Most sustainability programs involve the manufacturing plant or, for bigger-picture efforts, corporate headquarters. But product developers can take steps on the bench to save the planet for future generations and contribute to the company's ESG report.
The importance of sustainable food product development lies in its potential to address a range of environmental and social issues. Sustainable food production can help conserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gases and protect biodiversity. It can also support local economies and reduce food waste.
In an indirect way, sustainable food products might even provide health benefits to consumers, such as reducing the risk of some diseases, by avoiding farming and processing practices that could introduce harmful chemicals for the sake of efficiency or cost-effectiveness.
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of their food choices and are looking for products that align with their values. By incorporating sustainable practices into their product development process, companies can develop products that are not only environmentally and socially responsible but also meet the needs and preferences of consumers increasingly seeking sustainable options.
Finding the right ingredients
Processors can start their sustainability story through their ingredient sourcing. Manufacturers can reduce their carbon footprint by sourcing ingredients grown or processed using methods with a lower environmental impact.
Finding sustainable ingredients may not be easy, although ingredient suppliers also have seen this shift toward environmental consciousness, so they are developing sustainable ways of manufacturing ingredients.
But cost considerations are a challenge when it comes to finding sustainable ingredients – and not just more expensive ingredients but also production methods, which can increase the cost of the final product. Product developers should pay heed to these additional costs, because consumers may have to limit to how much more they’ll pay for a sustainable product. If processors make a convincing sustainability case with shoppers, some of those costs can be passed along.
An emerging trend that can help sustainability and possibly lower ingredient costs is upcycling. In the process of making their products, many food manufacturers create waste products or byproducts – or, in cases where the appearance of ingredients or products is essential or at least visible, some agricultural input products may be discarded because they’re not pretty enough.
Tons of byproducts of food manufacturing have long made their way into other products – cheesemaking, for example, yields unused casein, whey, lactose and sometimes milk fat, all of which are valuable ingredients for other processors.
The Upcycled Food Assn. matches suppliers of upcycled ingredients with processors who can use those ingredients. It’s also started a certification program, Upcycled Certified, to ensure that ingredients carrying that designation would otherwise go to waste.
Help choose packaging
Eco-friendly packaging is another piece of the puzzle. The first step should be using efficient packaging design to minimize both food and packaging waste. A minimalist design approach can create efficient and lightweight packaging, which is a win-win for businesses and the environment. In some cases, tweaks of the formulation may be necessary to support changes to more sustainable packaging.
The next step is choosing sustainable packaging solutions. Sustainable packaging options may include compostable, recyclable or biodegradable materials. Coca-Cola Co. and others are taking that a step further by considering – actually reconsidering – reusable/refillable packaging.
Coca-Cola Co. in February 2022 announced goals to significantly boost its use of reusable packaging. By 2030, the company aims to have at least 25% of all beverages globally across its portfolio of brands sold in refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles, or in refillable containers using traditional fountain or Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers.
At the back end of this equation is reducing your own food waste. Food waste has significant environmental, economic and ethical implications. Management of food waste can help reduce its associated impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product; and it doesn’t always start at the back end of the processing plant.
Product developers can do their part to reduce food waste in the lab by improving product and ingredient storage, ordering, labeling and cooking methods. Changes in formulations and cooking directions can help consumers waste less food in the home, but that should be achieved by finding sustainable alternatives to chemical additives and methods to extend shelf life.
Circular food design refers to a systematic approach when creating products that eliminates waste and pollution, circulates products and materials and regenerates the planet. The four key opportunities for circular design include increasing diversity, lowering impact, upcycling and regeneratively producing products.
Ethical Bean Coffee is a prime example of a company that has successfully developed a sustainable food product. By prioritizing sustainability throughout its production process, Ethical Bean has become a leader in the sustainable coffee industry.
Patagonia Provisions is a food division of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia; it sells only sustainably sourced food products. The company's mission is to promote widespread adoption of regenerative organic agriculture. Patagonia Provisions sources its ingredients in ways that restore the environment and has made efforts to find packaging that meets its sustainability standards.
The final challenge for product formulators is consumer education and awareness. Consumers must be informed about the efforts that went into developing sustainable food products and their benefits to make informed choices. Product developers can assist the marketing department in developing effective communication and marketing strategies that highlight the benefits of sustainable food products.