Editor's Plate: The Eternal Quest for What's Next

May 24, 2018
The Next Big Thing – in technology, product development or consumer tastes – is a perpetual quest, and there may be missteps, but don’t stop trying.

Two months ago I ran out of my staple Coca-Cola Cherry Zero and headed to the local grocery to restock. Coke was not on sale ($1.70 per 2-liter bottle) but Pepsi was (88 cents!). Hmmm.

I’ve written before about diet cherry cola being my go-to beverage, and I used to buy the Coca-Cola or Pepsi products interchangeably, depending upon price. I couldn’t detect a difference in taste; they were both good products. On the rare occasions when I found a store brand of diet cherry cola, I stayed with my two branded favorites.

Then, in 2015, I wrote – somewhat admirably – of PepsiCo being brave enough to change its sweetener from aspartame to a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium because of (perceived) consumer concerns over safety of aspartame.

While nothing in the realm of food safety frightens me, I at first gravitated toward Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry because of that decision. Not because I’m worried about aspartame but because I applauded PepsiCo for trying to ascertain What’s Next and for being brave enough to act. I was even mildly excited when I bought my first bottle of the new formula. But when I tasted it, that first bottle became my last bottle. I have the least discriminating taste buds I know of, but even I could tell the difference, and the difference was not good.

Three years went by and on the rare occasions when I did buy Diet Pepsi it only confirmed my decision to stick with Coke. I wasn’t alone; sales of all formulas of Diet Pepsi were tanking because of the taste difference. For me, it was nothing but aspartame-laced Coca-Cola Cherry Zero, even when the Pepsi products were on sale.

The sales drop was not a temporary thing, and eventually there were reports that PepsiCo was relenting, that the aspartame was coming back. The stories always mentioned Diet Pepsi, never Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, and I kept checking the label of their cherry cola for the return of aspartame, but they took forever to get around to my Pepsi product.

Then came that $1.70 vs. 88 cents evening at Jewel Food Store. I looked and there, back on the ingredient statement, was aspartame. I bought, I drank, I enjoyed again.

That’s my long-winded way of saying that listening to consumers, cleaning up your ingredient list and otherwise trying to divine What’s Next is tough. A clean label is the most important trend in the food & beverage industry right now, and we’ve written about that subject numerous times in many different ways. But What’s Next, after clean label? That’s the question that consumes our cover story this month.

I’ve been an editor on food magazines long enough (25 years) to have seen a few What’s Nexts. In the early 1990s when I was writing for another food magazine, the answer clearly was private label foods. The death of brands was imminent.

I think the very next year I declared the future to belong to ethnic foods. Not really backtracking, a year after that I focused that thought on kosher and halal foods. Nah, I take that back: Health and wellness will always be front and center, right? Let me take that thought a step further and declare nutraceuticals the Next Big Thing. Between the beta glucan in my cereal and the phytosterols in the margarine on my toast, breakfast was going to eliminate the need for cholesterol medication.

Actually, convenience always will be king. And all milk one day will be sold in aseptic bottles at ambient temperatures. Whatever happened to that “thermogenic” (calorie-burning) cola I wrote about in 2005?

I’ll stop now, I think you get the point. What’s Next or The Next Big Thing are moving targets, shadow figures or unicorns that many claim to have seen but they can never produce the proof. I hope my words speak louder than my actions, because even though I stopped buying Diet Pepsi for a while I really admired the company for trying to find What’s Next. Tread carefully, but like Fox Mulder on the X Files, you should never stop looking.

Maybe that’s why I’m always enthused by our annual R&D Survey. Among the label-cleaning, the safe product line extensions and the budget cuts, there are still product developers with enthusiasm, who enjoy their jobs and who keep looking for What’s Next. Maybe some of them will find it.

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