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Sylvain CharleboisInnovation is a staple of the food industry – food businesses have always changed recipes and formulas.

But recent decisions by major players show the industry is being shaken by external powers, resulting in an ingredient revolution of sorts. PepsiCo is removing aspartame from Diet Pepsi (in the U.S., not Canada), and Kraft is revising its famous Mac and Cheese powder recipe to include natural ingredients.

It’s everywhere. Food businesses are revisiting their procurement strategies and ingredient lists of late as more consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it is made and under what conditions. The good news is that the industry is showing signs it can adapt. The not-so-good news for food corporations is that the revolution has only begun – it will get more complicated. Ingredients are being increasingly scrutinized by consumers.

Since food production is so often in the public eye these days, the curiosity of consumers has now moved up the food chain of the industry, probing into the practices of processing plants and farms. The adage that consumers believe food just shows up on store shelves is passé. This collective awakening of the foodie within us is compelling industry to address consumers’ concerns. What is interesting is why companies like PepsiCo, Kraft and McDonald’s would change something so significant to their product when nothing seemed to have moved them in the past.

Some may think the ingredient-centric concern is all about product labelling. They may believe that consumers are starting to look at labels more closely, trying to understand what is in their products. After all, labels are the only way consumers can access nutritional information in stores, in real time. Yet, according to a study from NPD Group, consumers are actually reading food labels less frequently than 10 or 15 years ago. Time-pressured consumers may be visiting food stores more than twice a week, but they spend just a little over 20 minutes per visit. Time for reading labels is scarce. Moreover, it’s unlikely that consumers review the labels of products they have been buying for years. So labels and packaging have little to do with this revolution.

Rather, it’s the growing influence of corporation-consumer interaction. Product innovation is not so much about reassuring the public anymore. It is more about responding to public opinions on food issues and changing the DNA of the product itself, no matter on which side science is. The “Farm to Fork” paradigm is slowly shifting towards a market-based “Fork to Farm” emphasis. Social media, not labels, has changed the power relations among the corporation, stakeholders, and consumers when it comes to ingredients.

Online consumers have the ability to criticize and damage corporations, even if some claims are not always scientifically defensible. Social media has essentially led to a more democratic food system, and this is only the beginning.

Simply put, consumer influence is significantly facilitated and amplified by social media, and food companies have noticed. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that companies are changing recipes. They don’t have much choice. As food issues continue to emerge, so too will the number of companies being targeted by consumers.

Though we can argue all we want about the health of consumers – changes in the food industry will in the end always be about the mighty dollar. Companies will make changes if it makes economic sense. In most cases, altering a product is precipitated by sluggish sales, as in the case of Pepsi. Regardless of whether or not such changes will actually rejuvenate struggling brands, which were once powerhouses, at least companies are showing that they are listening to ever-more engaged consumers.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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