Editorial: Musings from the FoodSmarts IFT food Expo

By Len Monheit

The days of mere palatability for nutritional ingredient companies are long past, it quickly became evident at last week’s FoodSmarts IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) 2007 Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago. Wandering the show floor expecting to see a healthy ingredients pavilion, it was also quite obvious that a nutritional deliverable was a prerequisite to serious booth traffic as in the absence of a central location, health was pretty much everywhere. The show was well-trafficked, although Sunday it was evident that more people thought Chicago outdoors on a beautiful July day was a more appealing option.

Of course industry mainstays such as Cargill, DSM, Cognis, LycoRed and Orafti were present in full force, most with new booth structures and strategies, and if there were a few dominant themes, they’d probably be 1) ‘nutritional decadence’ 2) ‘snack healthy’ and 3) ‘out with the bad, in with the good’ also possibly known as ‘a salt on the senses’.

1) ‘Nutritional Decadence’

Industry a few years ago seemed merely content to show that you could incorporate nutritional ingredients into both foods and beverages without adverse taste and/or texture implications. This sensory neutrality was akin to the ‘do no harm’ principle, where you would at least have a ‘similar’ taste and texture to the unfortified product with companies discussing how proprietary technologies made products tasteless and odorless.

It was quite evident on this show floor, as one examined concept products made by the companies within our industry, that the challenge of providing ‘decadence’ was being embraced and that ‘just tasting ok’ was no longer acceptable. Great taste, challenging concept products and excellent texture and mouth feel have now become the norm for companies exhibiting at the event. Truffles, exotic drinks, and decadent baked goods were shown to be a viable delivery vehicle for functional ingredients, almost as if suppliers were saying – “bring it on”.

2) ‘Snack healthy’

While many product applications were featured, it seemed as if the proliferation of nutritional ingredients into snack foods was strongest. Phytosterols, omega-3’s, inulin and weight management ingredients were all effectively presented as snack components. I must confess that I actually expected to see more pitching of fruits and fruit components, although dialogue at stands like Ocean Spray International Services indicated that the potential, at least for cranberry containing products (including cranberry as a carrier of other ingredients) , was fueling significant capacity expansion to meet current and future demand. (of note at the Ocean Spray booth was a cranberry-containing gum.)

I did find it interesting to see that from a concept product standpoint at least, yogurts and yogurt shots seem to be perceived as appropriate product formats. In cakes and other products, inclusion of nutritional ingredients was repeatedly proven not to compromise texture or mouth feel attributes.

3) ‘Out with the bad’

Several years ago, replacement sweeteners dominated the ingredient shift as companies wanted to prove they could move more natural and healthy. While sweet it still a critical factor (in many cases companies in the probiotic space do note the slightly sweet characteristics of their products and there were a few ‘inulin sticks’ offered as quick fortification approaches), it was apparent from the show floor that salt reduction strategies are taking on a higher significance, associated with a blood pressure-related health benefit. Many concept products were salt reduced, in some cases with taste potentiators added so that the overall approach was ‘healthier’.

Among other observations, several nutritional ingredient companies including LycoRed are now targeting savory applications, several including DSM and PL Thomas are combining (at least in concept products with an indication that they are ready to do so in reality) several ingredients to achieve multiple nutritional benefits.

With obesity remaining in high profile, the expected weight management ingredients and strategies were much in evidence. While the body composition approach is increasingly substantiated as a form of weight management, (ie. CLA) it is beginning to appear that the satiety or fullness approach has significant appeal for functional foods and beverages. From show floor discussions, this seems to be a direction that food companies can understand and when combined with portion reduction, is likely a significant growth opportunity. DSM’s Fabuless™ is a case in point.

When a category is growing at the rate of double digits plus per year, one expects to see its inputs presented with emphasis. I am speaking of the organic sector, and here, I must confess, I was a bit surprised – I frankly had expected to see many more suppliers of organic ingredients, or perhaps to rephrase that since I know many companies on the floor do supply organic products, perhaps it is more fair to say I expected to see more active promotion of organic ingredients.

One interesting observation regarding the convergence of health and nutrition is illustrated as Wellmune WGP(R), a natural immune-enhancing functional food and beverage ingredient from Biothera, received a 2007 IFT Food Expo Innovation Award. While not wanting to read too much into this detail, it is interesting to note that the immune support category is at least now being considered to be a viable category for foods and beverages, indicating that preventative health through nutritional choices, at least as far as IFT scientists and judges are concerned, might have merit.

In my last pass through the exhibit hall, I found myself wondering and echoing the thoughts of many of my colleagues – Is the long promised era of Functional Foods finally here? Judging by interest, traffic, recent product introductions and many other elements, it would appear so.

Of course, the recent dialogue regardin gfood safety was a key discussion point, not only in the conference proceedings, but on the show floor itself. Major multinational ingredient companies were eager to explain their gloabl quality programs and plant standards, and all expressed hope that buyers would take more seriously their relationships with suppliers.

As next year’s event moves to New Orleans at the end of June (a great gesture at the very least), we’ll undoubtedly see more and I understand that the hall layout again calls for a Healthy Ingredients pavilion – guess we’ll have to see whether it ‘bursts at the seams’

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