Design Thinking and Food Innovation

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Design thinking can be applied to food, beverage and flavour creation according to Michel Aubanel, Kerry's Global Ingredients Flavour Development Manager

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KerryDigest Fast Facts:

  • Ideating new flavours and products requires careful planning and unrestrained creativity.
  • Applying design thinking to the food and beverage innovation process can inspire new ideas that are on trend.
  • The process involves cataloguing available resources and leaving room for the development of new ones.
  • To get started, we share how variables from five categories can be mixed and matched while working to find the best solution.

KerryDigest Full Scoop:

Flavour chemistry uses scientific methods and sensory feedback to produce tasty and aromatic results that are often inspired by nature. To turn the smell of sea spray or taste of an exotic fruit into a winning food and beverage product, Michel Aubanel, Kerry's Global Ingredients Flavour Development Manager, has long used the process that’s now called “design thinking”. Rather than plod a straight course toward an adequate solution, design thinking asks you to consider changing any and all variables on the quest for the best idea.

Here, Aubanel, who specializes in working with natural ingredients—including Madagascar vanilla, coffee extracts and umami and kokumi flavours—details his thought process when tinkering with the five variables involved in creating a new flavour and innovating a new product.

Although variable one is usually the starting point for Aubanel, considering variables two through five simultaneously allows for the greatest number and variety of viable ideas.

Variable 1 in Design Thinking for Food: Sensory Inspiration

Design thinking always starts with a concept or a question. Perhaps you’ve noticed a gap in a certain segment of the beverage market, or you recently tasted a new-to-you flavour of berry that you want to use in a new creation. Whatever the impetus, start to explore it.

“In the innovation process you need to be able to say what you would like to have”, says Aubanel. “You must be clear about the problem you are trying to solve, or the ingredient you want to learn more about”.

Although you’re just beginning, Aubanel says this is the step that requires the most energy and curiosity. But you’re never really starting with a blank slate. With flavour and product creation, ideas are often rooted in your own experiences and the sensations and feelings they inspire.

“One day I was in Japan and I smelled cherry blossoms, or sakura flowers, and they smelled so nice”, says Aubanel. “I immediately started to think about the plant, and wondered what it would taste like in ice cream”.

As you take in new smells, tastes and other sensations, catalogue these moments by asking yourself what you like about the experience. When you need inspiration, these details can provide a spark.   

Variable 2 in Design Thinking for Food: Raw Materials

Once you have a concept or question, such as “how do I turn this floral aroma into an ice cream” or “what is the best application for a sea bream taste”, you can begin building a flavour and a product. This is where the push and pull of creativity and scientific rigour come into play.

The thousands of raw materials available can be separated into three categories, says Aubanel: known ingredients, unknown ingredients and ingredients that are known but not often considered, such as the often discarded core of a pineapple.

Under the premise of design thinking, you can start to fiddle with a flavour recipe, making pairings that include raw materials from one or all categories. “Working on a single extract is fabulous”, says Aubanel. “But working with several ingredients open doors that are unforgettable”.

Variable 3 in Design Thinking for Food: Processing Technology

Yes, you could drop a whole lemon into a new creation, but more often than not you will add it to a tincture, infuse it, distil it or create an extract from it. These are just some of the processing technologies that can be applied to raw materials when crafting a new product, and whichever you choose to work with will lead to a unique outcome.

The technologies you consider could be ones that are readily known and available, or ones which are developed specifically to meet the unique challenges of your new product. With design thinking, you can pair any raw materials with any processing technology to come up with different solutions, from building on an already well-known trend to innovating a brand new way of working with food.

Aubanel likens this experimental part of flavour creation to the child’s play of his youth: his father was a perfumist who taught him the power of creating a custom blend, such as by slowly infusing flower blends with lemon peel or ginger root.

Variable 4 in Design Thinking for Food: Application

 As with some of the other variables, there are typical applications and ones that are unexpected or have not yet been dreamed up.

Interesting things happen when you push beyond the border of traditional uses, says Aubanel. Take chocolate for example. There are the expected uses, such as in desserts, and some manufacturers are even putting cocoa extracts in cheese and yogurt. But in Mexico, chocolate is an essential ingredient in molé, a unique and savoury sauce.

By applying the mix-and-match process of design thinking to applications, you may be inspired to convert a food waste product into a brand new application, or infuse a new ingredient into something more standard, such as a ready to drink coffee product

Variable 5 in Design Thinking for Food: Regulation and Limitations

Sometimes limitations breed inspiration. The market for a product likely has specific regulations that can determine certain factors, such as how much of a specific ingredient can be used. For example, a sugar tax in the proposed country of sale may restrict the amount of sugar used in a beverage, and a recent voluntary energy drink ban in Europe has manufacturers reformulating products to contain less caffeine. Parameters such as these, as well as cost and available resources and facilities, can give structure to design thinking, helping you home in on a final solution.  

As you innovate new products, consider partnering with a Kerry flavourist. Our global team has access to our flavour libraries and can work hand-in-hand with our applications teams, chefs, consumer insights experts and more. To learn more, contact Kerry.

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