Friday, July 15, 2022

IFT FIRST: A New Generation of Food Innovators to Feed The World


The Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) in-person annual convention took place this week in Chicago after a two-year pandemic hiatus. And let me tell you, it was nothing like the pre-pandemic IFT events. Another positive change to come from the virus. Thank you!

It was not your daddy’s IFT, as someone described it. It was noticeably void of retired academics, even current professors and their students, especially from abroad. The expo and education program was mostly business focused, and this was well received by exhibitors and industry attendees. The show lived up to its rebranding of “IFT FIRST--where Food is Improved by Research, Science and Technology.” Kudos to the “meetings team” with this new and improved lineup of content and programming. 

The energy and change quickly became apparent at 8:15am on Monday when Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago performed at the first of three daily keynote presentations. They got attendees to stand up, clap and even wiggle a bit to Pharrell Williams’ Happy song. (I did it!)

Please watch this 23-second VIDEO to get you charged up. 

The conversation at this first keynote centered around  “Should We Eat More Processed Foods?” There are two sides to this story when you consider that new technologies enable formulators to create foods that can’t be made in home kitchens, foods that are far from the junk food many categorize as processed foods. (I plan to write my July 19th Food Business News column on this keynote. I will share the link next week.) But in a nut shell, advocates say “a substantial increase in food processing is the best way to feed growing human populations while also reducing food waste. We should trust and invest in food technology that can make our global food supply healthier and more sustainable, including highly or ultra-processed foods.” Opponents argue that “these kinds of foods are often less nutritious, and are commonly linked to adverse health indices, particularly when it comes to ultra-processing.” Stay tuned…

Tuesday’s morning keynote panel discussion—R&D at the Edges of Human Experience—included current and former food science teams from NASA. They discussed the need for advanced technologies to better understand the role of food in the life of an astronaut and why human travel to Mars won’t happen until technology is available to feed them. 

“Food is so important. It’s not only sustenance. It can be life support,” said Scott Parazynski, a panelist and former astronaut. “It’s also a bridge between cultures, and it’s a tie to home.”

He pleaded for innovators to develop products that replicate the tastes astronauts crave from space. But that’s just one small problem for mankind. To get to Mars, there’s a lot more to consider in terms of nutrition. 

Panelist Michele Perchonok, a past IFT president who managed the NASA Space Food Systems Lab before her retirement, identified some of the challenges of space food development. In addition to safety and preserving nutrient density, shelf life is paramount, as well as minimizing packaging waste. 

It will be about a six-month journey to Mars. Then there’s about a two-year stint exploring the planet followed by a six-month return trip. With current technology, feeding a crew of six for three years would require more than 26,000 pounds of food, of which 17% is packaging waste. Further, the shelf-life requirement is more than three years because it is impossible for the vehicle transporting the astronauts to also transport the food. There will be about a six-month supply on their ship, and the rest will have to be pre-positioned on Mars prior to takeoff. And jokingly, she said, they have to know Martians won’t take it. But seriously, she explained, it has to be pre-positioned safely so that it is available when the astronauts arrive.  

Food scientists have a major role to play in advancing space food product development, according to Dorit Donoviel, executive director at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, who moderated the panel. “We’re looking to you,” she said. “We’re here to ask you to please engage and help us solve these problems.”

These needs put a whole new perspective on why advanced technologies—everything from bioengineering to 3-D printing to cellular meat—are important. The beauty of all this work by NASA is that it can be adapted to food production on Earth and help feed the growing population. 

But to get there, thinking out of the box is paramount. That brings me to Wednesday morning’s final keynote that left attendees eager to get back to the lab. “Cultivating Curiosity: The Key to Unlocking Innovative Solutions to Complex Problems,” was addressed by Evette Cordy, CEO of Agents of Spring. She explained that organizations are often too focused on the short term and then jump quickly to provide solutions. Think of how so many of you carelessly jumped on the high-protein ice cream category when you felt threatened by a few players. It’s sort of the same with plant based right now. 

“…what is the customer problem you are trying to solve?” asked Cordy. “That is why we must first learn to problem find before we problem solve. Curiosity is the tool we can use to solve our most problems.”

Cordy led attendees in exercises to assess the type of mindsets they have. She then explained how developing those mindsets can improve curiosity.
The “zen master,” for example, is present and in the moment. “If your mind is empty, it is always open to anything. It is open to everything.” Then there is the “novice” vs. “expert” mindsets. 

“We need to step out of our ‘expert’ mindset, which is ego-driven, as well as guarded,” said Cordy. Conversely, the novice mindset defers judgement, is open, and seeks the unknown.

The “sleuth” mindset is someone who listens with both their ears and eyes. It is also someone who doesn’t follow along with the crowd. A study found that, when in a group setting, 41% of people conform to the opinion of the group rather than standing by their own opinion. This is not how you innovate!

“Don’t blend in, stand out. Break the rules, and live outside your comfort zone,” Cordy said. (Woo hoo! That’s been my mantra my whole life.) 

This is much like the “playmaker” mindset. Stop fearing play and looking silly. These qualities provide a gateway to curiosity through experiences.

Lastly there’s the “interrogator” mindset. This is someone who gets to the heart of why people do what they do. An interrogator has open body language and tone, which others find inviting. 

“It’s not about following a script,” said Cordy. “It’s about digging around to get to peoples’ underlying needs.”

These mindsets help cultivate curiosity. Most people spend 47% of their waking day thinking about something while they are doing something else, according to Cordy. In addition, employees receive a number of interruptions per day. When they are interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to what they were doing. To innovate, this must stop. 
“If we are busy and not even focused on the task at hand, how can we have room to try anything new, let alone find solutions to our most valuable problems?” 


1. Stop replicating. Yes, plant-based was a big buzz at IFT FIRST, and in my eyes, the concepts that did not try to directly replicate real dairy or real meat were the big winners. The world does not need any more plant-based cheddar or mozzarella. Please trust me on this. Take it to the next level. Cheesy-like crisps, for example, based on plant protein, but similar in crunch, nutrition and taste as baked cheese snacks. They do not need to be called plant-based cheese snacks. Give them a new name. 
Here’s something to think about. Hummus does not call itself a plant-based dip, nor does peanut butter call itself a plant-based protein spread. 

Here’s a great example of thinking outside the box. Salt & Straw, the Portland, Ore.-based, family-run ice cream company, is launching Culinary Perfume. To celebrate National Ice Cream Day on July 17, Salt & Straw is inviting customers to try their latest creation by offering a free complimentary spritz of Culinary Perfume at all 27 scoop shops.

“We’ve been stuck on sprinkles and whipped cream for the past 100 years. This is a new frontier, trying to figure out how to personalize your ice cream that completely plays into your senses,” said Tyler Malek, co-founder and head ice cream innovator at Salt & Straw. “I’m fascinated with the fact that you can’t actually smell ice cream and that seemed like too big of an opportunity to just let lie. As we’ve learned and tested ice cream flavors over the last 12 years, I have fallen in love with the way all of your senses interact with a food experience, and we are really excited for everyone to try it.”

Research suggests that up to 80% of our eating experience is based on smell, and yet ice cream does not release a scent. The ingredients within the frozen treat might be fragrant but, at such low temperatures, the chemicals that would normally make our olfactory senses sing are essentially frozen in ice. As the ice cream melts on our tongue, these flavors are released.

Enter Salt & Straw’s new Culinary Perfume, an edible fragrance created to spray directly onto ice cream to enhance the tasting experience by adding the crucial sensory element of smell. Salt & Straw’s latest innovation encourages consumers to explore customization unlike ever before. With three editable scents and countless ice cream flavors, the possibilities of combinations are endless.

The scents are: A Cloud of Cocoa (combo of smoky warmth with malty cocoa), A Plume of Blooms (honeysuckle and jasmine) and A Swoon of Citrus (juicy, tart citrus is balanced by an herbal nuance).

For dairy innovators, it’s time to think out of the “standards of identity” and create new concepts in the dairy space. There are numerous examples in recent months. Think noosa Cheesecake Bites, Nick’s Smak Swedish-style refrigerated low-net-carb, high-protein and keto friendly bars, and the many varied Clio Snacks bars. Link HERE for more info on these products.

Today’s blog sponsor, Agropur, showcased Cheesecake Bites at IFT FIRST. For more info, link HERE. That leads me into the second takeaway. 

2. Sugar reduction was big business at IFT FIRST, but I was so happy to see new approaches to doing it. The stevia market is overwhelming, I doubt anyone would disagree. And, consumers who have tried foods made with inferior formats of stevia are turned off. 

Exhibitors at IFT FIRST addressed this through other sugar-reduction technologies. Some are based on real cane sugar formatted into sensory-enhanced crystals, others are real cane sugar blended with fibers and natural flavors. Some are even based on dairy!  

Deproteinized whey, also known as whey permeate, is a concentrated source of minerals along with lactose. It allows for a reduction in total sugar and added sugars in many formulations, including those Cheesecake Bites. It’s also considered an upcycled ingredient, as it is the liquid stream that remains after whey protein ingredient manufacturing. In fact, you might even call it a double upcycled ingredient, as whey is the waste stream from cheese production and permeate is the waste stream of whey ingredient production. That brings me to the final takeaway.

3. Upcycled and sustainability stories dominated IFT FIRST. It’s not enough to be clean label, natural, organic or plant based. Just remember that going forward as you get creative in your product development efforts. 

Don’t forget to enjoy ice cream on Sunday, National Ice Cream Day. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the synopsis of IFT! I didn't make the opening or closing sessions so appreciate you sharing your thoughts.