How Creativity and Community Prompt Innovation in the Food Industry

June 15, 2022
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is a blend of people, groups, and ideas that bring concepts to market.

While individual achievements in developing new foods and food safety technologies are celebrated, talk to creators and they’ll tell you that the process resulted from the contributions of many along the way. To bring creative new food and beverage products to market requires a community effort.

Rarely following a straight line, developers of new innovations benefit when people outside their sphere connect to discuss and debate key aspects of technical development. These connections — formal or informal, planned or spontaneous — help creators make critical decisions and move ideas to market. The food and beverage ecosystem is naturally suited for innovation as stakeholders race to find cost-effective, sustainable and practical consumer solutions.

Sometimes new ideas are sparked and helped along by university researchers. Perhaps the technology-transfer office provides an introduction for licensing opportunities. And then there is industry. Private sector curiosity, analysis and investment (including from private equity) can help new ideas survive the “valley of death” — the metaphor used to describe the time gap between idea inception and commercialization.

Additionally, innovation requires navigating regulatory shoals. Understanding and valuing the perspectives of government officials and scientists can make or break key investments of time, energy and resources. Knowledge of regulations and guidance helps move a product from development to commercialization. Seeking out key contacts spanning food safety regulators, academic researchers, venture capital and industry scientists aligns decision makers around critical issues on the path to market — tapping needed resources and knowledge.

Because the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences’ membership embraces all three sectors — academia, industry and government — we would like to highlight some of the themes and innovations we’ve recently heard about. For example:

  • Alternative proteins from various non-animal sources continue to generate significant interest – whether from fermentation technologies or plant-based – and can be integrated into novel foods using traditional spectroscopy techniques.
  • Technology can be applied at the plant-breeding or post-harvest stages to change ingredients. For example, a firm has invented a technology to remove bitterness from the Pongamia bean for oil, flour and proteins.
  • Food safety remains important. Whether by applying crowd sourcing or more traditional methods, improvements benefit the public. Salmonella in dairy powder is hard to detect due to its low prevalence. New research has arrived at optimal sampling strategies to address it.
  • Production of palatable foods with reduced sodium content aids health by reducing sodium overconsumption. New sensory research on reducing salt in bread contributes to this goal.

Innovation labs and food incubators in North Carolina, Georgia and Saskatchewan, Canada all offer manufacturing space and machinery, and research services. They operate under a ‘cost-recovery’ model giving entrepreneurs access to reduced-rate equipment. Entrepreneurs can then innovate without major equipment investments. Most incubators offer wet processing, thermal, extraction, extrusion and drying/blending services.

According to Shannon Hood-Niefer, PhD, MBA, the Vice President of Innovation & Technology at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, it’s wise for new entrepreneurs to come in with not just one idea, but ideas for adjacent products in case their first idea’s popularity wanes.

No discussion of innovation would be complete without the voices of consumer and health advocates. The National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative is interested in changing the food supply. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advocates for more transparency, independent safety analysis, and neutral and informative labels. The American Heart Association is concerned about the 126.9 million people in the world with cardiovascular disease and the social and nutritional determinants and impacts of that disease burden. They call on innovators to chip away at health disparities by considering how each ingredient decision, distribution plan and marketing practice may impact historically marginalized communities.

Innovation happens in context, and bringing together government, academic and industry scientists to discuss not only new ideas but their potential impact on the broader society is key.

IAFNS' Annual Meeting & Science Symposium (a hybrid event) is coming up June 21-23 in Washington, DC. Learn about it and IAFNS here.

About the Author

Wendelyn Jones | PhD

Dr. Wendelyn Jones is Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (iafns.org). She has a passion for bringing together science and society, drawing from her global experiences working across chemical, agricultural, food, and health sectors. She applies her PhD in life sciences to extend IAFNS’ contribution to, and impact within, diverse scientific and health communities.

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