Natural, stevia, students, cucumber flavor, cognitive health, cosmeceuticals, lower cost and “old fashioned” food science. This year’s Institute of Food Technologists’ annual convention, held June in Anaheim, Calif., with a reported over 14,500 attendees, remains a solid event to stay in touch with professors, co-workers and trends.

Vendors presented wares within the context of “what’s hot.” Thus, stevia appeared in prototypes from flavoring to emerging nutraceutical vendors. Cucumber is a “spa” flavor, I was told, following the cosmeceutical trend. Behind-the-scenes advances in food science produced clean label food additives, with consumer-friendly names and/or the ability to replace several ingredients due to multiple functionalities.

While most of the hundreds of oral presentations covered fundamental research, updates on consumer trends also were provided. In the session, “Food Technology Trend Panel: The New Value Equation,” Elizabeth Sloan, president, Sloan Trends Inc., gave an information-packed presentation. For example, she noted that growth in private label has recently lost a 0.8 unit share in the food, drug and mass merchandizing channels, according to The Nielsen Company. 

As for how people obtain their food, shopping trips per shopper per month slipped from 9.39 in 2005 to 9.05 in 2008 (IRI data). Sloan translated this into opportunities for shelf-stable products and those with extended shelflife. Additionally, the number of supper meals prepared and consumed in-home per person in 2008 was the highest (at 242) since 1992 (at 249), according to the NPD Group. Surveys show many feel they are inadequate cooks, thus Sloan suggested this provides opportunities for meal helpers, such as marinating sauces and dinner mixes.

Panelist Ron Paul, president, Technomic, reported on a May 2009 Technomic Consumer Survey. Some 63% of respondents said they plan to make more meals at home, although, he concurred, this is not the same as cooking from scratch. Quoting the consultant Nancy Kruse, Paul offered ways for restaurants to add value for customers, such as using protein as a condiment (e.g., bacon on hamburgers), providing small plates and snacks (as a portion strategy) and providing premium drinks (such as healthy beverages).

In first quarter 2009, same-store sales vs. the year before, limited service restaurant sales increased by 0.6%, casual dining fell by 4.9%, and high-end restaurants fared even more poorly, noted Paul. Although the latter are least likely to be customers of packaged prepared food companies, all look forward to better times. pf