04 Apr Healthier Food: An Incentive for Innovation in the Food Industry
Obtaining healthier food products is increasingly becoming an important incentive for food innovation. For several years now, many companies have been working on that line and new niches such as Nutraceuticals have emerged. Companies like Nestlé, General Mills and Heinz have been focusing on a new category of health and wellness products. It seems that now the United States Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) is going to give a boost to this trend. In the food industry, there is a lot of talk about the agency proposal of updating the Nutrition Facts label on food packages to include new public health and scientific information along that of nutrition, obesity and chronic disease; also a reflection on how United States consumers eat in portion sizes.
This would be the first significant redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government of the United States started requiring them in the early 1990s. Since then, the dietary habits of Americans have been challenged and this regulation aims to tackle the increase of obesity and related diseases. The FDA believes that its proposals will help Americans understand how their diets contribute to these negative trends and help them to make better food choices. They also expect to encourage innovation by giving food producers an incentive to improve the nutrition profiles of their products.
The proposal is supported by facts as the relation between the expansion of portion sizes and obesity or the lack of transparency about nutrients, added sugars or calorie consumption in some products where they are not specified on each container or the portion normally ingested by the consumer.
Currently, United States food supply chain is providing 3,900 calories per person/per day to the American public, nearly twice their energy needs, and different studies confirm that, while the US citizens customs have not changed considerably, the caloric intake has increased around 200 kcal per capita per day from 1977-1990 to 1996.
Economic interests and marketing strategies are some of the reasons for these trends. This is the case for the so-called “supersizing” war, launched by fast food outlets and food producers to preserve and increase their market share, outbidding each other to offer customers bigger than ever portions at a lower price, by increasing pack size or by tempting consumers with BOGOs – buy-one-get-one-free offers. As The Guardian states in 2008, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, and her co-author David Ludwig published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association questioning whether the western food industry could play a constructive role in solving the obesity epidemic and accepting that the food producers’ priority was “to make financial returns to stockholders”.
However, the market could be changing again, as shown not only through the concerns of the FDA, but also consumers demand more information and transparency and the opportunities found by some companies in producing healthier food products. This is the case, for instance, with the irruption of the ‘mid-calorie’ concept in such a very consolidated market as the one of carbonated drinks.
Heeding the demand for healthier products and transparency of consumers, the irruption of companies supporting that vision and the possibility of new regulations on the horizon, like the one of the FDA’s, it seems logical to think that the food industry will require a major effort in innovation for meeting today’s society’s needs and address the challenge of healthier food.
If, after the Industrial Revolution, the food industry had to concentrate on producing calories to feed the increasing concentration of workers in urban populations, innovating in transportation, processing or frozen systems, and after the II World War, it did so to provide variety and the convenience of food products to the customers, for instance, with ready to eat products, now could be the time for products that meet the need for proper nutrition. Especially since after the 90’s there is a clear correlation between the reduced life expectancy and the excess calorie intake. Will FDA’s proposal push the industry to innovate in new products, packaging, food presentation, ingredients, etc., to help consumers to make better decisions regarding their diets?