The Shadowy World of Food Innovation

When most of us think about food, it’s usually a question of how things taste or how they make you feel. Foodies are concerned with their palate and food critics toss around terms like texture, temperature, and presentation.

Behind the taste buds, however, is the wide and shadowy world of food production. The industry is packed with a handful of large companies that aren’t as concerned by every particular culinary experience as they are how to make food grow, both out of the ground, and in popularity. We rarely hear about the inner workings of those companies—names like Pepsi, Kraft, and the biggest food company in the world, Nestle–because of the competition of a $5 trillion global market, according to an estimate by the World Bank. That number is so big because it really affects us all. Between the fancy meals and organic produce you get at your local farmers market, you’re undoubtedly eating pasta or drinking orange juice like the rest of us. And that stuff is produced at large scale and distributed globally.

Every so often, we get to see how the Food Industrial Complex is innovating, and what kind of changes they’re making that will impact our lives.

Industrial food innovators are at work thinking about one number specifically: nine billion. By 2050, that’s expected to be the world’s population, and with limited space for growing and producing food, the puzzle becomes how to stretch today’s food supply by almost 30 percent.

Not long ago, I caught up with some innovators at Tetra Pak, the European-based company that develops food packaging. Odds are if you’ve ever bought anything in a paper carton, you’ve been one of its customers. This year, Tetrapack made a pretty unflashy advance that will end up making a huge difference. If you’ve ever been inside a factory, you know that speed counts. Tetra designed a machine that can take filling rates of cartons from 24,000 packs per hour to 40,000 packs per hour. That means more milk cartons and juice boxes can be produced, then shipped all over the world.

The industry news website FoodBev takes a look at some other top food innovations this year—again, things you’ve probably never heard of. It’s been a big year for producing eggless egg substitutes. A company called Bio Springer released a new yeast-based flavor that will become the milk-less cheeses of the future.

That all said, the company that fascinates me most is Pepsi, which has a hand in almost everything we eat, from packaged food to restaurant ingredients. For several years, Pepsi’s food scientists have been working on producing a salt substitute, finding a way to minimize the health risks of eating too much salt while still maintaining the beloved taste of salty, briny foods. The race is on, one engineer told me, to figure out how to do for salt what aspartame, back in the 60s, did for sugar. Such an advance could mean billions of dollars for a single company.

Every food advance has major implications, bringing up questions about nutrition, resource management, and scalable cost. Sometimes, especially in countries like the U.S. with growing rates of obesity, the solutions aren’t so easy. In the mean time, however, people around the world are hungry. Pepsi knows that new mouths are constantly being born, and that means new market share to pursue. Just last month, Pepsi announced that in order to grow innovation and find new customers, it would be opening a new research and development facility in Shanghai.

One reason? Regional tastes vary substantially. That may help explain why some of the top selling potato chips in Asia are flavored like cucumber, lemon tea, and seaweed.

Changing Planet