West London Food Innovation Lab: Preparing producers for the future of food
When KFC introduced “The Imposter” burger in the UK this June, patty stocks ran out within just four days. According to the fast-food chain, sales for the vegan burger were 500 percent higher than that of the regular burger.
Another fast-food chain to turn an old favourite into a vegan-friendly option is Subway; the world-famous guilty pleasure of Friends’ Joey Tribbiani–the meatball sub–reportedly made its meat-free debut in outlets across Manchester and Birmingham this October 30.
Whether in restaurant chains like these or across supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, home of the UK’s first meat-free butcher, the growing popularity of vegetarianism, veganism and the newfangled flexitarian diet are changing the future of food.
The 21st century eater is a health and eco-conscious consumer with a preference for clean label products that are natural, contains recognisable ingredients and are free of additives and synthetics.
They prefer whole over processed foods, never mind the higher price tag. Their propensity for choosing plant-based proteins over meats, and sustainably sourced foods, mean food purchases are only made after ingredient labels are carefully assessed for their nutritional makeup and production source.
Whether adopted for health reasons or to reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture or simply as a political statement, anecdotal and market evidence combine to indicate that the trend of eating clean and green isn’t just a flash in the pan.
Recent statistics in The Vegan Society said vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the British population in 2025, and flexitarians just under half of all consumers.
From a business standpoint, this massively impacts every stakeholder across the food supply chain. It means from pre-farm to post-fork, every producer, manufacturer, supplier, packager and distributor of food must innovate and create new products to suit the changing palates of the future.
But as any F&B business operating in such volatile times would agree, innovation is no cakewalk. This is especially tough for startups and SMEs who may not have massive budgets to spend on the research and development of new products.
“It’s one thing coming up with an innovative new concept, it is another building a successful new product or business on the back of it,” points out Professor Alexandros Paraskevas, Chair of Hospitality Management at University of West London’s (UWL) London Geller College of Hospitality and Tourism.
Paraskevas, who is also a Professor in Strategic Risk Management at the university, says although spending on research and development could pay off multiple times over, doing so without the right guidance and technical know-how puts the bottom line at risk.
For small businesses in particular, developing new product can be an “incredibly difficult and expensive” process to get right, he adds.
To help fill this gap for outfits operating in the London and Greater London areas, UWL launched a dedicated food product development facility at its premises last year.
Paraskevas is the academic lead at the facility, called the West London Food Innovation Lab (WLFIL), where academics and experts at the university work with local food and drink businesses to craft new recipes that define the future of food.
Where culinary knowledge meets science
A £1.5 million project developed with the support of the European Regional Development Fund, the West London Food Innovation Lab provides startups and SMEs advice and technical support crucial for the development of new or the reformulation of old products.
While culinary experts from the university help with product ideation, lab scientists and technicians provide the support necessary to guide products to the marketplace.
“Our team combines a deep culinary expertise with scientific knowledge and capability which can help you bring your concepts to life in our lab and to enable you reproduce it successfully and safely in your own facility,” the university explains on its website.
Among its members, the team offers decades of experience in the food industry, from research expertise in critical areas such as diet and nutrition, and food science and technology, as well as practical knowledge from years of engagement with key sector leaders.
Once in the trenches of industry themselves, they know the primary pain points facing F&B operators today. Their experience in academia, meanwhile, gives them the added edge of scientific knowledge and blue-skies thinking, two elements critical to the success of any innovation.
Paraskevas, for example, has strong links with industry and extensive food and beverage operations management knowledge, having worked more than 12 years with companies like Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
The As to Zs of food production
The lab is a state-of-the-art facility, offering businesses a wide range of services to cover the entire food production journey.
At its product development kitchen, UWL’s team of experts help SMEs refine current product formulations, develop new formulations or extend a product line, depending on the current needs of their businesses.
From ideation, the product is guided into a fully-developed prototype with a structured recipe, following rigorous tests on technical feasibility, and assessments and selection of vital ingredients.
Lab scientists will help ensure and confirm the nutritional content of the product, breaking these down according to moisture, protein, fat, carbohydrates and energy levels. Advice on labelling will also be provided to ensure the products created meet regulatory requirements and standards.
The product’s organoleptic features (taste, smell, appearance and texture) will also be evaluated to help SMEs with key decisions on design, production and quality assurance, among others.
Depending on the requirements of the organisation, sensory testing can be performed on target customers to garner instant feedback, and can include a descriptive sensory profiling (in-depth assessment of the product’s characteristics); consumer choice drivers; shelf-life sensory profiling and competitive benchmarking with other products.
Texture and structure are also tested to provide insight into the changes that may occur in the product during different stages of production and storage. From product flow characteristics to deformation, viscosity, shear-stability, elasticity, firmness, spreadability and adhesiveness, these elements, separately and together, are critical to understanding product quality and durability.
For food producers, this knowledge also goes towards controlling product volume and understanding storage needs.
Finally, UWL’s lab experts provide expert advice on cost improvements and on how to navigate complex regulatory compliance frameworks, which can be a daunting affair for SMEs and young food startups.
Bringing the future of food to you
Already, the WLFIL has helped scores of London-based small businesses with developing innovative, new food products that cater to the changing demands of modern eaters.
From developing a rice-based, dairy-free yoghurt to a crunchy, roasted cricket snack, a range of cold-brew teas and plant-based jerky, UWL’s teams have drawn upon the breadth and depth of their knowledge in food to give these businesses a leg up in an increasingly competitive field.
Most crucially, companies can access the lab at no cost, another attractive feature of the facility for the resource-starved SME. For the university, the value it receives from engaging with local business pays off in multiple ways; its academics gain critical industry knowledge and exposure, as do its graduates.
For businesses, the WLFIL holds the key to solving its innovation problems and unlocking the future of food.
As UWL Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter John says: “This is where we can help make a difference and really add value for SMEs.”
Is your food business looking to take its next big innovation leap? Get in touch with an expert at the West London Food Innovation Lab today.
The project ‘West London Food Innovation Lab’ has received £739,159 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information click here.