On the Horizon: The Food Innovation Landscape

Interview with Vivien Sheehan, PhD, Global VP, RD&A, Applied Health & Nutrition

In this episode, we speak with Kerry’s Global Vice President of Research Development & Application, Vivien Sheehan, PhD, about how the innovation process in food and beverage is being remade. In this unprecedented time of change, agility and flexibility are crucial in reacting to the immediate needs of customers. As we face new challenges, there’s an increasing need for cooperation between suppliers, customers and regulatory agencies to help bring innovation to life. Consumers want and expect more from food products, as we are seeing through the trend towards ingredients that can boost overall wellness.

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Interview notes:

Damien: The innovation process and food is being remade. Can you tell us what’s happening and how best food companies can take advantage of this?

Vivien: I think the innovation process has never been faster. It’s all around speed right now. We are in an unprecedented moment of change across multiple industries, but specifically the food industry for this purpose. People are trying to adapt to an evolving market and market conditions and speed, agility, flexibility and scale are critical. We’ve never had more cooperation than what we have right now between suppliers, customers and regulatory agencies. Everybody is under the same strain to get things done. There's a really high level of engagement and good will. I think one example that comes to mind is the manufacturing of hand sanitiser, where multiple industries have jumped in in this hour of need in order to support customers, and also frontline staff and communities. My experience here is that Kerry does not make hand sanitiser. It’s completely alien to our business model. However, we have the capabilities, we have the scale and we have the talent to know how to get things done in this environment. To engage with regulators to identify areas where it may be more complex for a company like Kerry to be successful here, articulate our challenges. I think the feedback time has been extremely fast. It’s been shortened significantly, so that we can go out and support our customers and make things happen at a much faster pace than normal.

Damien: And is that feedback from regulatory agencies?

Vivien: Correct. Feedback from external regulatory agencies, whereby there may be ingredients in the recipe if we need to be compliant, let’s say from a North American perspective with an FDA regulation. The FDA actually had to come out and relax and change some of their regulations so that food companies could produce hand sanitiser in food facilities with ingredients that are completely food grade. So, I think that cooperation, transparency and lines of communication has been very successful and agile.

Damien: Has this speed and agility, not just for projects like hand sanitizer, but is it also for commercial products, like new food ingredients and new food products for consumers?

Vivien: Absolutely. I think what we are seeing in the industry right now is customers are extremely health focused and they are looking for ingredients that already have the scientific evidence where there are credible, clinical trials performed on ingredients where they want to incorporate them into food and beverage products very rapidly. I think that then speaks to innovation projects that could have taken 6 to 12 months are happening much faster. You’re talking weeks or a month in order to get new products on the shelf for customers and that speaks volumes where you’re working with a supplier who is very familiar with working with these ingredients, understands the robustness of the technology and where it will work. To be able to guide the customer to really quick turnaround times in terms of new product launches.

Damien: Are there any particular trends or activities in the market right now that are really driving new developments in products?

Vivien: I think in the food industry, while a lot of things are changing, some things will stay the same. Customers will continue to be concerned or have a preference for food that tastes great, that's nutritionally fortified and good for you, that's convenient and that is sustainably sourced. There is a huge trend towards ingredients that can boost your overall health and wellness. Whether that's immune health, digestive health, stress or weight management. And also consumers are more label conscious. They're taking time to read and understand what's in the food they're eating. They want food companies to be transparent. They want to understand the label declarations and the ingredients that are in there. So, I think now is the time for companies who have ingredients that really have strong value for customers to take this time to educate our customers. People are working from home. People are not in the labs or potentially at our customer’s side as often as what they would have been. So I think right now is the time to capitalize on customer engagement and teach them and explain the technologies that we have and how we could add value to their brand. And that's exactly what we're doing as an organization.

Damien: I'm surprised that product development is speeding up, given the fact that the teams are spread all over the place. Nobody's in the office right now, everyone is at home on Zoom calls. But the product development process increases in speed. How is that happening?

Vivien: I think it depends on the product category. If you were looking to potentially add another ingredient into an existing recipe, a line extension. A lot might happen. It might not be a product that's going to get launched within the next two weeks, but it might be a product that is. You're doing the innovation cycle right now and it will be ready for launch at the appropriate time.

Damien: One of the things which has happened, it seems, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, is the reengagement of society, both with science and with experts. Does that offer an opportunity for the food industry over the next sort of coming innovation period?

Vivien: I think it does. I think that right now, customers and consumers, they want information they can trust. They don't want anecdotal stories. They want hard facts. They want science. They want to understand the benefits behind what it is that people are working on. They want to confirm that things are. So, if we take synthetic biology or GMOs as an example. Potentially in the future, that could have a bigger place in new science. People will want to understand the benefits for them. Why would you leverage technologies like this? Is it going to be more environmentally friendly? Economic benefits? Enhanced nutritional benefits? I think it's really developing the science behind that.

Damien: That's very interesting. Vivien, as you look across the landscape on the future of food innovation as we sort of move through these various stages of the COVID-19 crisis and hopefully in the next 12 or 24 months out of this particular crisis, what does the landscape of food innovation look like? What are we going to be working on over these next two years?

Vivien: I think we will be working on how can we continue to add differentiation and functionality to food, especially for health and wellness purposes. It's generating that scientific data. People are very health conscious. What are the ingredients that they can add that can make different claims and really be beneficial to the consumer? But again, as I mentioned, while things will change, things will stay the same in terms of people will want food that tastes great. It will need to be nutritionally fortified with health and wellness ingredients, convenient, sustainably sourced. But I think what is changing is how people are getting their food and the role of ecommerce will likely be more prevalent in the future. I think that will then bring new challenges, but also new opportunities in terms of what are the new shelf life requirements that the foods will need to be able to adhere to? What are the texture profiles? Is that flavour profile going to be stable over the shipping process or the elongation shelf life of the product? I think that will be a focus in addition to obviously health and wellness fortification.

About Vivien Sheehan, PhD:

Vivien Sheehan, PhD, is the Global Vice President of Research, Development & Application within Kerry Group’s Applied Health and Nutrition business. She oversees research initiatives pertaining to food preservation, fermentation, enzymes, proteins, nutritional ingredients and other new horizon innovative technologies.

Vivien is a graduate of University of College Cork with a bachelor’s degree in food science and a doctorate in microbiology. Her studies focused on food microbiology and probiotics, including their application in food products and molecular techniques to enhance their robustness.

Vivien has made a distinguished contribution in the field of functional ingredients, having first joined Kerry in 2007 as a Technology Manager focused on developing fermentation derived Ingredients. Her research has spanned the development of live microbial cultures and their by-products to extend shelf life, promote food safety and enhance flavor profiles across multiple food and beverage applications. Vivien supported the introduction of new technologies for the food industry that enabled customers replace chemical preservatives with fermentation derived alternatives.

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