The food and beverage industry stepped more into the sunlight in 2016. Full disclosure of ingredients, nutritional data, and product information became closer to every consumer’s fingertips.
The people, companies, trends and policies that reveal this transparency were the hallmark of 2016. As journalists, we love it when the facts are all out on the table, so we are presenting the 2016 Dive Awards for the food and beverage industry. Our awards come from research and work throughout the year. We started planning in January, solicited nominations in August, and consulted industry insiders at Hershey, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mintel and FoodLogiQ to help narrow down the nominees. The winners were ultimately chosen by Food Dive's editors.
Here are our 10 winners for 2016:
Company of the year
As the food industry changes, Campbell has been at the forefront of changing with it. The company that was once best known for its iconic white and red cans of convenient condensed soup has evolved to meet all of today's top food trends — but stayed true to its roots. The Campbell of 2016 has embraced clean labels, labeling transparency, personalized nutrition, fresh produce, and fresher soups.
The company launched two new soups that match consumer trends. Well Yes embraces clean labels and healthier ingredients, while Garden Fresh soups are sold in the refrigerated deli department and incorporate more fresh produce. At the end of the year, Campbell also announced it was the sole shareholder in personalized nutrition meal delivery service Habit.
Campbell has also been at the forefront of many of the policy changes in the food industry. In January, the company committed to labeling GMO ingredients in its products and endorsed the federal GMO labeling bill. Campbell also is one of the first large manufacturers utilizing SmartLabel to provide more information to consumers.
Other nominees: Hershey, Hormel, Hostess, PepsiCo
Disruptive idea of the year
There's nothing new about transparency, but 2016 seemed to be its breakthrough year in the food industry. As it stands now, consumers know a lot more than they ever had about what is in their food. Part of this is driven by the 24/7 online communication hive of social media and blogs, but part of it comes from consumers asking more questions — and being able to get answers. The Grocery Manufacturers' Association SmartLabel program,which makes a wealth of information available to consumers, is starting to appear with QR codes on thousands of products.
Federal government policy is also bringing more transparency to the industry. In July, Congress passed a law requiring all products to label GMO ingredients. While there was controversy over the format — which is not likely to go away as the regulations are determined over the next two years — the information will readily be available to consumers.
The Nutrition Facts panel is also getting a makeover so that it is more useful to consumers. Consumers will have a better picture of how much added sugar is in a product, as well as a better accounting of calories in a serving.
And USDA also has launched a branded product database. Consumers can look up nutrition information on more than 80,000 name-brand packaged and prepared foods in grocery stores and restaurants.
Other nominees: Aseptic packaging, plant-based “meat,” probiotics, Soylent
Deal of the year
If the plethora of plant-based protein products wasn't enough to convince the industry that this is a trend with staying power, Danone's $12.5 billion acquisition of WhiteWave Foods offers solid proof. WhiteWave, which posted gains in its last two quarters, would have been an attractive acquisition for anyone.
This deal puts Danone, whose primary products included fresh dairy, water and baby and adult nutrition, at the forefront of the plant-based food trend. It also helps extend WhiteWave's reach, access to research and development, and improve its supply chain.
Other nominees: AB InBev-SABMiller, ConAgra-Lamb Weston split; Dean Foods-Friendly’s Ice Cream; Kellogg-Parati
Ingredient of the year
In 2016, probiotics became the hottest additive to products ranging from juice to baked goods to pet food. The good-for-you gut bacteria were once only found in products like yogurt, but research and development has produced strains of the bacteria that can survive the rigors of baking and digestion.
Probiotics are considered an ingredient that is good at improving health. Studies have shown that they can boost the immune system and improve digestion. Officials at Ganeden, one of the leading probiotics producers, told Food Dive that 2016 was their busiest year ever — and demand doesn’t seem to be letting up.
Other nominees: Cauliflower, pea protein, stevia, turmeric
Problem of the year
Winner: Lawsuits involving 'natural' product claims
Definitions in the food and beverage sector are anything but self-explanatory for consumers. The word "natural" has caused headaches, litigation and government action in 2016.
Dole, General Mills and Post have all been targeted with lawsuits based on the composition of their products that are labeled "natural." Post was hit with a class action lawsuit and General Mills was sued by three consumer groups because their “natural” products — Nature Valley granola bars and Shredded Wheat cereal — came from crops treated with chemicals.
The FDA stepped in at the end of 2015, opening comments for manufacturers and consumers to give their impression of what "natural" should mean. The comment period closed in May, and the agency received more than 7,300 pieces of input. The agency has yet to issue a final definition, but the litigation and complaints have ensured that policy will be set to end the controversy.
Other nominees: CRF Frozen Foods recall, General Mills flour recall, oversupply of commodities
Executive of the year
Winner: Indra Nooyi
Indra Nooyi's vision and tactical experience has expanded the Pepsi brand beyond soda to focus on healthy, on-trend water and un-carbonated beverage products.
During her 10-year leadership as CEO, she has launched the company's market cap to $155 billion, making the Pepsi of 2016 an industry powerhouse. More importantly, she's transformed the company into a front-runner of industry relevance, creating ripple effects that reach beyond the beverage category.
But aside from leading a powerful company, Nooyi is the picture of a strong woman business executive. She's been in the top 20 of the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women every year since 2008, and was #2 — only behind Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg — in Forbes' list of Most Powerful Women in Business this year.
She also has an impressive charitable resume, leading PepsiCo programs for employees to pursue community projects around the world and fund projects related to sustainability and women.
Other nominees: Denise Morrison, Campbell; Stephen Ostroff, FDA; Sam Reed, TreeHouse Foods; Antonio Sciuto, Nestlé Waters
Turnaround/transformation of the year
Hostess has made quite the comeback since closing factories in 2012. After being bought out of liquidation by private equity owners Dean Metropoulos and Apollo Global Management LLC for $685 million, the snack company came back swinging, relaunching its bread portfolio and selling its bread products to convenience, drug and dollar stores.
Earlier this month, the 86-year-old brand made its return to the NASDAQ stock market, marking an underdog victory for the processed snack company in an era of health-centric foods.
Hostess is now one of the fastest-growing mid-sized CPG companies, and has succeeded by embracing — rather than reducing — the indulgence of Twinkies and other iconic snack products.
Other nominees: Full-fat dairy, meat, QR codes, sugar
Obsession of the year
Winner: Clean labels
The clean label trend of 2016 has permanently altered the food industry, shifting consumer and manufacturer focus from low-calorie, artificially-sweetened health products to nutrient-rich foods with natural ingredients.
Manufacturers are allowing shoppers behind the curtain, utilizing packaging QR codes and SmartLabels to communicate information about ingredients, sourcing, and even supply chain.
Though some brands are still reluctant to bare all, it's clear that this kind of transparency is no longer just a bonus for startups and established brands. Clean labels are crucial for companies looking to build strong customer loyalty and trustworthy reputations. We will see how this trend will further change the industry landscape next year.
Other nominees: Antibiotic-free livestock, better-for-you foods, convenience food, organic food
New regulatory policy of the year
Winner: Nutrition Facts Panel
The FDA's changes to nutrition facts panel requirements will not only make the 20-year-old consumer health aid more accessible for shoppers, but will likely spur manufacturers to reevaluate the substances they use in their formulas.
Perhaps the biggest alteration to the label is the inclusion of "added sugars," which will be shown in grams beneath the "total sugars" description on the label.
These updates, which manufacturers are required to include by 2018, will further encourage industry transparency and allow consumers to take better ownership of their nutrition — making them a clear winner for this year's health-centric food sphere.
Other nominees: FSMA, GMO labeling, GRAS regulations, WHO sugary beverage tax endorsement
Vanishing ingredient of the year
Winner: Artificial colors
In response to growing consumer agency and interest in natural products, major manufacturers have been eliminating synthetic ingredients from their formulas left and right.
One substance, however, stands out as the target no-no ingredient for 2016: artificial colors.
Household brands like Progresso and Mars are just a few producers who have committed to removing artificial colors from their portfolios, though General Mills' overhaul of Trix cereal to include only natural colors may be the most memorable milestone of this trend.
Now that big industry names have set the ball in motion, the hunt for more naturally occurring colors is on for 2017.
Other nominees: Eggs, partially-hydrogenated oil, salt, sugar