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New food products lifeblood of industry

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Green and purple ketchup, mayonnaise from a squeezable bottle, soup you can eat while driving your car. New food products like these aren't just flights of fancy.

"Food product development is critical to the survival and growth of the companies within our vast and vigorously competitive, $800 billion American food industry," said Aaron Brody. "Probably a quarter of a million different food products are available, with 15,000 to 20,000 or so new items introduced annually into the crowded mix to try to satisfy consumer desires."

Brody is an adjunct food science and technology professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He shared his knowledge of product development and packaging with food industry managers during a one-day short course June 24.

The course was organized by the Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Program, formed by UGA researchers.

New product development changing

"In the past, and to a degree, even today, to develop new food products, we went to the kitchen or laboratory or pilot plant and whipped up a recipe, which was sent to marketing to sell," Brody said. "Or we assembled a group of creative people to brainstorm ideas that were sent to the lab. Or we waited for farmers to grow a new crop."

Today's food industry leaders have to know the consumers' wants, create the right packaging and generate a profit, he said.

John Lord, a food product development and marketing researcher from St. Joseph's University and member of the FOODPI&C program, said the high number of new products announced each year is actually much smaller than it seems.

"There may be 20,000 new UPC codes ... each year, but a very, very small number of these are really new to the world," he said. "Many are just new adaptations of existing products or temporary or seasonal products like Oreos with a different color icing."

Few new products really new

Of each year's new products, Lord said, only one-third will be considered successful in two years.

"This is called 'product churn,'" he said. "The industry puts a lot of products out there and waits to see which ones stick."

Why do so many fail? What drives shoppers to buy new foods?

"Consumers want products that taste good, are good for them and are convenient," Lord said. "Thanks to the food industry, we now have cereal bars with milk in them so we can now eat the equivalent of a bowl of cereal while driving a car."

Successful new foods are being developed, too, to reduce the time we spend cooking. "Look at bowl meals," he said. "We can now heat it up, eat it and throw away the dishes. If you have a plastic spoon handy, there are no dishes to wash."

Indulgent products are another trend on the rise. "Ben and Jerry's ice cream and Hershey's upscale chocolate products are being sold so we can reward ourselves for living stressful lives," he said.

Some products before their time

Lord said some new products are introduced before their time. Cereal with freeze-dried fruit, for example.

"In 1965, the technology wasn't good enough," he said. "By the time the fruit was ready to eat, the cereal was too soggy. Thirty-seven years later these cereals taste great and the fruit attracts consumers because it adds a health notion."

Mark Thomas, a research chef with MDT, Ltd., and a FOODPI&C member, was a member of the team that made the hugely successful decision to add baby-back ribs to the Chili's restaurant menu.

"If you can't get it to the consumer, it's not a new product," Thomas said. "To be successful, you have to be sure consumer needs are met during the entire development process."

Thomas compared new foods to a human life.

"You have to be willing to support the baby from birth to adolescence and on to maturity," he said. "And if it dies, you perform an autopsy, evaluate what went right and what went wrong and what you could have done better. And you get ready for the next baby."

More than 30 food industry representatives attended the UGA new food products development seminar.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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