Change, as we’re constantly reminded, is a powerful force.
It’s inevitable, it’s the only constant. It can be painful, but also educational. We can’t fight it, but we can learn from it. It’s part of life. We can never escape it. We’re counseled to embrace it, get ahead of it, believe in its power.
That said, there is a dynamic to the changes that occur in the food industry. Some are driven by the evolution of the regulatory environment. Others are the result of consumers themselves demanding something different. And some are created by the industry itself, and then sold to the public as the change for which they were waiting.
A few examples:
It was but a few years ago that many processed food products contained what were generically referred to as “trans fats.” These are basically hydrogenated, or hardened vegetable fats — think, margarine — that have application in baked goods, confections and all kinds of prepared foods. Point is, trans fats don’t occur naturally; they are a manufactured ingredient utilized for their functional, rather than nutritional, value.
However, when credible research began to uncover evidence that the consumption of trans fat increased the risks of coronary heart disease, among other problems, the FDA revisited the ingredient’s status as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), which was the death knell for processors whose formulations contained trans fats.
Within a couple years, they had largely disappeared, with most major food marketers proudly proclaiming on their packaging that the delicious product inside “Contains No Tran Fat,” which, by the way, put the lie to all the doomsday predictions of the food manufacturers who initially claimed that life as we know it would cease to exist if trans fats were regulated out of the food supply.
Turns out change really is an opportunity wrapped in a problem.
When People Drive Change
But what happens when consumers collectively embrace change? A great example of that process is the way the major soft drink companies have evolved.
In the not-too-distant past, Coke and Pepsi were the dominant beverages of choice for the majority of Americans. People would have laughed out loud if they were offered plain old H2O as an alternative. Bottled water? You want me to pay a couple bucks for a bottle of water??
But as more and more people eschewed the carbonated, sugar-loaded soda category, we can now choose from bottles of flavored water, sparkling water, spring water, distilled water, artesian water, vitamin water, mineral water — and now there’s a movement to get rid of the bottle itself.
You don’t have to go back to Mad Men days to recognize that what Americans drink represents a huge and monumental change, and there’s no going back, because that transformation was in response to what people actually wanted.
But what about industry-led change in response to what people say they want? Ah, that’s a different story.
For an example, look no further than the debacle with the “fat-free’ craze of a few years ago.
When asked, huge majorities of people told pollsters they didn’t want all that horrible, unhealthy fat in their diets. That disdain was something of a tribute to years of relentless rhetoric from consumer activists who decried every and any food product that contained Satan’s twin demons: saturated fat and cholesterol.
But when food processors then rolled out fat-free cookies, confections, even deli meats, consumers’ collective response could be summed up in a single word: “Yuck!”
Those products soon disappeared, and no one lamented their absence.
Missing the Meat
That brings us to a more recent change experts are predicting will eventually revolutionize foodservice: The incredible shrinking meat portion.
Celebrity chefs are touting their trendy new “plant-forward” menus. Culinary leaders are promoting “vegetable-centric” entrees, in which the meat is the side dish. And plenty of established cuisines are gaining prominence for reliance on a center-of-the-plate that’s filled with veggies, not animal protein.
The concept of minimal meat, meat-as-a-complement-to-the-meal, meat as an afterthought to the dining experience has taken root at the Culinary Institute of America, an institution that is instrumental in driving change at both high-end establishments and sit-down chain restaurants.
Will two-ounce strips of beef replace the 10-ounce T-bone? Will so-called “blended burgers” that are part beef, part mushrooms (or some other plant-based substance) one day become the bottled water of foodservice entrées?
If you believe that, I encourage you to get ahead of that curve, embrace that change, and believe in the power of transformation.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, veteran journalist and commentator.