Thousands of industry experts, media and students gathered in Las Vegas in June for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 annual meeting and food exhibition. Exhibitors and presentations ran the gamut of major trends impacting food and beverage developers--and the factors consumers will seek in the future.

A panel of industry experts discussed the impacts and opportunities of ethnic foods and the opportunities they may present. Diego Serrano, director of product development at a spice manufacturer, noted that studies increasingly support health benefits of different spices frequently found in ethnic foods. “These ethnic recipes can deliver over 2g of spices and herbs per serving.” Panelists related that ginger, in food, can reduce muscle pain and soreness, as reported in a 2010 Journal of Pain report, while it -- along with turmeric and garlic -- could block the absorption of fat.

In fact, as Janet Carver, senior culinary team leader at an ingredient supplier noted, “If you balance out flavors (salty, sweet, hot and bitter), you can reduce salt and fat without diminishing flavor.”

At another session, speakers examined how flavor preferences become ingrained at an early age. During that session, entitled “Flavor Perception, Satiety and Nutrition: Implications throughout the Life Cycle,” it was noted that, before their second birthday, many children have already begun developing preferences for processed carbohydrates, in the form of added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium. Maria Veldhuizen of Yale University explained that affective responses to taste were not learned and were, rather, intrinsic. Affective responses to flavors, however, are learned and are dependent on exposure consistency; consumers learn to like what is available.

While those responses may be learned, there is a growing group of consumers looking for foods and beverages they regard as real, fresh or natural. A seminar by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy explained this interest is, in fact, a real trend and far beyond a fad. “The Real, Fresh, Natural Foods Trend: How to Win with Consumers” explained this trend should resonate with consumers over a long term. “There is evidence that real, fresh, and natural is not just a fad,” said Melinda Brunell of the Innovation Center. “It’s a cultural shift.” She noted certain terms, including “artificial” and “substitute,” raise an unsurprising red flag; however, other findings were less expected, notably a focus group that “was surprisingly okay” with naturally occurring fats in foods.

During the seminar, Glanbia’s Loren Ward advised marketers attempting to capitalize on the fresh message: “Know your target audience and the appropriate level of real/fresh/natural to highlight," cautioned Ward. "And be consistent in the way that message is delivered across your company’s product line.”

Fresh and natural may be one route to wellness, but these are far from the only methods. The IFT session “Helping Consumers Meet Daily Recommended Intakes for Nutrients of Concern with Processed Foods” explored the challenges in formulating products that give consumers the levels of micronutrients they need. Among the first elements to consider is the presence of supplements in the consumer’s diet. Regan Bailey, nutritional epidemiologist with the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, explained, “Dietary supplements add a large amount of nutrients. They have to be looked at when you’re considering who’s getting too little and who’s getting too much.”

Potassium, in particular, is a concern for Johanna Dwyer of Tufts University. She worries that many Americans do not get enough of the mineral; however, its bitter flavor makes food or beverage fortification a major technical challenge for developers.

Also commenting was Marianne Smith Edge of the International Food Information Council: “If we are going to modify foods, we need to modify them in ways that will resonate with consumers.” She said IFIC research has found three out of four people agree that fortified foods can have a meaningful impact on their health. Some 62% of consumers have considered the fiber content of food prior to purchasing; 53% have examined vitamin and mineral content; and 28% have taken potassium content into account before purchasing a product.

 From the August 6, 2012, Prepared Foods’ E-dition