Editorial: Industry Converges To Talk Health And Food

By Len Monheit

Last week, just before the beginning of Natural Products Expo East, New Hope Natural Media and Stagnito Communications hosted the second ‘Healthy Foods’ Conference in Washington DC. Ironically, this event was held at the same time as, right across the street, hundreds attended the 2nd Annual World Obesity & Weight Loss Congress, sponsored by Business Access LLC. This convergence of events among other things is further illustration of the priority of health in society today. It also indicates some of the challenges facing companies and individuals whose interests straddle so many market or application areas. In this case, all events were in Washington – this is not always true. Still, taking it ‘all’ in can be a struggle, even for committed sector leaders. Getting the right people to the right event in the right environment (and on the agenda) is a serious challenge. Some of this was especially evident at the Healthy Foods Conference.

The Healthy Foods event brought together, in some cases for the first time, nutrition scientists, ingredient companies (albeit only two or three of these), food service leaders such as SYSCO, huge food companies such as Kraft, Tyson and Smithfield Foods, natural products visionaries, agro-business innovators, industry communicators and trend identifiers and regulators.

The event had 75 or so attendees, up from last year’s numbers and a program that was a mix of stats and trends, interspersed with success stories from visionaries and case studies of notable successes. Event sponsors were provided the floor to talk about their products and applications and the two day program had a lot to offer – in general.

The highlight of the event, for me at least, was the presentation by Minute Maid’s (Coca Cola) Kirsten Bahlke as she described the process and evolution of her company’s relationship with Cargill Health 7 food Technologies that resulted in the launch of Minute Maid’s Heart Wise containing Cargill’s Corowise phytosterol ingredient.

While the presentation began with identification of the drivers that made this product so compelling, Bahlke quickly went into the internal thought processes and operations that allowed evaluation of the opportunity. She identified the rationale for introduction into an existing brand and then laid out for attendees the key ingredient partner criteria that the company had developed, describing the relationship with Cargill as an overwhelming success in all critical areas. This alone was worth the price of admission, and it was extremely distressing to see only three or four ingredient companies in the audience soaking up the intelligence. Even on the food side, it appeared as though companies gained significant insight into how to address the inevitable introduction of healthier offerings.

Some other key components of the presentation, in addition to focusing on MinuteMaid’s partner expectations, included their opportunity assessment criteria, pricing strategy (the product was introduced without a price premium applied) and through questions following the presentation, the company’s performance criteria. A key factor for ingredient companies attempting to duplicate this relationship model certainly has to be vision.

I particularly appreciated the fact that this presentation provided limited stats, trends and demographics and quickly got into the substance of the development process. Several other presentations, either in part or as the entirety of their presentations did justice to this aspect.

A point which came up in several presentations was that innovation does not occur in large corporations – it is usually applied there. Small and mid-size companies in the industry are drivers of innovation and testers of new technology, and this experience and expertise is then transferred into or acquired by the large corporations. Those who expect the large companies to innovate by nature ignore both size and risk factors.

The Day 1 presentations started off with food service company SYSCO giving background into why they were participating in the general move to healthy foods mentioning portion control, the rise of specialty grocers, the role and awareness of brands such as POM, and the rise and opportunity represented by the organic marketplace. What was significant was hearing a food service company, and in fact, the entire audience, ‘talking the same language’.

A mid-afternoon session, presented as a blur by IMAGINutrition’s Anthony Almada appeared to be intended to stimulate interest in emerging science and technology. In the 35 or so minute presentation, Almada moved from chocolate to vinegar to olive oil to vitamin C to nuts to obesity in a whirlwind of slides and science, much of which was clearly beyond the ability of the audience to comprehend.

Another case study presented in the two-day conference dealt with Unilever’s Promise Buttery Spread, and that company’s learnings in the functional foods arena over the past 40 years. The presentation also dealt with past and current marketing programs in Canada that have led to changes in strategy for the US marketplace. Key presentation points were that risk reduction is not a driver – it needs to be positive messaging, the health of children is absolutely a key motivator, indulgence is a factor, and the audience clearly understood that the company’s strategy was to recognize healthful choices as “desirous, not virtuous”.

Part of Unilever’s strategy, according to presenter Dr. Douglas Ballentine, is to engage the health professional as a communication vehicle and influencer and future plans include evaluation of opportunities for products targeting joints, eyes and cognitive function. Perhaps surprisingly to some, he identified emerging markets such as Latin America as potential targets. Once again, a message that came clearly to those in attendance was to use and leverage existing brand equity with a new healthful option.

I was unable to participate in all of the second day’s presentation’s but spoke with colleagues where I was unable to observe myself. Lunchtime keynote speakers Mel Coleman of Coleman’s Natural Meats and Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm were inspiring, and afternoon presentation by Lori Dahm (Stagnito New Products Magazine) and Steve French (The Natural Marketing Institute) rounded out the day. Take home messages included ‘simple is better’, children’s nutrition (and obesity and other issues arising from poor nutrition) is probably the most significant driver, communication through health professionals is critical, breakfast is the time of day where consumers are most ready to think about healthy options, and that other motivators such as sustainability are important factors in consumer buying decisions.

In general, there was value in most of the presentations. Many companies not in attendance could have gained valuable insights (ingredient companies especially) and some of the presentations were clearly directed at the wrong audience. (at scientists rather than marketers etc.) It appeared as though there was a bit of confusion in message targeting for the conference as a whole, and significant repetition of background ‘Health & Wellness – why we are here’ data that might have been replaced with additional case studies, perhaps on products which failed or opportunities not realized. The integration of food, food service, grocery, nutrition and the other groups was excellent, but the dynamic small and mid-size companies, those drivers of innovation, were not represented at all, and if the conference is to realize its full potential, this group must have a voice.

The cast of presenters, along with the event’s attendees, raised several issues worthy of ongoing consideration and development, and it would have been beneficial to see these verbally extracted from the proceedings and placed into a context and message for all attendees – prior to, or at the event’s close. This would have set the stage for ongoing dialogue and certainly built momentum for next year’s event. The challenge now for the show’s organizers will be to determine how to keep the dialogue going, so that as the marketplace evolves, this evolution and the opportunities it creates can effectively be: anticipated, stimulated, captured and analyzed – year after year.

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