R&D departments have upgraded their sources of information in recent years. As companies become larger, they hire better trained individuals for their departments. Most of the major companies we spoke with are adding Ph.D.-level scientists to their departments, and are adding more diversity of training.
Almost 87 percent of the companies answering our questionnaires had chief research officers with doctorates, and they were not all food scientists, although the majority had studied in that discipline. They attend short courses (55 percent had been to one in the past two years). All of the groups reported getting information from suppliers, generally technical information about ingredients or processes.
About half studied current patents, or receive information about patents on a formal, consistent basis. Consortiums, such as those sponsored by universities, and government agencies appear to be losing favor.
What’s on the burner?
Despite fears that Walmartizing organic foods will bring prices so low that there will be a shortage of organic ingredients, organics are likely to see continued growth, at least for the time being, according to survey respondents. As more ingredients are marketed that can be certified as organic (sugar, starches, spices, natural colors, fruit ingredients) more products can be produced in this category.
Another trend is the push for “fresher” foods, and research will continue to look at ways to minimally process foods for safety without changing the flavor and texture very much.
Looking for new ingredients and their uses is of interest to food companies, both those involved in retail foods as well as ingredient suppliers. New activities in basic ingredients that suggest future products includes Nestle’s work in new strains of lactic acid bacteria for use in milk-based products; Unilever’s reported work on tomatoes with a different set of flavanols at enhanced levels; Kraft’s new work in deflavoring soy ingredients using pH control and ultrafiltration for use in delicately flavored foods.
Is research changing from food science to a combination of disciplines? It would appear so, with increased attention to culinary arts, cutting edge nutrition, and the science of producing raw materials with more emphasis on nutrition and flavor than cost. As Rick Shearer, president of Oscar Mayer Foods noted recently in the Madison (Wis.) Business Journal, “Consumers’ focus on health and wellness is no longer a come-and-go trend. It is building multiple consumer segments of people seeking no sugar, organic or natural ingredients and other foods.” Meeting these consumer needs requires a lot of science from a lot of different people.
As we have for several years, we sent surveys to about 125 companies in July and August. Some of the responses included verbatim comments, and personal interviews were conducted with a few generous folks.