Food manufacturers continually grapple with creating products that align with customers’ discriminating palates, while delivering market share and profit. Here are four key challenges they’re facing in 2023 and modern strategies to overcome them.
1. Meeting consumers’ preferences for both health and taste
Nutrition is a critical factor influencing food choices: The 2022 State of Food & Beverage report from Morning Consult found that 82% of respondents claimed healthy eating was either “very” or “somewhat” important to them.
Yet today’s consumer is also unwilling to compromise on taste. That balancing act can create a hurdle for food manufacturers who aim to create healthy products that also score high in taste and texture — which could be one of the factors behind the recent plateau in plant-based meat sales. A study from Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. and Edelman Data and Intelligence found that taste was the top factor consumers considered in their meat alternatives, followed closely by texture.
Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition can be an ally in plant-based product development, with ingredients that help manufacturers accomplish these complementary goals, said Sarah Corwin, Ph.D., RD, senior principal scientist, plant-based and ingredient innovation for Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition. “Getting the right flavor is so important in alternative proteins, and Ajinomoto scientists have concluded that both umami and kokumi must be at the formulation table to design crave-worthy products consumers will repurchase.” She explained, umami is often described as meaty or savory, while kokumi enhances the richness and complexity of meat’s mouthfeel.
One key hurdle in many alternative proteins is that flavors aren’t cohesive. Corwin cited Savorboost™ yeast and yeast extract products as effective options to boost kokumi, which can bring together separate flavors, such as onion and garlic notes that stand out separately from added flavor, herbs and the alternative protein base. In addition, kokumi can increase the perception of fattiness where it’s missing, which translates to better-tasting alternative yogurts, cheese and other dairy items.
2. Differentiating their brand
Many sectors of the food industry face the problem of market oversaturation. “A lot of manufacturers are marketing-driven, which can lead to duplicative products as they aim for proven opportunities,” Corwin said. She sees that play out regularly in the alternative-protein sector, where many brands face lagging sales as they roll out their own versions of burgers and nuggets to an already saturated market.
However, she said, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition prides itself on being “science first,” which gives it wide latitude to experiment. “If we think of a new use case, we have all the resources to move forward with it,” Corwin said. That philosophy is leading to breakthroughs that allow brands to formulate an entire spectrum of innovative products, from nondairy cheese sauces and dips, to soft-cooked eggs and seafood offerings such as salmon, calamari, or shrimp.
3. Complying with retailers’ unacceptable ingredient lists
The food industry is heavily regulated, with a variety of laws and regulations governing food safety, labeling and manufacturing. Staying compliant with these regulations can be complex and time-consuming. And then there is another layer food manufacturers must navigate — the list of “unacceptable ingredients” that many prominent chains publish.
While avoiding these ingredients may appear to be a smart strategy to meet consumers’ nutritional desires, in reality, these lists are often based on outdated understandings of the benefits of various additives. These misconceptions can stifle innovation by minimizing the tools that food developers need to make the best possible products.
Increasingly, consumers do their own research to determine what they personally consider “unacceptable,” and it often wouldn’t mirror what stores believe. In fact, a survey from Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition and Edelman Data and Intelligence found that only one in four shoppers was aware of these lists, and fewer than half found them even “somewhat important” when they were made aware of them.
The survey further found that the majority of shoppers believed stores should prioritize the safety of the food above all other priorities. As an example, MSG is often included on these lists, and yet in one notable finding, 63% of respondents either were not sure or didn’t think it was an ingredient that should be barred. The truth is that it shouldn’t be, Corwin confirmed, because its inclusion is based on faulty scientific reporting rooted in xenophobia and doesn’t align with the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) rating.
That’s why education is needed - so manufacturers can reap the benefits of a misidentified ingredient like MSG, which could otherwise reduce harmful sodium. Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition can also recommend ways for manufacturers to reformulate their products to remove offending ingredients, such as additives that help block bitter tastes so less sodium is required to mask other flavors.
4. Controlling rising costs
The expenses for raw materials, labor and energy are increasing, which exerts pressure on food manufacturers’ profitability. That can make it cumbersome for companies to commit to the level of experimentation that may be needed to fulfill other goals for their products.
To make it easier for brands, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition recently introduced a customer-engagement center specifically designed to host working sessions where they can collaborate on the bench.
“Often a lot of work and expense can be alleviated just by knowing how certain ingredients work,” Corwin explained. “So if a client describes what they’re making and what’s missing … maybe it’s a rich, meaty note or they want to boost the perception of salt … we can often recommend the relevant ingredient and save them the expense of innovating on their own,” she said.
If a problem can’t be solved just by talking it through, they can turn to the new laboratory space. “We know how the ingredients work, and we’re here to help our customers use them, whether we bring them in here or visit their facility to provide hands-on assistance with our tools and scientists to help get their product where they want it to be.”
Are you ready for a fresh take on food innovation?
The world of food manufacturing is constantly evolving and companies need to explore new ingredients and applications to stay competitive and continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of food.
Would your products benefit from the know-how of the Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition team? Find out more about how they can help spark inspiration and innovation for food manufacturers aiming to make more flavorful, full-textured alternative protein products, or explore other ingredient solutions for meat and poultry, baked goods, savory snacks, soups and broths and more.