Years ago, a colleague and I were discussing concepts that I recognized as a burgeoning movement—“clean label” and sustainability. Not just the focus on conserving and replenishing natural resources, but as a collective ideal that includes fair trade, “green,” low carbon footprint, etc. I coined the term “social ingredient” to encompass all those factors that are not physical ingredients but important components of a product nonetheless. I predicted that such social ingredients would soon be the most important food ingredients in the industry.

I think I was right. It’s getting near to impossible these days to find a food or beverage that doesn’t have some kind of social ingredient on the label. More than that, the measure of whether or not a fad becomes a trend becomes a standard is who adopts it and how wide it disperses, and nowhere was this demonstrated to me better than at the 2017 Thai Rice Conference last May.

When my friends at the Thai Trade Center-Chicago and Thailand’s Department of Foreign Trade invited me last spring to attend this biennial event in Bangkok, I knew what to expect, as I’d attended before, in 2013. I would be treated to news about the rice trade, advances in growing and using rice, and celebrations of this staple crop for half the world. 

But that’s not all that we got this year. Two surprises awaited the international, capacity crowd. The first was a paradigm shift in focus on rice toward that of a functional ingredient—“Rice Plus”—in a wealth of food products and cosmetics. (Look for more on that in a coming feature next spring.) 

The second surprise came from the keynote speaker, no less than Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of Thailand. His presentation, “The Thai Rice Trade and Its Future,” hammered home one overriding theme: sustainability.

When the political head of Thailand—the largest exporter of rice in the world, a country that is in the top 20 of world economies, and the second largest economy in Southeast Asia—expresses firm and emphatic commitment to sustainability and fair trade, it is time to accept that including social ingredients in food product development has now become the new standard. Fads come and go; trends have longer legs but can eventually fade. New standards, however, are game-changers. (Seen many VCRs lately?) Any food and beverage makers who think no one will notice if they use ingredients that threaten the last remaining rainforests, leave a giant carbon footprint, impoverish farmers, or otherwise negatively impact the planet and its inhabitants might soon find themselves left far behind.