How to stay ahead in the evolving world of food & drink
Not five years ago, many would shudder at just the notion of eating insects, despite it being a tradition that dates back more than five million years.
Today, nearly a third of Britons believe insects will eventually become a part of mainstream human diets, amid challenges to food production caused by the climate crisis.
Although yet to become the mainstay of the global food economy, the protein-packed superfood is already crawling onto our dinner plates and into our snack bars, even hitting the shelves of popular supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and becoming the subject of themed restaurants.
In the world of food and drink, that’s how quickly consumer mindsets and preferences can change and why food product innovation is key to surviving the marketplace.
A sector hungry for innovation
New lifestyle trends, changing socioeconomic factors and rising consumer awareness are driving the growth in demand for a year-round supply of high-quality, diverse and innovative food products.
These factors have revolutionised the food and drink landscape, spawning newfangled trends such as veganism and its variants, clean label eating, health foods, plant-based diets and, most significantly, the growing popularity of foods with low carbon footprints.
Today’s consumers want food and drink products able to keep up with their changing palates, and they are willing to spend on the innovations that can best cater to their needs.
Although this opens up new growth opportunities for manufacturers and retailers, it also means remaining competitive can be tough. More than just staying on top of fluctuating industry trends, it requires adapting products to the changing tastes of the 21st-century consumer and taking innovation leaps.
But if the right products are able to hit the market with speed, innovation can help them deliver on strategic goals and differentiate themselves from the competition. And given the pace of change in the industry today, there’s no better time to start than now.
Well begun is half done
When it comes to product innovation, just getting started is already half the battle won, according to Catherine Wall, a Lab Technician over at the West London Food Innovation Lab.
The Lab, a £1.5 million facility launched last year with the support of the European Regional Development Fund, was created to help food and drink businesses across London and Greater London innovate and get their new products to market.
“And I would urge them to remember this: sometimes, even no result is a result,” Wall says.
Of course, innovation does come with its challenges.
Remember McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, Burger King’s Satisfries and New Coke? These products have one thing in common: they all flopped in the market.
The lesson here is that deep pockets and grand-scale launches don’t always win the marketplace. In fact, statistics show that about 85 percent of new consumer packaged products (CPG) fail within two years of launch.
For smaller operations, this may seem a daunting prospect – if CPG’s biggest guns can fail this way, how would the small food and drink startup ever stand a fighting chance?
But at the Lab, Wall and her colleagues are tasked with making sure they do.
Dedicated teams, dedicated service
The Lab itself was created to help SMEs with their innovation pain points. It recognises that although essential to the survival of any food and drink business, innovation can be a difficult and expensive process for the resource-starved SME.
“One of the biggest challenges for businesses, especially the startup, would be cost. It can be very expensive to commission the services of a product development lab for analysis and testing,” Wall points out.
For this reason, the Lab offers an initial consultation with no charge, after which businesses can access services that meet their requirements at a budget that suits them.
Food and drink businesses simply need to present their innovation challenges to the Lab Technical Team and, depending on the complexity of their needs, would likely have their finished product ready within the week.
During the process, culinary experts will help with product ideation and the formulation or reformulation of recipes. Lab scientists and technicians like Wall will provide the support necessary to guide the products to the marketplace.
Cutting-edge equipment for sensory and texture analysis in two well-equipped labs and a kitchen for product development also mean businesses will be working with the best in the market.
And more than that, the facility’s location at the University of West London, home to the Culinary Arts school and the School of Food and Hospitality, gives it the added advantage of access to a wide range of academic resources, from the latest literature to professors well-versed in food science.
To stay updated on the latest trends themselves, Wall and her colleagues are constantly out in the field to attend workshops food shows and conduct market research, while also reviewing literature.
A supportive environment
What makes the facility stand out from other food product development centres is that clients are involved every step of the way, not just in the innovation process but in understanding the science behind each decision.
“There’s plenty of back-and-forth between kitchen and lab and client so that it helps them understand that science plays a big part in their processing journey,” Wall explains.
“At the end of the process, we invite them into our facility where we hold a meeting to not just showcase the product but also explain the process and go through all results with them quite thoroughly.”
For SMEs, this dedicated support goes a long way towards helping them to the finish line in their innovation journey. Since launch, the Lab has helped over 70 different businesses with their product innovation challenges.
Some of these have involved ingredients the team had never themselves worked with, such as one that involved a roasted cricket snack, as well as challenges that required rigorous market research to better understand the competitive landscape, such as one that involved a cold brew tea.
But with the combined expertise of Lab’s team members, every challenge has proved a success so far, with several products even leaving the facility to hit supermarket shelves.
Backed by these experiences and an ever-expanding wealth of knowledge on the world of food and drink, Wall urges more SMEs to bring their innovation challenges to the facility.
The key, she said, is in simply taking that first step.
“If they’re at home, wracking their brains because they can’t seem to get the innovation or the recipe or product they really want right, they just need to come into the Lab and see the facilities that we have,” she said.
“We have two highly-equipped labs, we have product development chefs and we have sensory analysis capabilities. So if the startup is struggling with the ‘imposter syndrome’, we can validate their product with our sensory analysis and give them the peace of mind they need.
“You must remember that food product development and innovation is not a short-term thing… it’s a long-term process. At the West London Food Innovation Lab, we’re able to help food businesses get their feet off the ground to get started on that journey.”
Do have an innovation challenge that needs solving? 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.