NEW ORLEANS — If you want to know the ingredients, the machinery, the concepts and the larger forces that are shaping the food industry, there's no better place than the show floor at the annual Institute of Food Technologists conference.
This year, hundreds of exhibitors cooked up samples, offered photo booths, gave out literature, featured dressed up characters and hosted happy hours to show the food world what's new and what's next.
Here are four of the trends that stood out on the floor this year.
Visualize a world of peas
The little legume has been growing in popularity as food scientists have refined its ability to be used as a successful plant protein. Peas are hot, with pea protein appearing in everything from non-dairy smoothies to meat substitutes. Many ingredients companies showed off their pea protein ingredient skills with plant-based meatball samples or drinks bulked up with the ingredient.
While many exhibitors touted pea protein ingredients, Roquette is the giant in that space. Aurelie Mauray, Roquette's marketing manager for the Americas, said it had been a busy show.
"We can see the increase of our customer base, generally speaking, interested in plant-based protein and pea protein," Mauray told Food Dive. "... Using pea protein as a non-allergen, non-GMO and sustainable protein source is really growing and important at that moment."
Roquette showed off two new ingredients at the show: A textured protein for meat substitutes with a 70% protein content, and a high-protein ingredient with high solubility and low viscosity for beverages. The textured protein was cooked into miniature veggie tacos, which looked and tasted just like actual meat. They quickly disappeared from the booth whenever they were introduced. The soluble pea fiber also was put into non-alcoholic margaritas, completing the cantina vibe.
Although Roquette is the leader in the pea protein space, the company is working hard to defend its position. Roquette is building a new plant in Manitoba, Canada — its largest to date — which Mauray said should be operational by next year. As Roquette scales up, she said it hasn't forgotten all of the other companies trying to catch them.
"It's interesting to compare, to see how fast they can improve as well," Mauray said. "The offerings are expanding from their side as well, so that's why we need to answer in that direction."
Not sweet on sugar
You didn't need to attend IFT to know that sugar as a popular ingredient is on its way out.
There were many booths at the show displaying a myriad sugar reduction solutions. Anyone looking for a supplier of stevia, monk fruit, allulose or sweet potato-based sweetener easily could have found dozens of companies to talk to.
Mel Jackson, chief science officer of stevia company Sweet Green Fields, told Food Dive the change in attitudes toward sugar — and the reformulation that it requires — was apparent at the show this year, even without looking at any other booths.
"It used to be five years ago, people would walk into this booth, taste some of the products and go, 'So what do you do?' " Jackson said. "And then we'd have to start from the beginning and explain what stevia is, and so forth and so on. Now, people walk in the booth with a very precise idea of what it is they need to know. So they know about stevia. They now want to know either regulatory (information) or the right type of stevia for the right application."
Stevia isn't just a unilateral ingredient either. Those who are stevia producers are isolating different glycosides, which have different applications depending on where they perform best. And they also are doing unique things, such as Sweet Green Fields' Zolesse, a stevia extract that can be considered natural flavoring, meaning its use might not need to highlighted on a product label.
Jackson is sure that stevia will remain a popular sweetener, even if sugar-replacement mania dies down.
"I think stevia in some sense is a pioneer in the natural high-intensity sweetener category, and there are other natural high-intensity sweeteners out there that need developing," he said. "Stevia is just one of many to come, I think. ...I think stevia's here to stay, but I think there will be room for other high-intensity sweeteners too."
One of those other sweeteners touted throughout the show floor was allulose, which occurs naturally in items including raisins, dates and maple syrup. Tate & Lyle has been studying allulose for about a decade. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently ruled it doesn't have to be counted as a sugar for food labeling purposes, interest has skyrocketed.
Tate & Lyle lucked out by having its Dolcia Prima allulose ingredient ready to hit the market as the FDA made its added sugar decision. But Jim Carr, Tate & Lyle's director of global ingredient technology for sweeteners, told Food Dive allulose also has a long future in combining its forces with other natural sweeteners.
"It turns out that there are a lot of calorie-reduced products there — they might be stevia or monk fruit-based, etc. — that could benefit a lot from allulose," Carr said. "It gives upfront sweetness, a sugar-like profile. On its own, it's like sugar, but it helps other solutions that are already in place perform much better."
Ain't nothing like the real thing
While there were many exhibitors touting their ingredients to replace commonplace ones that consumers have been trying to avoid — including meat and sugar — there were some vendors that represented the other extreme.
The most eye-catching feature of wheat manufacturing company Manildra Group's booth was a large cutout proclaiming "I heart Gluten," featuring the popular emoji. Brook Carson, the company's vice president of product development and marketing, told Food Dive "gluten-free" has been a huge buzzword for the last several years.
This year at IFT, Carson said, the company embraced its central ingredient. Reaction, she said, was overwhemingly positive.
"Everyone's kind of responded with, 'I'm glad somebody is saying something. I'm glad somebody is standing up for gluten. I'm glad somebody's not shying away from it,' " Carson said.
While medical conditions that make it difficult to tolerate gluten have been getting more attention in recent years, many consumers have reached for gluten-free products in search of health benefits. Gluten, she said, is a clean protein — one that requires no chemical processes, just washing.
Carson said the gluten-free trend has actually been good for the food space. It's helped manufacturers discover new ingredients with new functions and new nutrition.
"Hopefully, as we move forward, we can continue to incorporate some of those new ingredients that are being discussed, like pulses and other grains and seeds, in a more holistic way, versus excluding wheat from that," Carson said. "Let's look at it all together."
Ingredients to replace dairy also have been popular in the last several years. But several big dairy producers, including Idaho Milk Products, were on the show floor.
Corinne Barry, Idaho Milk Products' sales manager, told Food Dive that while a segment of consumers is turning away from dairy, business is still booming. Dairy contains complete proteins and it is easy to formulate it with tasty products. Idaho Milk Products processes 3.4 million pounds of milk per day.
"I do think there is a subset of consumers who really do care about avoiding dairy for some reason," Barry said. "There are a lot of ... activists that are trying to put out misinformation about the dairy industry. ... As far as we run our business, our cows, they are our lifeline and they're treated very well."
CPG brands doing double duty
While most of the brands at IFT were heavy hitters in the ingredients industry, most ordinary consumers would not recognize the majority of their names — even though they probably eat and drink their products regularly. But a few popular consumer brands were represented, showing their footprint in both the CPG and ingredients markets. Land O'Lakes, Morton Salt, Sunsweet and Arm & Hammer were among the popular consumer brands on the show floor.
Behind a bar that looked like a beachy cabana — complete with a corrugated metal roof — Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredients sales manager for McIlhenny served up shots of different flavors of the company's signature Tabasco Sauce. The spicy Cajun staple, at home in New Orleans, also offered ice cream sundae samples with a pineapple-Tabasco Scorpion Sauce topping.
McLester told Food Dive the company always has one of the more popular booths at ingredients shows. After all, everyone who attends the show also is a consumer, he said.
"They've either heard about us, they've had us, we're on their table top at home, they use us at restaurants, so we're fully integrated in all foods," McLester said. "I think that it opens the doors, but you've still got to earn your business."
Aside from showing off potential applications of Tabasco, shows like IFT give McLester a chance to educate customers on what makes the sauce unique. Tabasco's sauces are made from special peppers that are aged three years, he said, explaining the price premium and the amount of time it takes to make more.
Land O'Lakes, with consumer branding touting "Butter is Everything," used its knowledge of what consumers want in the butter and flavorings space to create buttery ingredients that meet shopper demands. Sodium reduction was the central theme of the dairy giant's booth. A smaller display of some of its flavor offerings showcased some on-trend tastes, such as birthday cake-flavored shortening.
"I think one of the advantages that we have is that by having a CPG business and a food service business in conjunction with ingredients, we understand the full spectrum of how our products could be used," Rob Uhlemann, the company's specialty powders and commercial marketing manager told Food Dive. "We understand the quality requirements. We understand the consumer-backed trends, and we can really ensure that we're delivering on the expectation that a company would have when they work with an ingredients supplier."