I had the opportunity to visit (for the first time!) the Institute for Food Technologists’ Annual Expo in Chicago, IL, USA. It was extremely eye opening from my point of view as the director of NH, but also as a consumer.

I would encourage anyone interested in the food industry to attend this yearly event. It is relatively inexpensive, there is a lot of interesting food to sample, and you can really pick up on the scale of the food technology industry.  There is a lot of trend watching and market research which you can see reflected in the products in development. The big questions this year appeared to be “Which product will be the next greek yogurt?” and “Which trend will be the next gluten-free”?

Last year at IFT, NH assembled a seminar called “New Frontiers in Sustainable Animal-Independent Dietary Protein Production Technologies” and sent four speakers (Scientists Mirko Betti and Nicholas Genovese, as well as Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek Foods and Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat) to present.

This year, I (Isha) attended in order to network and determine how best we could participate for next year.

Some takeaways relevant to New Harvest that I thought I’d share.

  • Health is driving product development. Consumers appear to be searching for healthy alternatives. Many of the foods presented at the expo were alternatives: yeast extracts instead of salt, stevia instead of sugar, gluten-free breads, etc.Meat’s reputation as unhealthy may be met with meat alternative product development.
  • The market wants healthy protein. All the market research presentations I came across pointed to protein – in particular, healthy, “clean” protein – as the next big trend. This meant protein-fortified drinks, snacks, and dairy alternatives. Meat alternatives were underrepresented. NH can address this beneficial market trend by representing meat alternatives at next year’s expo.
  • Protein doesn’t mean “meat” anymore. Nearly all the discussions about protein focused on plant-based protein. Meat was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Plant-based alternatives could probably benefit from focusing messaging on replacing protein rather than replacing meat.
  • The meat industry was not represented at all. Meat producers (of any size) had zero presence during the Expo and meat was addressed only in a minor way during seminars and poster sessions. Meat alternatives would not be outshined with a presence at next year’s expo.
  • Meat alternatives were very under-represented. None of the familiar plant-based alternative brands were set up at the Expo. During the short-courses and seminars, the luncheon did offer a Morningstar veggie burger, though! Meat alternatives must be represented at IFT next year.
  • There are many meat flavourings that are vegetable- and yeast-based flavourings. I tasted and smelled a spectrum of very convincing meat flavours (on potato chips or fries) that were completely free of animal products. This may be something to consider for cultured meat development, if taste in particular is an issue. 
  • Talk about sustainability was minimal, but clearly on people’s minds. At the “New Applications in Soy” short course seminar that I attended, influential members of the soy community acknowledged that meat consumption needed to decrease for the sake of sustainability. This is impactful considering that 97% of American soy is turned into livestock feed. Sustainability was a weak market trend this year but I think is on the cusp of becoming a major one. The meat problem, while not being openly discussed enough, is on the minds of many.
  • IFT is about connecting suppliers with distributors. The IFT Expo is more of a sales and marketing event than a scientific one, where members of the supply chain connect. This is a place where distributors interested in offering alternatives to meat could be searching for suppliers.

In conclusion, I think meat alternatives need to be present at IFT in the next year. NH is well positioned to do this, where we can represent a variety of plant-based alternatives for the near future and discuss cultured meat for the long term. We will begin investigating how best to do this.