Trends in Food: Functional Foods, Superfoods, and Eating Less Meat

Thoughts from the R&D Innovation Summit 2018

One of the very interesting presentations from last month’s R&D Innovation Summit in Chicago was “The Freshest Insights in New Food Trends” by Thomas Talbert, vice president, culinary R&D at CSSI Culinary. Talbert, and his co-presenter Marie Molde of Dataessential presented a recent continuum we’ve seen in food trends.

In their view, Nutrition 1.0, taking place in the 1980s, centered around foods that supported weight management, offering new products and versions of products that were low-fat, low-calorie, and low-carb. In the 2000s we entered Nutrition 2.0, which saw the emergence of “feel good” foods that were local, natural and organic. Today, we’re in the Nutrition 3.0 phase, which is focused on functional foods that deliver protein, antioxidants, and/or include “superfoods” among their ingredients.

Functional foods are defined as “foods that provide health benefits beyond the provision of essential nutrients.” Since functional foods are a hot trend among both consumers and food producers, now is a great time for nutrition research to play a role. Large food, beverage, and consumer packaged goods companies are looking to well-researched and validated ingredients and technology in order to incorporate plant-based protein alternatives in products. These same companies and organizations are finding innovative ways to replace unpopular (and in some cases unhealthy) chemical preservatives and/or emulsifiers with more naturally derived substances.

Superfoods are also rising in popularity. Common and popular superfoods today include chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds; bee pollen, turmeric, edible algae, spirulina, and, as Talbert and Molde pointed out, surprisingly activated charcoal. Just a few years ago many of these superfoods were hard to find, relegated to the shelves of “natural” food stores. Today the average consumer can easily find these ingredients (in many forms) in their local Whole Foods Market.

In general, superfoods might have positive benefits for consumers.  But the issue with the category as a whole is that superfoods (and, some might say, many food trends) pick up steam and become popular without any scientific validation attached to their claims. Or, they become hot before there is time to perform the “gold standard” of randomized, placebo-controlled intervention studies. This presents the scenario that today’s “superfood” could well be debunked tomorrow.

On the other hand, some of these superfoods have strong research backing their promises or have been staples in other cultures for centuries (like turmeric). The emergence of activated charcoal is particularly interesting to our team here at yet2. Activated charcoal has long been used in the lab for filtering and clarifying solutions. Between our work with beauty and cosmetic companies and food and beverage companies, we’re now seeing the ingredient being used in the same way – to filter and to clarify – but in different applications. As the presenters noted, activated charcoal has become a key ingredient for skin health, detoxification, and cleansing. It’s now moved into the food realm, playing a role in beverages for preventing hangovers and solutions for reducing flatulence; these are still essentially filtering and clarifying applications. However, it does remain to be seen if it’s as effective in these new applications as it is in the lab.

Many American consumers are actively trying to decrease their consumption of meat. According to Talbert and Molde, research shows that 44% of Americans are doing this, and 57% are trying to eat more plant-based proteins. Sometimes this takes place in the form of Meatless Mondays. Sometimes it’s people embracing Mark Bittman’s “Eat Vegan Before 6” approach. As we heard, “vegan food is not just for vegans.”

The challenge, though, is that these consumers want to decrease the amount of meat they eat and increase the amount of plants they eat, without sacrificing taste, flavor, or experience. They are not looking to deprive themselves by eating yesterday’s cardboard-like veggie burger. They are embracing crave-worthy food products – like the Impossible Burger by Impossible Foods – that deliver a meat-free, plant-based product that tastes good.

These “trends” go far beyond marketing fads or mere buzzwords. Over the last few years we’ve worked with a number of organizations to source innovations to mask unpleasant tastes or smells in order to give the consumer a better experience. We’ve researched, vetted, and recommended novel ingredients that have well-validated scientific evidence proving they deliver the claimed health benefits.

And there are more food trends consumers in the general public can expect to see in the near-term and long-term future. We’ve worked with companies who are pioneering changing the way food products and ingestibles are delivered by creating new encapsulation technologies. Food producers and organizations are innovating throughout the production line and supply chain with enhanced safety and increased transparency by using IoT and advanced sensors. These technologies are being used to detect containments and monitor the conditions of foods during transportation as food moves from farms and production facilities to grocery stores and into consumers’ homes.

The new frontier in food trends incorporates functional foods and superfoods and combines them with the emergence and acceptance of in-home medical testing. Companies are researching how the gut microbiome plays a role in our diet and health, while applying testing solutions to the problem. The result is that we are on the forefront of scientifically validated personalized food, vitamin, and nutrition recommendations and products.

Innovation, digitization, and technology for food, nutrition, and wellness have intersected. Today’s food trends, and tomorrow’s new developments make it an exciting, and break-through time for consumers looking to have it all with their food – better ingredients, more functionality, with great taste.