Food innovation is an incredibly broad term and an unstoppable phenomenon, involving all stages of the supply chain and pushing all companies to do their best to make food a healthy, enjoyable, sustainable, and ethical component of our society.
Let’s start with a question: what do we mean when we talk about food innovation?
Since food innovation is an incredibly broad theme that has many facets and just as many perspectives from which it can be looked at, the answer is quite simple. This is also because the food supply chain is extremely complex and requires the participation of different players with very specific and extremely diversified skills and roles. This means that for each phase and for each of these players there may be different technical innovations to be implemented that specifically affect various aspects of the final product.
In any case, an initial definition of food innovation could be the one found on the website of Barilla, an Italian leader of excellences in the agri-food sector, and a company that has undertaken to conceive and implement an organic and articulated food innovation project. According to the Emilia-based company, digital innovation means “introducing new systems, techniques, and production methods in order to radically change, for the better, processes, products, and services for customers and consumers, all while making sure that innovation, whatever form it takes, introduces real and quantifiable benefits.” Although it doesn’t perfectly cover all aspects of food innovation – as is often the case with definitions – Barilla’s is certainly a complete and effective definition, as it manages to highlight several relevant points.
First and foremost is the fact that food innovation can touch processes as well as products and services, and therefore the effects can be extended along the entire food chain. Secondly, Barilla underlines that we can talk about food innovation only if the result obtained is “real and quantifiable.” In other words, if between the “before” and the “after” there is a difference, and this difference is traceable through data.
As we will see later, data is, in fact, one of the main players in this transformation both as a tool to be used to improve one’s business and as a litmus test to make these improvements measurable and verifiable.
That said, one aspect that escapes this definition is that food innovation represents, above all, the future of the entire sector. It is inevitable that the food industry will open up to all the different forms of innovation (technical, procedural, digital), perhaps rethinking its approach to business. Also because food and innovation are two key themes when we talk about sustainability: the production processes in the agro-food sector have the ability to radically affect both the environment and the question of the inequality of resources on our planet.
Being able to feed as many people as possible, effectively reducing the level of waste, eliminating the impact on the environment of activities such as agriculture and livestock breeding: these are just some of the challenges that can be faced and overcome starting from food and innovation. It is no coincidence, then, that more and more Italians are in favor of and expect an increasing level of food innovation.
Italian innovation and tradition
This is what emerges from a recent research carried out by Doxee on the theme “Food and innovation, the expectations of Italian consumers.”
According to this research, 76% of Italians say that innovation is important, and even 1 consumer out of 4 considers it very important. However, at least in our country, innovation must come to terms with tradition. For 69% of consumers interviewed, they believe that it’s best not to take too many risks when it comes to innovation. In addition to this “moderate” cluster, there are 16% of convinced traditionalists, for whom tradition is a precious heritage to be preserved, and 15% of “driven innovators” who constantly seek novelty and hybridization in food.
So, when it comes to products, what is “innovative” food for Italians?
- 37% responded to this question by saying that innovative food is above all ready to eat, easy to prepare, and also delicious and healthy.
- 23% makes it a question of traditional and new flavors, far and near in time and space (for example the rediscovery of certain forgotten or marginal raw materials that are put at the center of recipes or certain processing procedures).
- A minority – which represents 17% – links innovation to greater respect for nature and foods that are better for the environment and our health.
- Finally, 23% of consumers surveyed consider food innovation to be synonymous with “eco & safe,” i.e., foods produced using sustainable methods that respect people and the environment and that take advantage of environmentally friendly distribution methods.
A new responsibility for companies
From this brief overview of data, two considerations can be made. The first is that Italians expect tradition and innovation to go hand in hand and consider both to be indispensable values at the table and in their lives. The second is that, in general, the expectations of Italians are very high and involve many aspects of the food business, from production to distribution.
This means that a considerable responsibility falls on the shoulders of companies in the food sector. It is also an invitation to take the path of innovation while doing their best to meet all these expectations. Fortunately, more and more technological solutions are beginning to appear that can help players meet this difficult challenge. But what are these solutions?
Food chain has a new meaning
The first noteworthy food innovation is Blockchain, which is absolutely one of the most promising technologies applicable to the food sector. This is also demonstrated by the fact that the number of applications and experimental projects based on this solution is constantly increasing. After all, having a digital ledger in which data is organized chronologically in the form of blocks and safeguarded during any change through encryption is a great advantage for companies in the industry.
This makes it possible to significantly improve the traceability of all processes that are carried out along the supply chain (ilsole24ore.it). Through the implementation of Blockchain, in fact, all the information related to a product is immutable and completely transparent, since all those who have access can see this information and reconstruct any steps that have possibly modified it.
This possibility is fundamental for companies in the food sector because, on the one hand, traceability is required by the relevant regulations (e.g. Regulation 178/2002) and, on the other, it reassures consumers and all stakeholders in general, who can count on the effectiveness and efficiency of data recovery processes in the event of product recalls due to contamination or health risks.
A robot for food: Artificial Intelligence
Another food innovation that is increasingly gaining ground in the industry is Artificial Intelligence. First, a premise must be made.
According to the World Food Summit, the term “food security” means “the possibility of guaranteeing, in a constant and generalized way, water and food to meet the energy requirements that the body needs for survival and life, in adequate hygienic conditions.”
Artificial Intelligence can make an incredible contribution to ensuring a level of food and nutritional security in all parts of the world through the development of inclusive and open technologies that can be easily implemented in different areas of the planet. For example, planting and harvesting can be optimized, thus increasing the productivity of underutilized land, and resource management and planning can be improved, so that resources can be used more efficiently and working conditions may be improved.
In this sense, there is no shortage of case studies.
One of these is the FAO project that has enabled the creation of WaPOR, a digital portal that monitors and provides relevant information about agricultural water productivity in Africa and the Middle East. Artificial Intelligence isn’t just for projects with a global scope. Thanks to its incredible adaptability, AI has shown that it can achieve excellent results in other fields as well.
Feat Food is an Italian start-up that has been delivering healthy, balanced and, above all, personalized meals based on the dietary needs of each user since 2015. And how? It uses Artificial Intelligence or, more precisely, Machine Learning algorithms that, based on the physical characteristics and fitness goals of the consumer, identify the ideal combination of foods and the share of calories needed, in order to prepare a dish that balances taste and nutritional needs.
Through this service, even those who don’t have time to cook can have a ready-made meal that is also healthy and nutritious, to the great benefit of their health.
Data and Intelligence of Things for precision agriculture
As we mentioned in the beginning, data is also one of the formidable players in food innovation, especially when combined with the Internet of Things. By combining these two elements, it is possible to keep track of natural cycles, climatic variations, and many other variables that come into play when it comes to cultivating natural products and thus creating predictive analysis capable of indicating the best actions at the best time to obtain the best result.
The “IoT for Precision Farming (Smart Farm)” project is based precisely on this combination, created by the TIM-Olivetti team of installation technicians and data analysis professionals. The team’s proposal is to implement an accurate territorial measurement system that can detect weather data and monitor the status of crops, collecting all this information on an aggregated cloud platform that is able to create shareable local models.
This project, which requires activation of several digital and on-the-ground technologies, (wireless sensors, precision control units, cloud platform, dashboards for real-time monitoring) offers significant benefits. These range from the decrease in operating time to check the level of ripeness of the plants, to the increase in the quality of the products sold, to the reduction of environmental impact by reducing the waste of water and fertilizers.
It is also a great opportunity to create huge databases related to medium-long periods, which can be shared both inside and outside of your business.
Food innovation gives start to new activities
Until now, we’ve only talked about digital innovations that are inserted into existing activities, even radically modifying their functioning. In reality, food innovation is also expressed in different, more concrete ways, in particular by giving the possibility for new businesses in new market segments. This is demonstrated by the fact that more and more start-ups are appearing in Italy (and elsewhere) that base their activities on a new way of conceiving the production, delivery, or processing of food sector products.
According to the findings of the Smart AgriFood Observatory of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, there are 481 young innovative companies active in AgriTech and FoodTech throughout Europe. Of these, 60 are Italian, which makes our country one of the most receptive in terms of food innovation.
The types of companies and services offered vary greatly. Cortilia, the first e-commerce of short-chain food products, connects small producers of excellence directly with consumers. Biospira is a start-up of young biologists who have created a plant for producing spirulina algae, a “superfood” rich in incredible nutritional qualities.
This shows that, beyond the type of technology that one decides to implement in one’s own business, food innovation is first of all an approach, a different way of looking at food, which is no longer just food, but above all an important part of society, on which many things depend: health, well-being, the environment, and the economy. In this sense, innovation and tradition are not in contrast, on the contrary, they are part of the same process of evolution that must lead to a more ethical and sustainable production and consumption of food.
Because today more than ever, we “are what we eat.”
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