Waiting for the super-nutrition revolution
wanted, they would have said faster horses, provides food makers
with a lesson they must learn.
Potassium chloride-based salt substitutes for salt-reduced ready meals, sweeteners such as xylitol for sugar-free drinks and chewing gum, and wholegrain bread that tastes like white bread. These are all healthy innovations that are undoubtedly helping to make current food choices more nutritious. But they don't exactly equate to rolling out a motorcar for the masses. And without that vital leap of imagination, the industry is simply giving the consumer faster horses when it should be developing 21st century food for 21st century needs. Today, most food industry R&D programs are concentrated on incorporating new ingredients into existing products, to counter consumer concerns. But the core of these concerns is a desire for greater health and nutrition. The big step forwards will be that of super-nutrition. This may mean that much of the current R&D will have been wasted effort. The development of palatable and all-natural alternatives to sodium is allowing producers to create low-salt ready meals. But ready meals are still ready meals whether they are low-salt or not, and tend to be low in nutritional value. Similarly, while sugar-free soft drinks increasingly taste more and more like the Real Thing, they remain nutritionally void. As a prominent figure in the US nutrition field recently asked, since when did such a product become the default drink of choice? The hold-up for companies in pushing towards profound nutritional upgrading lies in a belief that consumers will not buy differently. But eating habits change. In the UK, today, people already eat a menu that would have been unrecognizable 30 years ago. And food companies have the market awareness, the technology and the ingredients to shift consumer expectations of what healthy food should be. It is therefore up to food makers to provide viable alternatives to traditional products, not just healthier carbon copies. Innovations such as microencapsulation mean that manufacturers have greater flexibility than ever before, while companies such as David Michael and Chr Hansen are pioneering new natural flavors and colors. In addition trans-fat free nonhydrogenated soybean oil is being developed, while new sweeteners including dihydrochalcones, derived from citrus fruits, are on the horizon. Surely with this amount of innovation going on, manufacturers can do better than simply reel off versions of tried and tested formulae. It is a tough industry to be in, and consumer trends and tastes will of course continue to play a hugely influential role in what food manufacturers can produce. Reticence is entirely understandable. Food makers, operating in intensely competitive conditions with increasingly narrow margins, are inevitably nervous about throwing caution to the wind and telling consumers that, in fact, this is what they should be consuming. But it is precisely for these reasons that food makers should now focus on the future. The industry has the opportunity to redefine the terms of the debate; to say to consumers that healthy food does not have to be merely a slightly more nutritious imitation of what they're used to. That means assigning a greater portion of R&D resources to developing wholly new products that crack the nutrition mission. Success is never guaranteed, but it is a truism that fortune favors the brave. When Ford finally succeeded in establishing his motorcar company in 1903, it was his third attempt. By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts. And only cowboys were still riding horses. Anthony Fletcher is the editor of FoodNavigator.com and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, he has lived and worked in the UK, France and Japan. If you would like to comment on this article please e-mail email@example.com.