'Desperate' food industry going to new lengths to innovate

Loblaw, Maple Leaf Foods and the co-op behind Natrel milk and Oka cheese are hungry for innovation, so they're adopting ever more creative techniques.

Almond 'cheese,' meat-free sausages coming to a supermarket near you

Food futurist Irwin Adam Eydelnant uses what he called a "quartz crystal gizmo" to turn fruit juice into a drinkable cloud. (CBC)

Can you actually drink a cloud?  Irwin Adam Eydelnant is happy to show you how.

With a PhD in biomedical engineering, he knows the right technique can turn fruit juice into a fine mist. "By putting voltage through a crystal we make it vibrate at ultrasonic frequencies," he says, "which rips apart the surface of the liquid."

Eydelnant may sound like a scientist, but he also advises businesses on innovation. Pepsi, Kraft, and Campbell, among others, have been clients of his Future Food Studio.  

How a small Canadian firm helps big food companies keep up with changing consumer tastes 5:56

"We take a very unusual approach to the product pipeline," he says, explaining that most big food companies are cautious about innovation. "They're often just doing line extensions, a new flavour or a new format, but never really innovating the product itself."

But unusual is the name of the game these days when many food companies approach the challenge of developing new products.
The latest vegan product that's getting buzz is aquafaba. Made with bean water, it can replace eggs and be used to make desserts like meringues. (Wallflower Kitchen)

In an industry where a trend can seemingly come out of nowhere and explode into a multibillion-dollar product — the way Greek yogurt did, for example — food companies are eager to be first to lay claim to what's fresh and exciting.

They are often willing to look farther afield than the traditional in-house research-and-development team.

"The industry is desperate," says Sylvain Charlebois, a business professor at Dalhousie University who teaches food-related courses. "Last year the grocery business in Canada grew by just 0.7 per cent. Innovation is the only way to grow."

Consider some of the initiatives underway and the money behind them:

  • Agropur, Canada's largest dairy co-operative whose brands include Natrel, Oka and IÖGO, is running a contest called The Inno Challenge. In its November 2016 announcement, the group wrote, "We think dairy is extraordinary. We also believe we need to reinvent dairy." It's inviting innovators anywhere in the world to submit "bold" proposals for new dairy foods or beverages.
  • Loblaw and George Weston Ltd. are offering research grants of up to $150,000 for two years to academics. The Seeding Food Innovation Grants will fund proposals of a "rigorously scientific nature" with a focus on nutrition and sustainability. 
  • Maple Leaf Foods has opted to buy innovation by purchasing a cutting-edge company. Last month it agreed to pay $140 million US for Lightlife Foods of Massachusetts, which makes vegetarian deli meats and sausages. "Expanding into the fast-growing plant-based proteins market is one of Maple Leaf's strategic growth platforms," company CEO Michael McCain said.

Vegan mayonnaise

Food consultant Dana McCauley sees many unique products in her role as executive director of Food Starter, an incubator for startups funded by the City of Toronto.

Among her current crop of entrepreneurs is the creator of a creamy pasta sauce from cashews. Then there's a spread made with liquefied almonds that tastes similar to cheese. McCauley also runs a private consulting firm, advising big companies on the trends she sees coming on strong. 
Dana McCauley is the executive director at Food Starter, an incubator for startups, and works as a consultant with big food companies. (Food Starter)

"I think everybody is chasing that holy grail of what is going to be the next big thing," she comments, noting that it's hard to stay ahead in an industry as dynamic as food.

"Competitors can knock you off with new technology or new insights that makes them much more attractive to consumers because of the price. To keep good profits, they need to launch new products."

One hot new trend that has people talking, according to McCauley, is aquafaba, which can be used to make vegan mayonnaise.

"Instead of being made with eggs, it's made with the liquid that's left over when you soak chickpeas," she explains. "If you Google it, you'll see people making meringues with it."

Fermented foods in vogue

In his lab, Eydelnant acknowledges he's been credited with spotting trends early, such as the current interest in fermented foods like kimchi, the Korean side dish, or kombucha tea, both of which are experiencing significant sales growth.

"On the consulting and research side of our work, we look at the different signals that exist in the environment in food and beverage," he says.

"Often we're looking for what we would refer to as weak signals, to create foresight studies of what we predict is going to be in the next three, five, 10, 15 or 20 years of food and beverage."
Fermented foods like kimchi, a seasoned vegetable side dish from Korea, have been growing in popularity in North America. (Pixabay)

You likely won't see his drinkable cloud innovation at the supermarket soon. Creating it was an exercise he undertook after a large beverage company asked him to reimagine its product in various forms.

But he does have the marketplace in mind. Eydelnant is developing a line of snacking products that he claims will help consumers achieve what he calls "different states" such as feeling creative or relaxed. He's confident no large company would come up with such an idea on its own.

"Companies have a way of thinking inside of them that has been produced from years and years of certain processes that have encouraged certain outcomes, so it's often difficult for a large company to shift away from that," he says.

It appears that could be changing, though, given food companies' aggressive ambition to maintain profits with creative and trend products that will entice consumers to spend.

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.