The Big Picture From IFT First

Annual event and expo highlights push toward collaborative, comprehensive approaches to innovation
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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ift startup
Dozens of small companies shared their products and ideas at the startup pavilion during IFT First.

With food industry professionals gathered in one space again at the IFT First Annual Event and Expo in Chicago, an overriding message from the hybrid event was the importance of getting on the same page. Several speakers emphasized the need for mutual, aligned efforts, whether it’s to achieve sustainability goals, supply chain efficiencies, food safety or commercially successful products. Similar sentiments were heard on the expo floor, as ingredient suppliers, manufacturers and brands showcased products developed in an increasingly integrated and often holistic way.

Back in Chicago after a COVID-related hiatus, IFT First was held at McCormick Place from July 10-13 and virtually online. Here are some key takeaways from the event presented by the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists.

Integrated Systems Approach Enables True Sustainability 

As the panelists in a session on sustainable packaging frequently pointed out, sustainability is more all-encompassing than in the past. “We can’t keep food waste and package waste in isolation. To establish a circular economy, we have to make sure that the three systems of product, process and infrastructure are aligned,” pointed out Martin Gooch, co-founder and CEO  at the consulting company Value Chain Management International. In that same discussion, fragmented collecting and sorting streams across the country were cited as an example of hindrances to effective recycling, while efforts to focus on the total stream were touted as a way to think and act in a more big-picture, end-to-end way.

Similarly, experts in another session on the future of clean label foods and beverages noted that product development should not exist in a silo. “What we want to do is to take a holistic approach to minimize carbon footprints while keeping food performance and packaging performance throughout the value chain. From design to shelf life through transportation, we have to think about that,” said Leslie Cook, global sustainability leader at Sealed Air/Cryovac, adding that consumers are also thinking in a more holistic way. “Bringing it back to clean label, it’s about personal health but they also want environmental health and planetary health.”

Her fellow panelist, Gregory Stucky, chief research officer at InsightsNow, Inc., agreed. “The idea of the cyclical life of products (is important) – it’s not enough for product developers to think whether or not they are getting ingredients right. They have to think about the entire experience for the consumer. How sustainable is it? Is it better-for-me and sustainable?”

Taking it to the next level – and reflecting retailers’ and CPGs’ ambitious and wide-reaching ESG programs – other sessions and speakers emphasized an even broader perspective, focusing on the intersection of climate change, food security and food systems.

Every Bit Counts – And Can Be Used in Food, Beverage Applications

Philosophies about integrated approaches to sustainability and ESG principles were evident in R&D efforts spotlighted during the event, including ingredients and finished products.

Lisa Berger, one of the panelists in a presentation on food waste, co-founded a company in Germany called the Zero Bullsh*t that created a Better Cracker made with 30% upcycled ingredients from the production side stream, including sunflower protein, pumpkin seed flour and apple fibers. “Instead of using something that might go to feed for animals, we thought it could be more efficient to go direct as a way to use valuable plant-based protein for the human diet,” she explained, adding, “We can actively reduce food waste because we upcycle raw material and we can also rescue or protect other resources like water.”

Another example of forward-thinking R&D is a line of cranberry seeds from Ocean Spray that can be used in a variety of applications to enhance color, immunity, plant-forward formulations and production transparency. Ocean Spray also debuted cranberry seed flour made with partner Beyond Equator at IFT, another way to diversify and maximize cranberries as a crop.

Ocean spray flour
Ocean Spray's innovations include a new cranberry seed flour made with partner Beyond Equator.

Startups Mix It Up

Like the company behind Better Cracker, dozens of new companies shared their products and concepts at a special startup pavilion at IFT First. Those booths were busy, as expo attendees sought out new ideas and potential partners for a range of products and processes, from algae, ancient grains and lettuce wraps to the recycling of food and beverage waste for renewable energy. After a pandemic-related hiatus, this year’s event and expo brought several new ideas and voices that lend a new dynamic to food and beverage and retail industries undergoing a host of changes.

Plants Crowd the Landscape

As with other trade shows that have resumed in person and/or presented online this year, the expo floor and breakout rooms at IFT First reflected the spate of new products aimed at people consuming more plant-based foods. In addition to suppliers specializing in plant-based ingredients and technologies, companies with traditional animal-based portfolios also took the opportunity to highlight their plant-based applications, such as Cargill’s plant-based non-dairy cheddar cheese and plant-based chicken-style alfredo meal kit. Flavor company Edlong shared its innovations in dairy categories like butter, cheese and cream as well as non-dairy items like vegan edam-style cheese and vegan cashew dips.

Cargill nachos
Among other plant-based snacks, Cargill sampled plant-based nachos on the IFT First show floor.

Given the fact that ingredient technology is crucial in plant-based products that appeal to consumers from taste, mouthfeel, texture and appearance standpoints, exhibitors and presenters put forth a plethora of ingredients that offer functional and flavor benefits in plant-based products ranging from shakes to desserts. Many of the participants highlighting plant-based offerings also touted natural, organic and free-from properties of their products.

The next IFT First Annual Event and Expo is set for July 16-19, 2023 in Chicago.

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