In future, predicts Martling, there will be even more pressure on product development and R&D departments to do more with less and manufacturers will be forced to adopt a leaner structure and buy in external expertise for special projects or to help them diversify into new areas.
Even larger manufacturers with more internal resource often have more projects on the go than they can effectively manage and are increasingly using third parties at busy times, he points out.
But working with Ithaca, New York-based IFN – which provides consultation and product development services for food, beverage and nutraceutical firms from concept to launch– is not primarily about saving cash, he stresses.
“Perhaps people used to view using external R&D in a negative way as a form of outsourcing whereby you’d save money by replacing 15 full-time staff with six consultants, but that’s not what it’s about now.
“It’s about allowing you to do different things. For example, several projects we’re working on are with major brand manufacturers trying to get into categories where they don’t currently have a presence, which is taking them away from their core competence and their comfort zone, so they need to bring in third parties with expertise in these areas.”
Concept generation and market research
While some firms might approach IFN mid-way through a project to gain assistance in finding a contract manufacturer or addressing a technical problem, others approach it at the very beginning of the concept generation stage, he says.
“With one of our clients we got involved at the start and brought on a marketing partner to help identify consumer needs in the product area they were looking at. But we also work with ingredients suppliers that want to understand the potential of their products in new applications.
“They will say we’re experts on snacks, but how do we get into dairy? A lot of companies are also asking us to clean up their specification systems.”
Open innovation: A paradigm shift for NPD?
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in product development in recent years is open innovation – working with third parties to get better new products to market more quickly – says Martling.
Now this in itself is nothing new, and indeed IFN itself has spent more than 20 years hooking up clients with potential suppliers, contract manufacturers, academics or other new partners.
However, the tools to facilitate such collaborations have dramatically changed the game in recent years with the growth of the internet, which has enabled companies such as Kraft and General Mills to engage with a far wider range of potential partners through web portals such as G-WIN and build dedicated teams to manage collaborations, he says.
“There has really been a paradigm shift in terms of how companies work with vendors. Where in the past companies would only reach out to a limited number of approved vendors, limit how much information they shared and deal with suppliers on a one-to-one basis, now they can reach out to everyone and be much more open about the problems they are trying to solve.
“It’s like the difference between putting an advert in your local paper and listing it on Ebay.”
What to add in
So what are most clients thinking about when they knock on Martling’s door?
Fiber, protein and combinations of the two remain among the most popular ingredients to give products a healthier edge, he says, although there is growing interest in ingredients such as omega-3s that enable more specific health claims.
Smaller, more agile companies are also experimenting with novel ingredients such as the new superfruit of choice baobab, although these things typically take a while to hit the mainstream, he points out.
…And what to take out
Meanwhile, if sugar, carbs and trans-fats used to top the ‘nasty’ list, sodium is now public enemy number one, which is prompting a lot of reformulation work.
But gluten-free is also a growing trend - fueled less by a growth in diagnosed celiacs than the (erroneous) perception that gluten-free is synonymous with ‘healthy’- he adds. “I don’t know why, but gluten has become of those ‘negative nutrients’ that people are trying to take out.”
The ongoing trend towards cleaner labels and ‘natural’ foods is also driving firms to rid ingredients lists of substances consumers would not use at home, from aspartame and bleached flour to synthetic colors, he says.
“It’s about simplicity, although the trend to reduce the overall number of ingredients you use – the Häagen-Dazs five phenomenon [using a maximum of five ingredients] - hasn’t gained much momentum. Most of my clients are more interested in what’s on the list, not how long it is.”
Sweeteners such as luo han guo (monk fruit) are still very new, but have real potential given the thirst for all things natural, predicts Martling. Stevia is gaining ground, but product developers have quickly realized it is not something that can simply be substituted for aspartame or other intense sweeteners without a lot of technical and sensory evaluation work, he says.
“Formulating with stevia is quite a challenge. The purity is getting better and companies are finding ways to mask off flavors, but it doesn’t always work well on its own and is often used in conjunction with other natural sweeteners such as brown rice syrup or honey.
“It actually works well with sugar itself for mid-calorie products, but some companies don’t want sugar on their labels at all, so that can restrict what you can do.”
Click here to read an interview with IFN's UK group leader Nick Henson at our sister title FoodManufacture.co.uk.