Food Evolution Summit: Exciting, inspiring and concerning

Jay Matteson

As I write this column, I’m traveling at 400 miles per hour, 30,000 plus feet above the heartland of the U.S. It’s appropriate to be writing at this altitude as the last two days have allowed me to view our food systems from high above sea level. Our journey to the Food Evolution Summit in Palm Springs, California, was exciting, inspiring and concerning. I met many food developers, chief executive officers, food researchers and company vice presidents during the two-day conference. Our three-fold mission during the conference was to look for potential companies considering new locations on the east coast and especially New York state; explore opportunities to bring new business to our companies in Jefferson County, and gain a broader perspective on new food and beverage trends. 

    Our first presenter was David Rice, vice president of research and development strategies and portfolio management for Pepsico. Mr. Rice discussed world demographics and our aging populations. Food companies need to be adjusting their products to meet the needs and tastes of an older population while also creating new and exciting food products for new generations. David also indicated that the consumer, especially the U.S. consumer, is demanding our food stream produce less waste, from the farm to the table. “Upcycling” became a hot topic during the conference. Upcycling is going beyond the traditional three “R”s of waste reduction. Upcycling is finding waste products and converting them into new food products or packaging. It’s not just reusing the waste product as it is, but converting the product into a different use. Almost every presenter after Mr. Rice discussed upcycling at some point in their presentations. 

    As a great example of upcycling that came out of the conference was a company using grape pomice, the byproduct of wine-making that contains seeds, skins and stems. A company in California has developed a technology to isolate the resveratrol from the pomice and turn it into either a concentrated powder or liquid. The resveratrol can then be added to other food and beverages to bring its health benefits to the product. The presenter from Napa Hill Inc., is using the concentrated liquid in a specialized water product that contains concentrated juices from the grapes grown in Napa Valley. This creates a unique almost wine-like flavor without the alcohol but containing many of the health benefits obtained in wine. The pomice is upcycled, reducing the waste stream from the winemakers. 

    Joshua Reid, senior director for research and development at Kashi discussed their new line of food products called Kashi for Kids. Kashi gathered together a group of teenage food entrepreneurs from across the United States. These kids were involved in creating their own food businesses or were very active in sustainability efforts. Kashi brought the group together to create a new line of food products geared towards kids. The teenagers were given basic ingredients to work from and allowed to be creative in developing the products. Everything from developing the flavor profiles to the shape and texture was examined. The team of teenagers also looked at sustainability issues of the product and its packaging, causing Kashi to adjust how they normally package their products. We had the opportunity to sample the products and they are incredible. I’m bringing home a box of their honey cinnamon cereal. The cereal is a combination of crunchy pieces of cereal with a cinnamon coating and then cereal puffs filled with a honey apple mixture. It was impressive to learn how the kids were given a big palette to work from to create healthy food products. My only disappointment with this effort was the failure to expose the teenage team to the farmers who grow the ingredients. We heard extensively about how Kashi sources their products and demands strong sustainability practices from the farms. But they failed to bring the kids to the farms. 

    This has been an ongoing concern of mine, long before this summit. Food processing companies are marketing their products with environmentally conscious messages, but not connecting with the farmers who produce the ingredients to understand why farms use the practices they do, what farms have already done to minimize their carbon footprint, and to build better partnerships between the consumer, the farmer and the food processor. I did ask Mr. Reid quietly about why they hadn’t connected the kids with the farms. His answer was simple: they had not considered it. Perhaps in the future they will place more importance on that connection. 

    There were several other interesting presentations and fantastic connections made. We’ll work to maintain and build these connections with hope that perhaps it will bring more food processing to Jefferson County. 

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