Donna Berry*

The annual meeting and exposition of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) was very different this year, as it was virtual, like all other food-related gatherings since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Appropriately renamed SHIFT20, which is suggestive of shifting to a new online format, live presentations, meeting rooms and even socials were held from July 13 to 15, with all presentations, videos and webinars now available on-demand to registered attendees.

The IFT staff and outside vendors managed to create a first-of-its-kind virtual experience, allowing enough time for “exhibitors” to send sampling boxes of prototypes to interested registrants. IFT’s goal when making the switch was to maintain a sense of interaction and collaboration among registrants. This was experienced through the virtual receptions planned by each IFT division, as well as the different social events scheduled for the end of each day, including mixing a custom cocktail with a mixologist, cooking a meal with a sensory scientist and a mid-week dance party. 

Attendees were able to contact exhibitors and start video chats using their virtual profiles. The profiles also allowed attendees to follow others and their virtual show engagements. A networking platform offered within the event site provided a matchmaking and solution resource where exhibitors were able to find attendees with targeted interests and contact them to set up a virtual meeting, possibly even send a sampling overnight.

It took effort for attendees to explore what exhibitors were offering. In fact, it was likely more time consuming than walking an exhibit hall; however, attendees did not need to cover the entire expo in the typical three days of an in-person conference. All “booths” have a showcase page that remains accessible. These pages contain product information from exhibitors, along with case studies, brochures, press releases and video demonstrations. During the event, attendees were able to click on a button to request a live meeting or leave a virtual business card for more information. Attendees also continue to have access to educational content, including more than 100 scientific presentations and 750 poster presentations.

The event commenced with a keynote address by April Rinne, a member of the World Economic Forum who is an authority on the new economy, future of work and global citizenship. She explored the critical role food science, emerging technologies and the food industry will need to play in addressing food security in the face of our current pandemic times and global climate change.

“The pandemic has brought our food system’s fragility and interdependence into clear view,” said Rinne. “Our industrial food infrastructure is immense and international. Yet it’s fundamentally unsustainable. It’s both agile and fragile. It’s cost-efficient, yet it’s costing us the planet.

“It’s time to course correct,” she said. “The pandemic is our opening to transition—our pause to reassess current structures and long-term goals—our entry point to redesign and nurture a food system that not only feeds 10 billion-plus people but improves the planet as well. It is, in short, one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our lifetime that all of you can lead.”

To effectively address the challenges facing the food system, Rinne explained how we must “shift” from a consumer mindset to the mindset of a global citizen. She urged the audience to evaluate their future actions through three lenses: distributed innovation, regeneration and intention.

Distributed innovation involves an open approach to sharing ideas among multiple disciplines, she explained. “As history has taught us again and again, innovation thrives when it’s nested within and connected to innovation in neighboring fields. This means get to know your allies in neighboring disciplines. Go to other conferences beyond your domain. Invite others in, and learn to think like an ecosystem. Become a nexus, where the many different pieces of your innovation puzzle fit together.”

Regeneration is much more than regenerative agriculture, a current buzz word. It’s not about setting a goal to do less harm. It’s about how you can design and create better  than the current.

“The concept of regeneration says simply ‘better than,’” said Rinne. “Regeneration doesn’t see the world as a series of trade-offs or zero-sum games, but rather as a process of continuous improvement.”

The third lens—intention—involves having your efforts be aligned with your values and desired outcomes. It’s about change.

This includes a change in mindset regarding how we source protein. It should not be surprising that alternative proteins, such as those from insects and plants, as well as those grown in a lab, were a focal point of many technical sessions and supplier presentations.

There was also a great deal of discussion about formulating foods that appeal to younger adults. Author and youth culture expert Eve Turow-Paul spoke at a live virtual event on the topic of “Hacking Millennial and Gen Z Tastes.” She explained that in addition to these young adults being heavy users of technology, they are also the ultimate foodies, with 86% of millennials (born between 1980 and 1996) and 84% of Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2010) saying that they are passionate about food, according to data gleaned in a Datassential research study Turow-Paul commissioned for her recently released book, Hungry.

Turow-Paul theorized that young adults are turning their attention to food and dining experiences in an attempt to satisfy unmet psychological needs. She cited findings from the study that established a correlation between emotional states and food behaviors.

Millennials and Gen Z consumers are more anxious and experience more feelings of loneliness than other generations, according to Turow-Paul said. And this was before COVID-19 quarantining. Almost 60% of millennial survey respondents characterized their anxiety level as high, and 73% said they wished they had a stronger sense of community.

There are three basic drivers of human behavior, according to Turow-Paul. There’s the need for control, the need for community and a sense of belonging, and the need for purpose and meaning. She described some of the ways in which she believes young consumers are attempting to address those fundamental human needs via food choices.

With these drivers currently hindered by the pandemic for many, it’s more important than ever that consumers connect with their food. This presents an opportunity for true out-of-the-box innovation.

Millennials are a generation of anxious eaters, according to Turow-Paul. For some, diet restrictions are one way to exert control. This includes going organic, gluten free, vegan, paleo, keto, etc.

Speaking of restricted diets, many suppliers focused on ingredient technologies to assist with the development of such restrictive foods.

Keto, in particular, was emphasized. Interest in the high-fat, low-carbohydrate lifestyle has surged as consumers seek personalized solutions for managing weight, improving physical and cognitive performance, and treating or preventing specific health conditions, said Lu Ann Williams, director of global insights at Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands. Williams participated in a virtual panel discussion titled “Going Keto: Discovering the What, the Who, and the How of the Keto Friendly Diet.”

Food and beverage manufacturers, including mainstream brands, are tapping into the trend. The number of global product launches featuring a keto claim increased 239% year-over-year in 2019, according to Williams. “Convenience is so important because it is a real pain if you have to prepare everything in advance, and this is a diet where you’re either on it or you’re off it,” she said. “You can’t kind of halfway do it.”

Food choices are generally restricted to meat, poultry, fish, full-fat dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, fats and oils, and leafy vegetables. Fruits, grains, starchy vegetables and legumes are excluded.

Packaged food and beverage products that simplify the keto plan are in demand, but key formulation challenges exist, according to Marshall Weston, senior food scientist, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. When reducing sugar and increasing fat in a recipe, product developers must consider ingredients that offer sweetness replacement and functional characteristics such as bulking, browning and emulsification.

“Ingredient selection is essential to formulate a product that is acceptable to the end consumer,” said Weston.

Solutions vary across applications. He shared a formulation for a no-sugaradded toasted coconut frozen dessert that contains coconut cream, allulose and stevia as non-caloric sweeteners, acacia as a bulking agent, tara and guar gums that control ice crystal formulation during freezing, and rice starch, which offers superior freeze/thaw stability characteristics.

Fat ingredient selection is also very important, according to Ramesh Reddy Yettella, consumer innovation manager, AAK USA, Edison, New Jersey. He explained that avocado oil, olive oil and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil are considered healthier sources of fat. He provided an example of a ketogenic beverage featuring a blend of rapeseed oil, MCT, algal docosahexaenoic acid and egg phospholipids, which delivers a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

AAK showcased its value-added fats and oils in the expo section of the virtual conference. The company’s customer innovation team created a sampling box with prototypes. This included a vegan cinnamon raisin biscuit featuring cinnamon flaked shortening to enhance flavor and topped with a smooth vanillaflavored confectionery glaze made with cube shortening. A plant-based cheesy garlic biscuit was made with a non-dairy cheese based on a unique blend of organic coconut and organic sunflower oil. There was also a nutrition-enhanced drinkable yogurt featuring omega-3 fatty acids and natural choline from egg yolk.

“From label claims such as organic and non-GMO, to exacting sensorialqualities in the perfect  crumb texture of a biscuit, we created a menu showcasing the latest indulgent and better-for-you confectionery, bakery, plant-based and special nutrition product trends and innovations,” said Octavio Diaz de Leon, president of AAK USA and AAK North Latin America.

Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Cargill showcased ingredients for the dairy alternative space, such as the company’s pea protein. Functional ingredients that work well with plant proteins include native starches, chicory root fiber and pectins. Cargill also offers a broad array of plant-sourced fats and oils, providing brands with all the tools needed to recreate the creamy, indulgent mouthfeel often missing in dairy-free products. To round out formulations, the company offers a complete line of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.

Gelita, Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, demonstrated how gelatin influences sensorial performance and texturizing properties. Being neutral in taste and technically versatile, gelatin may improve both the texture and nutritional profile of a wide range of low-calorie products, including salad dressings, mayonnaise in salad dressings, cheeses and yogurt, as gelatin absorbs up to 10 times its own weight in water, binding and stabilizing water in low-calorie products. In this way, gelatin increases the volume of the food without adding further calories.

Collagen is a buzz word among many health- and wellness-seeking consumers. Largely known for benefits to the human body, collagen is commonly associated with nutritional supplements. But collagen peptides also lend themselves to countless beverage and food applications, including protein bars, yogurts and many other functional foods, according to Gelita, a global supplier of bioavailable collagen ingredients.

Ingredion hosted numerous sessions and webinars at SHIFT20. The company also used the event to launch three new organic native starches based on corn, tapioca and waxy rice. The range of organic native starches offers food manufacturers a compelling value proposition for converting to a more attractive “organic” label, enabling associated claims. The high-performing, certified organic starches can help manufacturers replace undesirable ingredients in existing products and develop new products with shorter lists of more familiar names to enhance product appeal and cost savings potential.

In food systems, they all have a bland flavor and can be dropped into the same food processes where it’s conventional (non-organic) native starch counterparts are used, without any change in functionality or formulation. The new organic native starches are ideal for a wide variety of organic food applications, including yogurt (dairy and plant-based alternative dairy), soups, sauces, dressings, frozen and refrigerated ready-meals, meats, batters and breadings, bakery and confectionery (gummies).

The company’s sampling box included a range of products covering almost every department of the supermarket. From the bakery there was texture-enhanced Turkish borek and high-protein chickpea dosa. Sauces included vegan lemon caper remoulade and reduced-sugar date tamarind chutney. For dessert there was reduced-sugar caramel, clean-label texturized mocha milk jelly and protein-enhanced carrot cheesecake bite featuring pea protein. Thirsty? Beverages included an elderflower grapefruit beverage and an organic pressed blueberry matcha. In dairy there was vegan cheese, plant-based faba milk and clean-label full-fat stirred yogurt.

Speaking of dairy, the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) developed comprehensive resources on topics from sustainability to insights that inspire, the latest research on protein processing and more. The agency worked with dairy ingredient suppliers participating in the virtual event to showcase their innovations. In addition, USDEC showcased how dairy ingredients fuel international flavor innovation, from drinks and appetizers to main courses and desserts. Dairy ingredients deliver on flavor and nutrition, and many provide high-quality protein, another theme at SHIFT20. Protypes included Japanese hojicha (green tea) pudding made with whey protein; protein-packed empanadas made with yogurt, butter, whey protein isolate and permeate; and an islandinspired whey protein cherry switchel drinking vinegar.

The Institute of Food Technologists is hopeful that 2021 will allow them to “shift” back to an in-person event. The current schedule is Sunday July 18 to Wednesday July 21, 2021, at McCormick Place, Chicago, Illinois.

* Author is a food and beverage industry consultant and editor with over 25 years experience in tracking trends and advancements in product development.