Sustainability is built into food design

Adapted from “State of Green Business” 2022, published earlier this year by GreenBiz Group. Download the report here.

Here’s a simple rule of sustainable food: what we eat matters more than how it’s produced. For example, a plant-based burger patty with ingredients sourced from around the world will most likely have a smaller environmental footprint than a local, organic beef patty.

Yet the traditional goal of food company sustainability programs has been to discover and improve how ingredients were grown and products produced. Sustainability only comes into the conversation after an existing product has been on the shelves for years or after new products have successfully passed the innovation process. This is a big missed opportunity.

“When you think of a product that’s already on the shelves, there are a few interventions you can do to reduce emissions — things like changing packaging or changing a given supplier,” says Julia Collins, founder and CEO of the carbon footprint startup. PlanetFWD. “But frankly, you are limited in terms of the reduction you can generate. But when we think about new product innovation, there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce emissions during product development.”

A new food design ecosystem

Slowly but surely, this awareness is spreading in business circles, and sustainability is gaining a place in the R&D shops. Instead of just focusing on sustainable production, companies are also considering the sustainability of the products themselves. This provides an exciting environment for a new ecosystem of food design made up of companies, tech platforms, startups, and dot-connect industry organizations.

Rather than appearing as a simple framework, sustainable food design comes in different shapes and flavors. Snacks startup Simple Mills, for example, is looking for new ingredients that have inherent nutritional and ecological benefits and can inspire farmers to adopt regenerative practices. Its innovation process is cross-functional, bringing together teams from R&D, marketing, strategic sourcing and sustainability to find such ingredients and turn them into unique snacks.

“We seek to create market demand for ingredients that help diversify agriculture and, in turn, build ecosystem resilience, food security and dietary diversity,” says Christina Skonberg, Director of Sustainability and strategic sourcing at Simple Mills. One such ingredient is chestnut, a tree crop with high carbon storage potential, which the company uses as a new flour for pancakes.

Other growing trends fall within this framework. The explosive growth of the alternative protein market is one example. Instead of trying to reduce the resource intensity of foods like meat, milk and cheese that have a large environmental footprint, this emerging industry is looking for fundamentally new ways to produce protein. And it’s remarkably successful at that.

The journey of plant protein integration has not been quick. Tofu, veggie burgers, and other early innovations led pretty quiet lives for decades. A breakthrough came in 2019 when Impossible Foods entered into a partnership with Burger King, bringing a plant-based Whopper to the United States. The trend accelerated in 2020 as consumers invested in healthier diets during COVID-19 shutdowns. Sales of plant-based foods increased nearly twice as much as overall U.S. retail foods in 2020, with 57% of households purchasing them. At the same time, most major food companies have their own herbal lines.

As this market segment matures, it gives way to greater specialization. Alternative meats are often criticized for being overly processed and having complicated ingredient lists. In response, startups like Today are bringing next-level food design to the industry. It creates “chicken nuggets” reminiscent of the environmental benefits of plant-based foods while relying on just seven pronounceable ingredients. There’s a lot more innovation where that came from.

Major brand-startup partnerships

Centering new products around recycled food is another great way to put sustainability first by tackling the roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions that come from food loss and waste. Startups such as ReGrained, Renewal Mill, and Spare Food Co. are at the forefront of a movement that transforms ingredients that were once lost during harvesting, left as byproducts in manufacturing processes, or wasted due to waste. minor imperfections, and transforms them into new ingredients. foodstuffs. Along the way, these newcomers are inspiring major packaged food companies to follow suit.

Case in point: Danone has partnered with produce rescue startup Full Harvest to incorporate leftover fruits and vegetables into its new Two Good yogurts. Del Monte seized this opportunity by launching recycled canned beans. Both products bring mass-market influence to food rescue. With the creation of the Upcycled Food Association in 2019, the movement has also acquired a valuable organizing body. Last year, the association launched the world’s first recycled food certification, signaling that this trend is here to stay and grow.

As brands expand design innovations in these ways, they need reliable partners in crime. A range of software platforms have sprung up, providing information on the social and environmental footprint of each ingredient – ​​a key first step towards discovering better alternatives.

HowGood is one such tool, helping product designers understand how replacing a product’s ingredients can impact its overall score with just a few clicks. Journey Foods gets into the thick of it with artificial intelligence (AI) software that aims to provide insight into the potential cost and timing of ingredient swaps in addition to its nutritional and environmental benefits. Planet FWD is yet another player in the field, doubling down on information from its extensive Life Cycle Assessment database that spanned 14 years and is now available for commercial use.

With design-related innovations taking place in many corners of the food system, this new way of evaluating and improving the impact of products is beginning to gain enough traction to make a difference in overall food performance. sustainability industry. Stay tuned for the second step: embedding these approaches across a company’s food portfolio, rather than limiting it to specific product lines.

Key players to watch

Danone — integrates sustainable food design into many aspects of its business, from producing yogurt with recycled fruit to launching plant-based dairy products and focusing R&D processes on sustainability.

How good is this — works with food companies that use its product sustainability database to gain ingredient-level information to improve their social and environmental impact.

Of our time — entered the world of food in 2021 with a double design innovation: making tasty “chicken wings” from plants and limiting the recipe to just seven ingredients.

Simple grinders — develops new food products from ingredients that can advance regenerative farming practices and bring back nutritional and plant diversity.

Recycled Food Association – gives a grassroots movement a home and certification, helping it move from niche to mainstream.

Abdul J. Gaspar