On food businesses, innovation and values

When you have finished making crisps out of a batch of potatoes in your factory, what do you do with the leftover peelings? You could feed them to pigs, which certainly turns a waste product into a resource, but how much more exciting to mash them up, extract the soluble fibre and use that to give texture to your muffins, enabling you to reduce their fat content. Healthy food and profits, all in one, brought to you by the Irish firm CyberColloids.

microscope and peppersThen there’s fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS, which despite the offputting name occurs naturally in many vegetables, including leeks and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s a sugar polymer which is mildly sweet but indigestible to humans, therefore serving as both a sugar substitute and a dietary fibre, while also feeding certain beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Bifidobacterium. You can use it to make such things as high-fibre, low-sugar chocolate sauce, and even mix it with water and vitamins to make a palatable drink that helps towards your Five a Day. You can buy it from the Chinese firm Quantum Hi-Tech.

These were just two examples of food wizardry on show at last November’s Food and Drink Business Europe New Product Development and Innovation Summit in Birmingham, where stakeholders in the food and beverage manufacturing industry met to hear about such topics as reducing sugar in processed foods, identifying gaps in the chocolate biscuit market, and trends in loose leaf tea. Running alongside it was a Quality and Safety Summit where we learnt about things like the need to check your turmeric for contamination with lead chromate, and how best to train staff to follow hygiene procedures. With much mention of regulatory frameworks, horizon scanning and of course innovation, the impression was of an industry that is pulling out all the stops to get us the tastiest and healthiest diet possible.

It is always good to hear from people who are enthusiastic about what they do. These were scientists, engineers and managers who have found a way to put their gifts to work in service to something bigger than themselves, and their delight in their own mastery was infectious. It is a reminder of what the human brain can achieve in the right circumstances – in a team, with a lab, a factory, a market and finance. It demonstrates the power of business to innovate and bring about change, running ahead of government and shaping our day to day lives with its convenient supply of necessities and luxuries alike, raising our standard of living to heights our ancestors could not have imagined.

And yet, questions arise. What problem are these highly processed, highly packaged treats really solving – the need of the public for healthy food, or the need of the company to devise new products and make an income? Replacing sugar with healthy sweeteners, for instance, does nothing to cure us of our sweet tooth or help us resist all the other sugary temptations that will still come along. High fibre vitamin drinks may have their applications but why not eat an apple and drink a glass of water? The fact is that the food industry has supported and driven changes in our eating habits that haven’t always been good and the problems are piling up, from tooth decay and diabetes to food waste and excess packaging.

How can we  channel all that creative energy towards solving some of the urgent problems of the day – obesity, diet-related illness and the ills of agriculture – in a way that really gets to the root of the matter, rather than tinkering with the details? That is where values come in, as the guiding principles which shape our activity, the compass by which we set our intentions. Innovation by itself is not enough; as George Orwell put it, ‘Put a pacifist to work in a bomb-factory and in two months he will be devising a new type of bomb.’  There needs to be a moral compass and accountability.

It’s time to bring the innovative power of business into alignment with genuine human needs so that it helps to create a healthier society for everyone. That was the theme of my workshop in the afternoon, encouragingly entitled ‘Food Values: business and well-being go together’. Of course, there are plenty of examples of corporate food messing up. But it isn’t inevitable, and it’s time to start telling the story of how industry can help the world, and how money is only a means to an end. We need to talk about how people in business are doing good things, because they are the right thing to do. It’s not a simple story though, and I’ll say more about that next time.

3 thoughts on “On food businesses, innovation and values

  1. Tony Little says:

    Excellent piece! I have similar thoughts in the context of primary production. It seems perverse to me that so much innovation in agriculture seeks to increase productivity – often at great environmental cost and risk – presumably so we can continue to strip out nutrients out through unnecessary processing and waste enormous quantities of food at every step of the food chain.

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