The Food Revolution: What’s Next? Food Science 30th Anniversary Symposium

December 2017

The Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry celebrated its 30th anniversary at Homecoming. Graduates of the Department’s program were invited to participate in a panel discussion on the “The Food Revolution: What’s Next?”

L-R: Wes Parker, Chloé Anderson, Salwa Karboune, Sabrina Lu, Varoujan Yaylayan, Jacinthe Côté, and Ziad Khoury

Panelists included Wes Parker, BSc(FSc)’92, Product Manager, Mitsubishi International Food Ingredients Inc., Jacinthe Côté, BSc(NutrSc)’99, MSc’04, Product Management Director, Lallemand North American and European Bakers Yeast Divisions, Ziad Khoury, BSc(FSc)’01, MSc’04, President, N3 Nutrition Inc., Sabrina Lu, BSc(FSc)’10, Senior R&D Project Lead, Ultima Foods Inc., and Chloé Anderson, BSc(FSc)’15, MSc’17, COO & Co-Founder, Avocado Desserts. The session was moderated by Salwa Karboune, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry and the Faculty’s Associate Dean (Research).

Says Karboune, “What we know is that the future happens as a result of what we do today. The goal of our panel discussion is to shed some light on the food of today and tomorrow.”

Q1: Given that global food systems and production practices have a significant impact on food we eat and we process: Are we thinking globally about food in the food industry? Are we willing to change our way of thinking? What is a food future that better respects all components of global food systems (components are environment; raw materials availability; climate change…)?

Generally speaking, companies are thinking globally about food in the food industry, but the panelists agree that more needs to be done.

Jacinthe Côté: “I have seen some isolated initiatives but unfortunately, these are small initiatives and there needs to be more communication in the food chain. The Government of Quebec has established the Sommet sur l’alimentation to bring consumers and actors involved in food production and health together to define future food policy.” She adds, “We want to do it, we know there are things we should do, but it seems we are slow to take action.”

Panelist Sabrina Lu added that much of the change in the industry is driven by consumers. Consumers want things like biodegradable packaging and more transparency with ingredients and, because of this, many companies are tackling these issues.

Chloé Anderson: “It takes time for big companies to effect change. Small companies can act on trends and get a product to market faster than large companies.  In thinking about our food future, producers who introduce new technologies into the production, distribution and retail environments will be able, for example, to minimize food waste in the supply chain.”

In thinking about growing global food demand and the environmental impact of food production, Wes Parker spoke of the industry’s drive to replace marine colloids with alternatives that are less resource intensive and more environmentally friendly; he believes that industry needs to do more to source new ingredients.

Q2: Every day decisions are made about food – to buy, to prepare and to consume. Decisions about food are personal, social and emotional! Food is incredibly complicated. What are consumer fears/concerns about the future of food? What do we hope for in the future? What do you foresee as being the big new trends in the next 10 years?

“Consumers suffer from an overdose of information,” said Ziad Khoury. “Unfortunately, this information is often incorrect or sensationalized, and this generates fear. We need to find a way to educate consumers and to allay their fears.”

According to Jacinthe Côté, “the number one concern of consumers is food labeling, and I think that their fears are driving this trend. Consumers here are looking for organic foods, gluten-free food, and foods with no artificial ingredients. In Europe, there is a slightly different playing field, and consumers are interested in things, for example, such as the link between obesity and the consumption of yeast products. Consumers want more information, and they are concerned about their health.  The clean-label project taking place here at McGill with the Conseil de Transformation Alimentaire is a great initiative.”

Adds Sabrina Lu, “Consumers are not only expecting products to have clean ingredients, they are also expecting products to have a long shelf-life and perfect quality attributes. There is a certain degree of re-education to be done to get consumers to accept trade-offs, for example, food that may not keep as long or be as visually appealing as foods that have added preservatives.”

When it comes to hopes for the future, perhaps panelist Wes Parker put it best: “According to my daughter, consumers are looking for goods that are very high in protein, contain no sugar, have no calories and taste good.”

Ziad Khoury adds that we also need to speed up the research and development process in small companies. “While legumes are readily available and have a high protein content, manufacturers shy away from using them as the protein source because the protein content is not ‘high enough.’ Those of us working in smaller companies would benefit from the help of government and bigger organizations to extract the full potential of these alternate protein sources.”

When it comes to trends, the panel agreed that “clean labels” are here to stay. “We are thinking about how to label products with ingredient lists that consumers can easily read and relate to,” adds Khoury. “That being said, this needs to be done properly.”

Q3: Who drives our food trends? Consumers, the food industry or government?

Ziad Khoury believes that there are multiple factors at play here. “Ingredient manufacturers come up with new technologies and they make them available to us. This triggers creative ideas which are then transferred into foods, and then we evaluate whether or not they meet market expectations.” He adds, “The regulatory framework is extremely important, but experience has shown us that regulatory changes tend to cause a certain degree of turmoil within the industry.”

“The food industry does play a role,” adds Wes Parker. “If we talk about sustainability, manufacturers are always looking at ways of using for example by-products to reduce costs. Regulations do drive some of the trends for example like reducing salt and removing PHOs. For the most part, the industry is reacting to this and not driving change.”

In the early days “the food industry had full control over what we were eating. They were working on techniques to make food last longer, be cheaper and more convenient,” says Chloé Anderson. “Times have changed. With the incidence of food and advertising fraud increasing, consumers are reacting. As Food Science professionals, we need to listen and help educate consumers and this is not going to happen overnight.”

Q4: Convenient “on the go” foods offer clear benefits. However, there is a concern that convenience impacts social connectedness and increases food waste. Consumers neither want to sacrifice the convenience nor lose social connection. How do you see the future of convenience? Are consumers ready to sacrifice convenience for more social connection? How can we achieve a balance between convenience and connection?

“Consumers want convenience, connection and health,” says Jacinthe Côté. “The challenge for the food industry is to revisit the way we prepare food, and put nutrition back into convenience foods. There is a trend toward consumers purchasing ready-to-make meal kits and these services are not necessarily environmentally friendly if we think about packaging and transportation.” Sabrina Lu adds, “That, while this may be the case, there is less food waste because there is portion control. We are going to have to find a balance, where we still recognize the ingredients we are eating.”

Says Lu, “We need to understand that the definition of convenience has changed. Right now we are talking about on-the-go, mess-free and snacking foods. Snacking is a huge trend and snacking occasions have changed – we are now looking at afternoon and evening snacking with friends and family.” She adds, “In thinking about the future, convenience does not necessarily relate to the product itself, but how we get that product. If we think about groceries, we are looking at things like Amazon-Go or ordering online and picking your groceries up at the store. Consumers want to spend less time shopping and preparing meals, and more time with family and friends enjoying food.”

Q5: Food brings challenging multidisciplinary sciences together. Consumers are more exposed and interested in food, health and nutrition information than they have been in the past. How can we increase the number of educated consumers? In the future, what information should the food industry provide to consumers to support their decision making about food choice?

“From the industrial point of view we see social media as the main driving source of education for consumers out there,” says Wes Parker. “Unfortunately, a lot of that information is incorrect. It is up to us as an industry to make sure that this information is available and this has not necessarily been the case. Industry associations and groups are coming together to try to figure out how to better educate consumers.”

Ziad Khoury responded, “Unfortunately, as soon as the industry takes a stance, it is seen as part of a lobby. The education of consumers may have to be done at arm’s length to remove the perception of bias.”

Jacinthe Côté added that she is often asked to comment on facts that consumers see in the media. “I search for evidence-based studies until I find the facts, but very often I find unsubstantiated claims. We are the experts in our industry. At one time you can see us as lobbyists or experts but how the consumer sees us is a matter of trust, and we all need to work together.”

At the close of the Symposium, alumnus Anton Angelich presented Dean Geitmann and Departmental Chair Varoujan Yaylayan with a cheque for $23,400 that will, among other initiatives, fund student travel to attend competitions.

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