2021 R&D Survey: R&D Teams Are Eager to Get Back to Work

June 7, 2021
Enough with the Zoom meetings and tweaks to old products! Our 50th annual R&D Survey finds product developers ready to soar.

Perhaps it’s the result of pent-up energy among R&D teams that spent 2020 tweaking macaroni & cheese dinners and canned soups – and doing so via Zoom meetings. “Really new” product development will be the top priority for this year, at least according to respondents to the Food Processing R&D Survey.

“It’s good to be returning to the normal way of doing things,” wrote one product developer.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the pandemic forced some delays in new product launches, although 23% said the pandemic motivated them to create new products. Among new products spawned by or at least launched during the pandemic:

What does R&D look like at food and beverage companies in 2021 and did the pandemic impact new product development? We answer these issues and more in our 2021 R&D Trends Survey report. Get your copy today by visiting our Ingredient Resource Library

  • Immunity-boosting cookies and candy
  • Health oriented fermented products for the immunity connection
  • Microwavable bread [apparently to make that home-baking trend easier]
  • CBD and immune health products
  • “2,3,5 and 7-day home delivery boxes and pantry boxes for students who were remote learning”
  • “Meals for children, meals for seniors, both stuck at home”
  • And several said variations of “more grocery products, less foodservice”

With the pandemic winding down, 28% said they have or are changing sourcing or manufacturing “to sites over which we have better control.” 34% are “thinking hard about such changes,” and 39% said it didn’t cause any change in their sourcing plans. “We saw many of our suppliers reduce their reliance on suppliers from China,” said one Chicago-area respondent.

Those are some of the headline results from our 50th Annual R&D Survey, a web-based poll fielded in April and May. While that’s been our traditional timing for this survey, it may have been just a little too early for respondents to have put the pandemic behind them. We sensed a little uncertainty about how this year would play out in answers to some of our questions. We had 154 usable responses.

Glad to be back

In the open comments to several questions, a handful of respondents expressed excitement at getting back to traditional product development work.

“In the next three months the team will start open discussion for new items – non GMO, vegan – for rollout in 2022,” promised a developer of Mexican foods, who noted development work had come to a standstill last year.

One was eager to launch long-planned “microwavable single-serve, Mediterranean-oriented dinner packs, also suitable for breakfast and lunch, with recyclable packaging.”

Several said they had conducted regular team meetings and tasting sessions via internet video meet-ups.

One thing the pandemic didn’t change was the need to remove bad ingredients and insert good ones. Added sugars was the top item tabbed for removal, noted by 28% of respondents. In a separate question about how you were removing added sugars, 18% said “we just took out the added sugar”; 8.7% substituted non-nutritive sweeteners and 5.4% used nutritive sweeteners that don’t have to be labeled as “added sugar” on the Nutrition Facts panel. Added sugars needed to be called out on labels starting in 2020.

Other top ingredients for removal were bioengineered ingredients (24%), sodium and synthetic colors (both at 20%). Top additions were fruits & vegetables (15%) and replacing refined grains with whole grains (13%).

[Podcast] What Does the Second Half of 2021 Hold For Product Innovation?

We’ve got Arwen Kimmell, Director of Innovation Marketing at JPG Resources, helping us predict what product innovation will look like for the rest of 2021 and into 2022. Listen to the podcast episode

Speaking of bioengineered ingredients (GMOs), that label declaration will be required by Jan. 1, 2022. Many processors already are complying. 38% said they are seeking non-GMO certification, 32% said they will use one of the two symbols created by USDA, 23% are simply stating “contains genetically modified organisms” and 19% will use the QR code-like SmartLabel created by the Consumer Brands Association.

Other pandemic changes

The pandemic caused 64% of respondents to delay products launches for a handful of reasons, including the need to focus on existing, popular products (26%), plant shutdowns or R&D staff working remotely (21%) and financial or other business uncertainties.

“We are basically trying to stay consistent and reinforce existing products,” said one respondent. “New development is being discussed but no main actions [are being taken] due to the situation.”

“The pandemic had a tremendous impact regarding consumer behavior,” said another. “Food suppliers now are facing new, modified or restructured food packaging in all aspects.”

“Staffing was the biggest issue due to COVID. We mainly stuck to our guns to keep the company afloat,” said a Missouri product developer. But he also promised “a total rebranding effort that will launch in 2022.”

“Challenges arose for procurement of raw material, as well as retention of trained, skilled employees,” wrote another.

Who’s calling the shots?

Product development remains a team sport, with 57% confirming they do have a formal team. Fronting that team are R&D professionals, presumably food scientists, but increasingly it also includes (in order) representatives from marketing, management and manufacturing. Corporate management has been adding at least 10 percentage points every year for the past two years. “Multiple suppliers” made a big gain this year, too, up 8 percentage points.

[Webinar] A Closer Look at Food & Beverage Product Development

Join Food Processing's Dave Fusaro, Editor-in-Chief; and Pan Demetrakakes, Senior Editor, on June 24 at 2 p.m. ET as they discuss the results of the R&D Survey during the live webinar event. During the live event, they'll examine what the survey results say about who's on the new product development team (marketing seems to be calling the shots now) and how well funded the R&D Dept. is. Sign up now for the webinar

While formal product development team meetings dipped last year, they’re up again. “Meetings weekly or more often,” the top answer, was up 11 points. But also increasing are virtual meetings, at 12%; that’s up 8 points over last year (the survey was taken very early in 2020).

How long it takes to get a product from concept to shelf may have lengthened just a little. Both the 3 months and 6 months answers gave up a little ground to the longer durations.

But apparently that’s not for lack of funding. Most respondents (42%) said their R&D budget is about the same this year, with those seeing a budget cut outnumbering those seeing an increase by only a few votes.

A good summation was given by this product developer: “The chaos from the virus caused us to retrench from new product launches and certain ingredients that we wanted to add or drop in our products. But hopefully the rest of this year and the future is kinder to all of us.”

Another added, “I was shifted to other areas but at least I kept my job. We all hope things get better soon.”

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