In the Food industry, predicting the future wants and needs for a breakthrough innovation is a research challenge that requires broad exploration and lead-following that can be tedious and time-consuming. Fundamentally, these initiatives fit in R&D, namely translating consumer wants and needs into material and process specifications. Although they are never random, breakthrough innovations don’t always know where they are going or what they will find. In order to search broadly for leads that become the next food breakthrough, having access to a centralized content system is essential. Many of the most rewarding finds are unintentional and the result of a chain of content linked through keywords, quotes, citations, and topics.

As an example, when my former research team was looking for a way to reduce sodium in a topical application, we started with a hypothesis that a more surface-to-mass ratio would increase salt perception. Therefore, we assumed a nano-sized particle would be ideal. Our search through both food academic journals and adjacent industry academic medicals led us to the ETH Zurich Department of Chemical Engineering where they were working on Osteoporosis solutions by creating nano-sized particles of calcium to fill in the areas of bones affected. They had discovered a flame nanoparticlization process but used table salt for experimenting as it was safer. Indeed, from this non-obvious connection, the research team at ETH Zurich was able to create nano-sized particles of salt, but the particles were so small they quickly coalesced. The team in Zurich guessed as much and suggested using ceramic milling to create micron-sized particles which were an order of magnitude smaller than what was available from the typical salt suppliers. As a result of discovering this information, we were able lower our sodium application by as much as 25%.

You never know where the next big discovery will come from, so it is important to cast a wide net of the content you and your team collaborate on for leads. Here are three content areas you might consider when searching for leads on your next breakthrough innovation:

Medical Research

There were numerous studies in the medical community around hypertension and high blood pressure before consumers demanded lower sodium in their soups and snacks. Eventually the ingredient and process technology caught up, but the industry could have responded much faster had we seen the study trends in the medical community earlier. The pharmaceutical industry unlocked time-release flavor delivery for use with bad tasting medicines. It eventually was reapplied to the food industry and revolutionized our ability to add bad tasting supplements to food without releasing their flavors in the mouth.

As many companies turn their attention to what is beyond-better-for-you trends, it seems likely products will be more solution-oriented and further blur the line between food and medicine. Do you have leaky-gut and like cookies? Great, here are some treats with fiber and prebiotics. Are you feeling depressed and like snacks? No problem, here are some cruciferous vegetable chips optimized for antioxidants. Cross-referencing research into medical repositories like PubMed and Cochrane Library, or general medical academic journals are great ways to get out-of-the-box idea generation.

Climate and Sustainability Science

At the most recent Natural Products Expo West, “plant-based” was a clear show trend. It’s no secret that meat analog firms like Impossible and Beyond have exploded in popularity in the past few years, and for good reason: plant-based and fermentation-driven protein alternatives are now in high demand among omnivores because they are more sustainable.

Consumer demand for sustainably sourced products begs the question, “what else could be made more sustainable?” This could be a practical question: “how can bottlenecks in pea protein production be averted through more efficient and sustainable processing?” Or it might also be something more obscure like “can climate-adjusted residential insulation cooling be repurposed to optimize cold chain in a meaningful way?” Cross-referencing your research with something untraditional to food like environmental academic journals could lead to a niche research discovery that revolutionizes the way pea protein is farmed and processed. You never know what you will find!

Your Company’s Content Archives

Smart companies understand the generative power of institutional learnings, and that many efficacious ideas are simply too early or get killed prematurely for political or budget reasons. Building a content system that makes them easy to reference and recall is challenging and often overlooked.

Mid- and large-sized food and ingredient companies generate thousands of reports each year. Many are chock full of ideas and experiment results. A content system with relevant tags can cross-reference the terms and themes of contemporary academic papers with thousands of internally archived reports and experiments. This is one of the best ways to find fertile ground for breakthrough innovation (as well as avoiding duplication). Global access opens up even more opportunity to lift and adapt regional successes and breakthroughs.

The pace of technological change is rapid. R&D is not known for having a lot of free time to track down every new little concept. Teams must be practical and efficient in the innovation journey. For development passion to marry with the practical concerns of meeting everyday consumer needs, it will require smart tools and smart research collaboration.

Related Reading:

Optimizing Research to Drive Food Innovation and Organizational Success

Food Companies in Crisis: What Happens and How to Prevent It


Author: Carlos Barroso

Carlos Barroso is the founder and President of CJB and Associates, a boutique food and beverage R&D innovation firm offering Chef-to-Shelf® product development to startups through Fortune 100 companies. Prior to founding CJB, Carlos served as SVP of Global R&D and Quality for The Campbell Soup Company. Before that, he was SVP of R&D at PepsiCo, where he oversaw all R&D efforts for PepsiCo Foods, including Frito-Lay North America and Quaker Foods and Snacks, and worked in R&D at Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) paper and coffee divisions in the U.S., Italy, and France. Carlos earned his B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and has an MBA from Arizona State University.
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