Sylvain CharleboisRecently, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut announced that they are phasing out the use of artificial colours and flavours in their ingredients, and a number of other companies seem eager to jump on the increasingly crowded bandwagon.

Food naturalization is a very cheap, quick, and convenient way to change consumer perception while maintaining the nutritional integrity of food products. Major corporations, which in the past were convinced their decades-old model was sustainable, are coping with a still developing new set of rules. Above all, rule number one states that it’s not just about fresh or even natural anymore; rather, it is about food realism.

The force for change is coming from two points. First, food service companies and food makers face pressure from formerly insignificant rivals that now position themselves as a more wholesome, fresher alternative. These smaller operators have capitalized on the commoditization of ‘foodie values’.

Over the past few years, the notion of ‘fresh’ has become increasingly intertwined with the notion of food fundamentals. For a growing number of consumers, ‘nature’ should be the sole provider of food, not food churned out through some obscure (and possibly dangerous) synthetic process. For boomers and Gen Xers, then, the ‘no additives no preservatives’ tagline has clearly run its course.

But now we are on to something completely different.

This new shift can be summarized by a possible new tagline: ‘realism and transparency’. This position recognizes science as a trustworthy source for consumers to understand how food can be beneficial to their health.

With the help of the social media revolution, the food and nutrition sciences have amassed a decent number of followers over the last few years. Indeed, food studies receive far more attention and press than ever before. Mere imagery, questionable aesthetics and somewhat misleading branding schemes are no longer sufficient to increase sales. The spotlight on the once unobservable aspects of food is growing instead, making strategic adaptation extremely challenging for industry.

It is fair to say that the days when unpronounceable ingredients made word towers of food labels are coming to an abrupt, but clearly predictable end. It is not a little ironic that Twitter’s haiku-like restrictions, where brevity is key, are starting to dominate ingredient labels. Simple and shorter are better.

The other point is food prices, which allow companies the financial breathing space to implement these changes. For some time, food was inexpensive, making the food naturalization process cost prohibitive. The recent rise inprice points has given companies of all tax brackets the opportunity to innovate and increase the quality of their food products. In short, the business case for change is far stronger that it was even 10 or 15 years ago.

But the question many are now asking is: if the ‘realism and transparency’ movement maintains its currency, what could the future of food be? Millions are currently being spent researching methods to grow meat at home, a process considered by many as a more environmentally-friendly option for meat lovers.

The use of 3D-printing is also a source of particular intrigue for food innovators. For example, Hershey, a dominant force in chocolate production, is considering the possibility of printing some products. Some companies are even pondering 3D-printed meals. Nanotechnology, specifically nanopackaging, is seen as a potential solution to issues of waste in the food industry. Time and strategic marketing will tell if consumers are receptive to some of these novel concepts.

Clearly, there are two things the food industry can learn from this shift: first, it needs to make a case for innovation, to consumers and to themselves. Second, if the former are not invited to engage in the naturalization process from the outset, it will be only a matter of time before the industry receives another, possibly more harsh, wake-up call.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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