Important lessons were gleaned when a panel of judges evaluated this year's crop of Spirit of Innovation Award nominees. First and foremost, if ever you are fortunate enough to participate in a session of this kind, pace yourself--no matter how tasty one product may be.

For Prepared Foods' 2nd annual SOI contest, a few dozen entries made the cut to the tasting evaluation session. A certain panel member (who shall remain nameless) really enjoyed the Foodservice winning entry from Campbell Soup. This would have been an issue had the product not been among the final items judged; after all, a full stomach does not necessarily lend itself to a fair and balanced evaluation. However, it also demonstrates how tasty that product was: if you can sample nearly two dozen finalists and still make room for several (yep, several) servings of a food or beverage, it says something about its sensory quality.

As the person who stepped forward to handle the Spirit of Innovation Award submissions (or did everyone else just step back?), I noticed another, somewhat surprising facet of this year's nominees: a curious lack of low-carbohydrate items. In fact, only two nominees had such a positioning.

Has the carb cutting hit its peak? Low-carbohydrate products have filled grocery aisles to the brim, as studies have hammered the point that not all carbs are bad and that some, in fact, are an important part of a healthy diet. Realizing this, many developers have turned their attention to other concepts; this year, for instance, saw the first nominee with a gluten-free positioning.

As another possible explanation for the dearth of low-carb nominees, manufacturers may believe the Spirit of Innovation Awards are based strictly on the products' sensory qualities. While this may not solely explain the lack of carb-cutting entries (to be fair, the two carb-conscious nominees actually fared well in the tasting sessions), it may indicate a degree of confusion about the Award evaluation overall. Product taste was only a small portion of the evaluation. The Prepared Foods panel ranked the products across a range of criteria, all in the effort to determine which required the greatest degree of teamwork and coordination among departments and vendors.

After all, that has been the stated goal of the Awards all along: as a means for Prepared Foods and Ventura Foods to recognize and celebrate exceptional and innovative product development teams for their work on exciting new products. Nominations for the 2005 Spirit of Innovation Awards will begin in March 2005.

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