Editor’s Note: This is the first in an eight-part series of expert insight columns alternatingly directed to entrepreneurial start-up food and beverage companies as well as young food and beverage formulating professionals. This initial article is directed to entrepreneurial start-up leaders.

You have a great tasting food you want to commercialize. What claims can you make? One of the first things on your to-do list should be to define a few basics: Who will buy your food? What’s important to them when it comes to your food category?

Rarely do foods have universal appeal. There is something for everyone but it also means that you need to design (or redesign) your food with the attributes or claims and characteristics that are most important to your category’s consumers.   

What Wins

Begin by brainstorming everything that you think applies to your food as “must have” or “nice-to-have” attributes. It may seem obvious but great taste should be at the top of every list. It is the one thing consumers will not trade out.  Also, clean label is here to stay so keep your key ingredients simple and easy to understand.

Beyond that, consumers likely will differ in how they prioritize other characteristics they feel are important. Claims such “USDA Organic,” “non-GMO,” “gluten-free,” or “plant-based” often appear on many new products. However, are they critical for your product’s consumers?  Are some so important that your consumers might be willing to trade off an indulgent experience or a super clean label to have these attributes in your food? You should know what these critical attributes are before finalizing your product formula.   

Unintended Mistakes

“More is better” in some cases but when it comes to choosing product attributes, going for the “kitchen sink” of claims can result in a more expensive product or an unnecessarily challenging formulation process. You also could unintentionally alienate your intended consumer before they even taste your item. That’s because they may not want to pay for the “extras” you formulated into your food. They also won’t sacrifice taste if they believe you have compromised a key quality of the food.   I have seen instances where bundling too many health-related claims actually led prospective consumers to worry about taste.

One example involves a “low- or no-sugar” claim on barbeque sauce.  Eliminating all sweetening ingredients could result in a very vinegary, tart product that might not even pass as a barbeque sauce.  

You might consider adding non-nutritive or alternative carbohydrate sweeteners to achieve the expected sweet and tangy character for this type of sauce. Is this acceptable to your consumer? It might be if they already are familiar with these ingredients and their goal to keep sugar mostly out of the diet.  On the other hand, some consumers might consider adding whole fruit puree a better option than sugar but it only gets you to a “no sugar added” claim. Anyone looking to reduce their overall intake of sugars or carbohydrates will not find this useful because fruit can contain the same amount of naturally-occurring sugars.  “Less sugar (than comparable barbeque sauces)” might be a good balance for your consumers if it addresses an interest in consuming less sugar and choosing clean label foods that still have the character of the food they want.   

Bottom line, a little up front investigation and brainstorming will help focus your recipe development to create the best version of your food for your consumers.

About the Author
Lisa Thorsten, Principal, Thorsten Consulting LLC, has more than 35 years’ experience in the packaged and fresh foods business as a food scientist, nutritionist, quality manager and regulatory affairs leader for small and large food makers.  She has developed many new products and commercialized them in both small co-manufacturing and Fortune 100 food manufacturing operations.