Food Innovation

Food Innovation Ideas: Six Secrets Behind the UK’s Most Successful Businesses

When you hear the words ‘food innovation’ what do they mean to you? Are you the Instagram #foodie that’s always looking for your next hit on the trend line? Or are you the “Heinz-Cream-of-Tomato-Soup-purist”, fine with the same meals as 30 years ago? Wherever you sit on this spectrum, you’re bound to have an opinion on food and drink innovation. You’re part of a conversation on the latest product or advertisement… The only nuance here is whether you’re the trend raconteur or the racontee!

What's inside...

But ‘what drives food innovation?’, I hear you ask. It’s our behaviour and changes in behaviour that dictate how innovation moves. At least, that should be how it works. Food and drink innovation should reflect the zeitgeist, but it’s all a matter of timing if you’re a food producer. Move too soon and you won’t have scale, move too late and you’ll be another ‘me too’. Your innovation will only succeed if you get your timing right.

An article by stated that food firms waste about £30.4M per year on failed launches. This means the price of failure is high (Ridler, 2017). So, as a food trend hunter or manufacturer how do you get your food innovation solutions right? Well, I’m going to try to answer that question. If I’m honest I won’t get it 100% right because if I knew the exact answer I’d be a very rich man. Yet, I’ll steer the ship in the right direction and away from those pesky icebergs of the forgotten food bin! To help me do that I’m going to consider the macro trends that should be the rudder of HMS Food Innovation and pick out some key players that are standing at the helm, telescopes raised to their eyes in search of solid ground (and don’t panic or stop reading because I’m ditching this nautical analogy overboard now!).

Six Macro Trends driving UK Food Innovation:

What are the current macro trends in the UK market that have people running to or away from food innovation? If I were to discuss everything we’d be here a while… Instead, I’ve highlighted the six key macro trends as I see them, because I’m nice like that!

A Focus on Long Term Health and Lifestyle

Health as a food innovation

Of course, health isn’t new on the agenda. We’ve been obsessed with the way we look and our fitness since mirrors and competition were invented. However, the pace that the health agenda is evolving at is quite remarkable. The current iteration focuses on long-term lifestyle changes and health, as opposed to short-term dramatic changes. For food and drink innovations, this means today’s consumer is less likely to treat their choices as punitive actions, instead favouring informed choices as part of a larger health vision. This has led to big shifts in the food and drink landscape. A recent report in The Guardian asserted ‘nearly 30% of young people (16-24 year olds) in England do not drink’ (Press Association, 2018). This is a far cry from the ‘Booze Britain’ and ‘Binge Nation’ headlines as recently as eight years ago. The UK government has also taken a leading role in the drama by introducing the Sugar Tax in 2018. This tax had huge implications for certain industries (namely soft drinks and cereals). It also induced a thought-provoking debate on where the responsibility sits and the burden we place on the NHS with our habits.

One of the drivers of this change is the idea that a healthy lifestyle is a form of social currency and a brand. Characters like Joe Wicks and Ella Woodward are now greater influences on our lives, meals and habits than many TV chefs. Jamie Oliver’s war on turkey twizzlers started a movement, there’s no doubt. Today though, the baton is with palpable personalities whose every move can be followed in a online diary of pictures and posts.

Which Companies Are Pushing Health Innovations In Food?

A Move Away From Sugar: Coca-Cola & PepsiCo: The Sugar Tax forced the hands of some huge multi-national corporations. With the inconvenient truth being out there in the public domain, they needed to act. Some have really taken the bull by the horns. Coca-Cola Enterprises have made their best efforts to renovate and innovate. They reclaimed the iconic red colour from Original Coke for Coke Zero and are investing in the future by launching Fuze Tea, an iced tea brand. Meanwhile, PepsiCo have taken a different approach for their future by acquiring Sodastream. A smart manoeuvre from outgoing CEO, Indra Nooyi.

A “Nutritious” Sugar Alternative: SugaVida: We’re all on the lookout for ways to reduce our sugar intake but still be able to satisfy our sweet tooth. SugaVida think they have the answer to that conundrum with a Palmyra Blossom Nectar. Stephanie Hazelwood explains their mission: ‘we are looking to use this natural and nutritious sugar alternative as a pioneering tool to transform health and wellness’ (2018). She believes the next frontier in UK food innovation is education: ‘the public currently do not have enough knowledge, nor are they receiving the right information. It’s a long battle but worthwhile when you start to see the changes’.

Healthy Ice Cream? Nouri: Kalina Halacheva has set out on a mission with her business to ‘nourish your body, indulge your soul’. She’s acting on the health trend, but bringing indulgence with her healthy ice-cream and snack balls. This is a business grounded in insights and food innovation solutions with veganism, all natural, no added sugar and gluten free all being important attributes of the food. Kalina has a very clear view of the current and future trends influencing our habits in the UK. She believes ‘plant-based is number one for me; but also, city farming and probiotics will grow and grab more of our attention’ (2018). So keep an eye out for those predictions!

Chocolate That is Good For You: Rebel Chocolate: Here’s a business based in Glasgow, run by two scientists with a mission to bring healthy chocolate to the market. It’s a tough gig but sounds awesome! Neil and Suzanne have developed a range that contains half the sugar of market leaders, 25% protein, 57% cocoa and made without gluten or lactose. No need to miss that chocolate fix now!

Traceability: Sourcing and Production Awareness

Traceable products

The next macro trend to consider is all about a yearning for sourceability. I mean this less from an ethical standpoint – for example Fairtrade – and more of a trust or mistrust of the supply chain. There have been a couple of events in recent UK food history that have catalysed this trend, most notably the Horse Gate scandal in 2013. As consumers, we care now more than ever about where our food comes from. Manufacturers need to work hard to earn the trust of the modern shopper.

Any breaks of that trust can be catastrophic for manufacturers and retailers involved. 2018 has seen several such breaches, including whole animal DNA being found in vegetarian meals sold in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. There were two tragic and fatal incidents involving Pret a Manger being unable to identify allergens in its food. The obsession with sourceability has led the FSA to introduce new rules on food and drink labelling. They are promoting cleaner ingredient decks to make things easier to understand for consumers and shoppers.

This trend isn’t just about the paranoia around food sourcing, it is a two-sided coin, with the shinier side being a movement towards traceability used as a marketing tool, for example single-origin. David Greenwood-Haigh, Chocolate Consultant (yes that is really his job title!) at Coeur de Xocolat, is an expert on food trends and has seen this trend develop over the last five years or so: ‘it’s an aspect of our behaviour that has been commonplace in a few categories for a long time now; it wouldn’t seem a usual question to ask what region your bottle of wine or whisky was from. Now we’re seeing this trend creep into other categories where sourcing and production awareness has increased in the minds of the shopper. Chocolate is just one of many categories that has expanded based on this trend with producers now proud to call out the growing region or one of the premium ingredients that is just one aspect in the symphony of flavours’ (2018). Take the humble pub snack for example: it’s now no longer acceptable in some places to serve a hairy, non-descript meat snack with your craft ales; our yearning for greater knowledge on the source of our food has created an entirely new niche that Wagyu Biltong and hand-crafted charcuterie is only too happy to slide into.

Which Companies are Succeeding at Sourcing and Traceability?

The Ethical Grocer: Farm Drop: Farm Drop is looking to replace your supermarket shop by providing an online delivery service of local fresh food and ethical larder and household items. Claiming to cut out the supermarket by connecting consumers with their producers and shaking up the way the UK food supply chain operates and saving your carbon footprint…and the planet!

Compassionate Dairy Farming: Ahimsa (meaning cruelty-free) Dairy Foundation: this is a not-for-profit dairy in the idyllic Rutland hills where the ‘happiest cows in the world’ are sung to, massaged and fed digestive biscuits as part of their daily routine. So how much would a pint of milk set you back if this were your bag? £2.60. That’s the price of a product from the world’s happiest cows.

Social Responsibility: Waging War on Food Waste and Unnecessary Packaging

Reducing packaging

Now, this trend is gaining momentum by the week it seems and is becoming increasingly more important in the mind of consumers and retailers; it’s all about waging all-out war on food waste and packaging. This is all strongly rooted in appealing to our social conscience and, specifically, around the redistribution of waste and the impact we’re having on our planet.

The war on waste in the industry is being spearheaded by The Grocer with its ‘Waste Not Want Not’ scheme which launched in reaction to the fact that ‘just 47,000 tonnes out of the 2.64 million tonnes of surplus and waste food the industry accounts for is redistributed for human consumption’ (2016). The war on packaging, and plastic, is something that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time and has finally erupted with Plastic Manifestos being produced by almost every mainstream grocery retailer.

The fire appears to be fuelled (or at least fanned vigorously) by celebrities such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sir David Attenborough to add impetus and gravitas to the campaign. Having said that the retail trade has its own champions with Richard Walker, MD of Iceland, and Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco, leading the charge.

Insects: Debbie Robinson, Spar MD, asserts that ‘the need for cheap protein will almost certainly be fulfilled by the consumption of insects’ (2015) which is quite a thought! However, insect based products are already starting to find their way into the UK market with cricket flour being very accessible.

Which Companies are Reducing Packaging and Waste?

Condiments with a Conscience: Rubies in the Rubble: these folks have really embraced the war on waste and made it their own by finding ingredients that would otherwise go to waste and producing condiments with a conscience. It’s simple but effective!

Redirecting Food destined for Landfill: The Real Junk Food Project: now this really is coal face stuff! The Real Junk Food Project is a fantastic example of food innovation solutions and is a network of Pay as You Feel concepts with a global reach and a great presence in the UK. Their mission is to intercept food destined for waste and redistribute it to the right places and generate cash through their cafes to support the cause. I salute you people!

Low Impact Protein: It’s no secret that farming for meat is destroying our planet, so where to look for a more ethical protein hit? Eat Grub offers delicious, nutritious and sustainable protein solutions.

Packaging Innovations?: Packaging will have to evolve and develop beyond the bounds of what we understand today because it’s now on the agenda for everyone involved in the full supply chain. Single-use is already a dirty phrase but what will the future bring in terms of packaging innovations? Will plastic shopping bags and Bags for Life ironically die out in the next five years? The challenge isn’t necessarily in finding alternatives, it’s more about finding sustainable alternatives that won’t mean a punnet of grapes now costs £10 and the packaging is 95% of the cost. It started in Amsterdam this year with the Plastic Free Aisle and was showcased in the UK at the Packaging Innovations Trade Fair in September. We have a long way to go, but with the impetus provided by the consumer and other countries offering practical solutions for us to consider, such as the Bottle and Can deposit scheme, which got the green light in the UK in March this year.

Globalisation and Travel: A Search for New and Underexplored Flavours

Food from around the globe

The world is getting smaller. You can now travel from Manchester to Europe cheaper than you can get to London and we are taking full advantage of that fact. As travel becomes cheaper our reach widens, our exposure to new cultures increase and our appetite for new food and drink grows. This translates into what we see in on the streets back in the UK, in restaurants and, eventually, in retail when the right food innovation solutions land on shelf.

Which Companies are Bringing us World Foods?

Bringing the Exotic to the High Street: Our culinary world is getting much smaller and the high street is the starkest example of this. Chains and groups offering new food experiences are popping up on a daily basis with asserting that ‘small but fast-growing casual dining brands are expanding six times faster than bigger names’ (2017) highlighting brands like Wahaca and Pho as examples of this trend. Flavours that were once exotic and inaccessible are now turning up in the most unlikely of places with Gregg’s proffering a Katsu Pasty and McDonald’s showcasing their Jerky burger. I’d argue that at the point that these once exotic flavours reach places like Gregg’s and McDonald’s they stop being modern and move to become postmodern.

On the Street: Street Food is spilling out in a big way in the UK with vans and pop-up restaurants filling any kerb space available. With this trend brings new flavours, nuances and lands to explore. London is a fantastic example of food innovation as Kalina Halacheva states, ‘the vibrant London restaurant scene has so much creativity and innovation. It has put the country on the world map as the top gourmet destination’ (2018) with Street Feast leading the way.

Digital Innovation: Food at Our Fingertips

Innovating through digital

The way we consume our food has changed irreversibly forever with digital and food and drink innovation going together like two very committed newlyweds. Online shopping has changed our shopping habits completely and we now demand more from the comfort of our own home with voice ordering and one-hour turnarounds no longer a sci-fantasy.

This revolution extends beyond home shopping (remember how people used to have to do that with cringe-worthy television and awkward automated phone calls?) and has heavily influenced our out-of-home/in-home eating with delivery services expanding, it seems, on a weekly basis to cover more and more postcodes throughout the UK. Roger Burnley, CEO of ASDA, told a Commons committee that the ‘fight for the calories’ has expanded beyond bricks and mortar and now includes ‘taxi companies’ in a clear demonstration that the market has proliferated way beyond the traditional channels and the shopping public are embracing it wholeheartedly.

This macro trend is definitely an example of a situation where ‘innovate or die’ is a relevant mantra with manufacturers and retailers scrabbling over each other to deliver on the next sub-trend with no room for laggards.

Which Companies are Shifting Food Online?

These guys can make you gourmet without the research and painstaking time it takes to acquire gourmet knowledge – let them do it for you at the touch of a button:

Healthy Snacking: Graze: Bored of browsing the shelves to get a nice healthy snack whilst all you see are crisps and chocolate screaming at you to buy them? Graze takes away the decision making by giving you only healthy options to choose from and then delighting you with a surprise box of goodies as often as you require them

Gourmet Italian: Pasta Evangelists: Let’s face it, if we could be bothered, we would all be eating freshly rolled pasta. But noone has the time to think about it, let alone do it. These guys promise that they put in the hard work so that you can create a gourmet pasta meal in under 5 minutes.

Spicing up Your Life: The Spice Pioneer: Another niche market focusing on bringing you all the spices and flavours needed to create the most exotic and tasty meals from every continent of the world to your doorstep. No need to stack those shelves with piles of spices, nor to think about how to make your meal that little bit special – they have all the bright ideas, including the soundtrack that you need to cook with.

A Bit More Foodie: some consumers are constantly looking for the next trick up their sleeve to impress their friends of families and I can only see that developing further with brands like Just a Splash pushing those boundaries. Just a Splash is a food ingredient innovation with a range of five recipe-sized spirits and fortified wines, adding delicious flavours and textures to any dish.

Convenience: Easy not Speedy home cooking solutions

News approaches to food
The final macro trend on my list of current affairs is all about the value convenience. It used to be that speed and convenience were synonyms in food and drink innovation with chicken a la ding being the plat du jour; however now they have been pulled apart like a nice low and slow brisket. Consumers and shoppers realise that their need for speed has often come at a cost to quality and enough is enough.

The replacement is all about ease of use and preparation so the slow cooker has seen a resurgence along with overnight marinades and sous-vides.

Which companies are making our lives easier?

Healthy meals at home: Hellofresh has done a great job of bringing portionable, simple recipes and meals into the homes of thousands of Brits. This has led to an explosion of proliferations of food innovations that offer single or multiple meal solutions and can be as easy as just applying heat.

Building your Recipe Repertoire: Simply Cook’s mission is to provide restaurant style food to your home at an affordable price. Claiming that most British people only have 6 meals in their repertoire – they offer to change this without blowing your budget.

So, to recap, the six key macro trends which are driving food and drink innovations are:

  • Health and Lifestyle
  • Traceability
  • Social Responsibility
  • Globalisation and Travel
  • Digital Innovation
  • Convenience

Mapping current trends is the easy bit; but what does the future hold and what key trends will we be focussed on in the future? Well, allow me to have a crack at answering that but if they don’t come to fruition you can blame my crystal ball and not me!

So now that we’ve looked at what’s going on in the world, who’s helping to bring that to our homes and what might be to come (disclaimer – like any good forecaster, please don’t hold me to account but I really hope we’re not all eating insects in the near future, Southern Fried Spider doesn’t quite appeal!) hopefully you should have a different view of what’s mean by food and drink innovation and food innovation solutions. In short, food innovation should simply be a result of our eating and shopping habits which will continue to evolve, the role producers play is trying to stay one step ahead of that trend to keep us fickle lot happy and healthy!


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