Q&A: Talking Food and Beverage Innovation with Albert McQuaid, Kerry Chief Innovation Officer

How to keep fresh product ideas flowing, focused and feasible to produce

The Brookings Institute says that worldwide, the pace of innovation has been slowing since 1970. But reports suggest that food and beverage innovation is happening at a faster rate than ever before.

Consumers are the driving force behind the ever-evolving food and beverage landscape. More informed and opinionated buyers can influence food companies in real time, using social media to express their changing likes and dislikes and quickly move trends from “unheard of” to “everywhere.” As producers are pressed to deliver and delight on an ever-shrinking timeline, they’re bringing together increasingly varied teams of talent—often including chefs, chemists, sensory scientists, manufacturing experts, market researchers and business developers—to not only innovate for current trends, but to predict and prepare for undiscovered ones.

Albert McQuaid, Kerry’s Chief Innovation Officer, gives structure to the work done by these creative and analytical teams, inspiring them to dream big while keeping their goals clearly in sight. Here, his recipe for leading to better through food and beverage innovation.

Q: You have a PhD in biochemistry, yet much of your career has had a business focus. How does your background influence your current work?

A: To drive innovation you have to have that joint approach—looking at the realities of the business and market conditions while thinking about technical opportunities and feasibility. When we drive innovation in Kerry, it’s always market led, driven by consumer trends and customer needs. But that’s just one focus. I’m constantly challenging my team to be sure they’re evaluating the science and technical feasibility of a project without losing sight of the market gap we’re trying to address. In many cases, the solutions we come up with may not be a new product. It may be how we leverage an existing product in a new application.

Q: How do you keep new offerings on or ahead of trend?

A: It’s all about connecting. Myself and the broader innovation team, we’re always trying to engage, whether it’s with customers, our own colleagues, academics or start-up companies. We’re constantly trying to build our knowledge and awareness of what’s out there.

When I go into a restaurant or supermarket, I look at food products and how they’re evolving, how they’re being positioned, what’s in them and what gap they’re trying to address. Today’s consumer wants products that are better for their health and overall wellbeing. But they’ll only continually consume those products if they taste good, which is why Kerry has so clearly positioned itself as a taste and nutrition company. You can’t have one or the other—consumers want both taste and nutrition.

And, ultimately, to be innovative, you need people on your team who are creative and think differently. Who think outside of the box. Who join dots others won’t join. But you also need to funnel that creativity and manage it. So you need people who bring discipline and organization to make sure when you go off into that realm of creativity, you come back to the fundamentals of bringing a product to market.

Q: What are some of the challenges in delivering products that optimize both flavour and health?

A: Over time, humans have adapted and become accustomed to flavour profiles with excess sugar, excess fat and excess salt. When consumers want to move back to a healthier balanced diet, it’s very difficult. It’s up to the food industry to say, ‘How do you help consumers make that change?’

It can be done through stealth, where companies have gradually changed the amount of salt or sugar in a product. But that will only get you so far. Really, we need to bring in new solutions to help make that change happen.

Last year we launched our TasteSense product, a taste modulator that actually works on your taste buds to change how you perceive the sweetness of the product you’re consuming. With it, you can reduce sugar by up to 30 percent but still have that same sweetness perception. Of course, when you reduce sugar you not only affect sweetness, you also affect body and mouthfeel and you may start to see bitter notes come to the fore. Taking a holistic approach, TasteSense addresses these problems, which has made it popular among companies trying to create reduced sugar products.

Q: What food and beverage innovation or opportunity will most reshape our industry in the next 5 to 10 years?

A: We’re just starting to understand the importance of the microbiome in our overall health and wellbeing, and obviously it’s influenced dramatically by the food we eat. We don’t understand its complexity or how it is influenced or changed, but research is going to bring a clarity to what people should eat.

The microbiome links in very closely to personalized nutrition. You’re going to find people who categorize themselves based on the microbiome and other factors, and they’re going to want to consume products on the basis of that understanding. Data is going to play a big part in this future because there are so many variables to be brought together.

The other one I’d call out is the sustainability challenge. For example, the meat industry is being seen as not sustainable to feed 10 billion people. The movement to use plant-based products is already happening and it’s only going to continue. Being able to develop sustainable products that meet consumers’ needs and wants is going to be a big opportunity for the food industry.

Q: Is innovation enough to drive business?

A: Innovation is a business driver for Kerry. But the core of our business is the everyday development of food and beverage products we ship to customers and consumers worldwide. The ability for us to do so in a consistent way, to source materials in a quality way, is phenomenal. We have a really extensive reach in relation to the number and variety of raw materials we use, manufacturing processes we run and the ability we have to make so many different products.

Kerry is like a really big kitchen with lots of different utensils that can be leveraged and used in lots of different ways. To a degree, the innovation team is akin to chefs in the kitchen who are going to come up with a new dish. They’re going to use and leverage all of those capabilities Kerry has, all of those different processes and ingredients and all of that know-how to create a new product. So I think it’s the holistic competence that is really critical to being able to do what we do.

At Kerry, taste and nutrition are the main drivers behind our food and beverage innovations. To learn more about our capabilities, including how we identify market gaps, develop new products and tackle reformulation challenges, visit our Innovation page.

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