies are clearly chasing this opportunity hard, and the opportunity is definitely gaining traction with our clients. This isn’t, however, a new trend, and there are challenges, not least to cost basis of the product or the resultant flavour profile
  • Texture modifiers – we can also rely on microbial or enzymatic action to modify proteins and create different textural or mouthfeel attributes in products. Certain cultures are fantastic at creating exopolysaccharides, which could provide rheological stability, body and depth to a formulation, whilst keeping a seemingly clean label.

 

R&D Acceleration

One challenge we encounter regularly is the issue of how long it can take to reformulate to meet these dominant consumer trends. Big brand products have a long heritage and an emotional connection with their customers, built on certain product attributes which need to be maintained. Yet, they must still adapt and respond to market trends to survive.

There is a trade-off as R&D teams reformulate for natural ingredients for example: will they maintain the same shelf life, will there be a textural modification, will the flavour be perceived in the same way? This can sometimes lead to a paralysis or very long R&D cycles as the “perfect” solution is sought.

We have two pragmatic suggestions:

Firstly, consumer sensory data shows that many times, the actual “must have” attributes are not quite as strict as some product management teams believe. We’ve successfully created white space for innovation by challenging the perceived brand core-identity, backed up by consumer sensory data and preference maps. If you can more precisely quantify and describe your boundaries and red lines, formulators have a much higher chance of success.

The second technique underpinning our approach to R&D acceleration is the development of sensory predictive models: the aim of this is to help teams iterate more quickly in the labs, minimising time lost waiting for sensory results and minimising out of pocket costs.

Our approach is to identify, design and transfer to our client specific analytical tests which are correlated and calibrated through data science techniques to quantitative sensory insights. In doing this, product formulators can get rapid feedback that they’re on the right track with development, which ultimately should help to widen the funnel for new functional ingredients.

Something in conclusion

The impacts of COVID-19, as it pertains to consumer trends and relationship with food products, will be unpredictable in the immediate short term. But we believe the trend for more functional ingredients and more direct on-package claims will continue regardless: consumers are more aware than ever on the link between diet and different aspects of personal health.

R&D teams also need to be structured in a manner which allows for agile and efficient testing of new ingredient technologies – either through partnering with start-ups, engaging with the bulk ingredient suppliers, or developing new methods in house.

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