Food Science and Consumer Sentiment Clash at IFT 2017


While the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Food Expo encouraged attendees and presenters to “Go with Purpose,” many of the featured panels and presentations focused on closing the chasm between consumer perception and beneficial food technology. The expo kicked off with a discussion on “Processed Food: The Good, the Bad and the Science,” which was moderated by Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel. The panel consisted of food and nutrition expert and consultant Richard Black, obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff, historian Rachel Laudan and Cargill R&D vice-president Chris Mallett.

Homing in on Health
After a crowdsourced survey on words associated with the term “processed foods,” Haspel and the panelists explored how consumer sentiment toward these products have veered toward a narrative that could be incongruous with scientific fact. And while the panel agreed that obesity levels in the US are concerning, there is no single ingredient or factor is responsible. That said, Freedhoff pointed to the fact that “weight gain is almost always a consequence” when people move to the US from other countries, alluding to the idea that food manufacturers and suppliers have a duty to help Americans make choices that will benefit their health. Black noted that food scientists and manufacturers have virtually eliminated trans fat in foods as well as helped reduce sodium intake, but more must be done to address “high energy foods” and the overall caloric consumption of Americans. That duty, however, sometimes goes against consumer sentiment. In evaluating the consumer demand for simpler ingredient labels and “cleaner” food, the panel noted that “what is a health win for consumers may not actually improve health.” This underscores the importance in scientists and manufacturers continuing to invest in technology that will improve health even when consumer sentiment moves in a different direction.

Shifting Perceptions
This conflict behind “science” and “consumer sentiment” was also directly addressed in the premier of the IFT funded documentary “Food Evolution.” This film focused heavily upon the GMO debate, chronicling the rise of the non-GMO movement from Hawaiian papayas to the detrimental impact of non-GMO regulations on the banana farms of Uganda. In a series of interviews with scientists, farmers, politicians, and food bloggers, the film took a close look at the actual science behind GMO’s and juxtaposed it with the at-times nefarious motivations of non-GMO supporters. The result was a powerful statement expounding the virtues of the scientific process and the importance of educating consumers using fact rather than letting emotion sway the debate. In the end, the film asks the question of non-GMO pundits “What if, while trying to do the right thing, they got it wrong?” and left a lasting impression with viewers that the scientific community will stand up for facts rather than let others distort truth.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and expo was held from June 26 to 28 at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas this year. With over 20,000 attendees, IFT17 brought its theme of “Go With Purpose” to life across 100 sessions and over 1,200 exhibits. Attending food scientists, suppliers and manufacturers shared their passions, learnings, and ideas on how to tackle the task of feeding the world while navigating the swirling waters of consumer trends. By the end of the three days, attendees left with a better understanding of the challenges facing the food industry while pondering the many solutions on hand to resolve the growing dichotomy between consumers and food science.

Contributed by Jonas Feliciano, Sr. Marketing Manager Market Research and Consumer Insights, Snacking.

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