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Selling processed foods in a whole food world? Authenticity is key

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 24-Feb-2012

Consumers increasingly are choosing whole and unprocessed foods – so is it the end of the line for processed food manufacturers? Not if they move with the times, say ingredient suppliers.

Many consumers have become wary of processed foods – especially those in the middle aisles of the grocery store – but food manufacturers have a number of options available to appeal to the health-conscious consumer. It’s all about quality ingredients, authenticity, and crucially, how you communicate that to consumers.

President and CEO of Blue Pacific Flavors Donald Wilkes told FoodNavigator-USA: “I think there has been some movement toward this for several years. You have seen a lot of companies trying to reinvent their snack food products…bringing some nutritional validity to the products.”

First of all, that included cutting out trans fat, he said, and then many companies looked to introduce positive ingredients, such as whole grain and fiber. These elements should be “top of the list” for food companies looking to appeal more to health-conscious shoppers, he said.

“I think the first step is to understand how the consumer understands the products. Making foods more authentic is a great way to appeal to consumers,” Wilkes said.

‘Romancing the ingredients’

Kim Holman, vice president of marketing at flavors and ingredients company Wixon, agrees. She says she thinks manufacturers will continue to highlight the ingredients that are absent from their products, like artificial colors or preservatives, but increasingly they are calling out specialty ingredients to highlight their authenticity.

“I think romancing the ingredients is important. If you have seven different spices in your product, why not call those out, or talk about the origin of those ingredients?” she said.

Instead of listing ‘apples’ on the ingredient label, a company could call out ‘granny smiths’, for example, or mention specific chili peppers, beyond old favorites like jalapenos.

“For the people who are supplying what’s going into processed foods, you might hear more about the quality of their products,” she said.

Time to evolve

Wilkes added that some food makers have found it difficult to evolve as their core market has changed, such as Twinkies and Wonder Bread maker Hostess Brands, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

“Hostess is a good example where they didn’t evolve with their consumers,” he said. “They may have been great when we were growing up as kids, but when we got older we wanted something that was more nutritious.

“…They have realized that their consumer is changing and they now realize that their brands are not relevant to this new consumer.”

He said that the food industry should also look very closely at food labels, and do all they can to simplify them, while ingredient companies should offer “simplified and authentic platforms” for their customers.

“Credibility is important and if the label is confusing there’s going to be doubt. Doubt is not a good thing for a brand manager.”

Holman added that manufacturers could even clarify why certain ingredients are present, such as explaining on-pack that “potassium sorbate is there to preserve freshness”.

But even as consumers shun certain foods and ingredients, processed foods are likely to still find a place in many shopping carts.

“I don’t think processed foods will ever be eliminated because of the cost structure and the convenience factor,” Wilkes said.

Holman takes this idea a step further, saying that companies need to understand why consumers buy their products – and highlight those reasons.

“One of the major benefits of processed foods is convenience, and I think that needs to be played up,” she said.

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