Sunday, 12 December 2010

Food Designer: Where innovation becomes edible

A drop of inspiration
by Tammy Bogestrand
under BY-NC-ND
In most productive sectors product innovation is a major drive for the market. Take the automotive industry, for instance. Innovative designs, new technologies that affect safety, performance or cost are all evaluated by the consumers and contribute to making their choice.

As with any rule, exceptions exist. The tourism industry, for example. There, the consumer often wants to re-live an experience; at least, a considerable part of the market is related to experiencing tradition and cultural heritage.

The food industry lies somewhere in between. Policy makers tend to treat it as a traditional sector, although that trend is not too consistent.  And so do most of the consumers. "Food", as a word, doesn't automatically link to the words "novelty" or "innovation". That doesn't mean that there is no innovation in the sector. On the contrary. While technologies that can ensure safety and quality have been in place for many, many, many years (thermal processing, the use of salt or smoke for food preservation, food fermentation, are all really old breakthroughs), further progress is ongoing.

Much of that innovation in the food sector is under the hood, transparent to the consumer. Take high temperature - short time pasteurisation, for instance. While not too recent as a piece of innovation, it is commonly used on liquid products, such as milk or juices and together with aseptic packaging can give products with amazing shelf-life, without sacrificing any of the nutritional characteristics of the raw ingredients (well, the latter is not 100% accurate but the losses are minor). Depending on the local labelling legislation and its implementation, the consumer may be unaware of the pasteurisation technology employed.
It's only when a food product is marketed as innovative that the consumers will establish it as such and associate it with the brand. Energy drinks is a good example, where consumers are likely to be informed of the innovation involved and aware various differences across the products currently available. Products containing stanol or sterol esters (which can lower cholesterol levels) is another such example.

Unlike the other industries, the food industry hosts very diverse views when it comes to innovating. Few would object to employing innovation for the benefit of enhanced safety. However, even there barriers exist. For instance, food irradiation has never gained wide acceptance - at least not in Europe. Also, technologies that affect any sensory property, making the product to diverge from the established norm, are likely to be met with skepticism. That has been one of the hurdles for high pressure pasteurisation, which in some cases affects the colour of the treated foodstuffs. Innovation in the food sector also is a question of ethics, as well as subject to the specific food law.

Interestingly, however, a wave of industry professionals is working towards innovation that will be clearly visible to the consumer. The so called "functional foods" is one such example. "Minimally processed" food is another one, where the innovation is on the way of safe delivery rather than on the formulation. The whole food experience is studied by an emerging class of "food designers". The modern way of living, at least in the big, busy cities of the world, poses several challenges to the food producers and gives ground for further thinking. Effective and handy food packaging, which is nice to the environment, portions that are "right", variety in flavours and nutritional balance, the food experience at a catering venue, all these are examples of the challenges on the table.

Food designers certainly have a lot to deal with, not only from the scientific or technological point of view, but also from the social. Food has always been a social element and that isn't going to change much any time soon. Compromising innovation with the societal perception for food and food preparations is, for sure, challenging. A good side effect of that is that any innovation reaching - finally - the consumer is likely to be a more "mature" one, which is a good thing when it comes to playing with nutrition and food.

One thing is certain, though: food attracts attention. Or at least gastronomy does. The weekly TV programme, in Greece, hosts at least 6 gastronomy-related shows, which collectively manage to get a fair share of the viewing audience. Of course, unlike technological innovation, gastronomical innovation is more familiar to the consumer. It is a kind of creativity within the reach of every one of us. Messing with flavours, recipes and dishes can be part of the social game, too. Can food designers do something like that with the other aspects of food innovation? Is there a way for technological innovation to have social consensus (ethics included) early in the product development process?

Food innovation doesn't mean that we should forget about the traditional qualities of food, both raw and processed. That means that we, consumers, should learn about what we eat, both the good and the not-so-good side, and learn how to make informed choices. To that end, relying solely on the industry to provide such education to the extent needed, doesn't make sense. Legislation and formal education can help but, again, they are no panacea. When it comes to such knowledge, consumers should care to undertake such initiative.

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