The concept of innovation is so commonplace in the food and drink sectors that there is a danger that it has crept into the realms of cliché.

Any manufacturer or retailer worth its salt is quick to emphasise the importance of product development to its strategy. On occasion, however, there is the impression that innovation is offered up as evidence that a company is forward-thinking when in fact their NPD strategies leave a lot to be desired.

However, next week in London, the biennial global food and drink event IFE returns and is promising to focus squarely on innovation - and its enduring importance even in times of economic malaise.

Event director Paul McDonald recognises that innovation can be "over-used" but he insists that, at IFE, exhibitors and visitors can truly discover the latest trends that are buoyant in food and drink.

McDonald points to 'Innovation Live', one of the central attraction at this year's IFE. The organisers, in association with researchers Mintel, have put together an area dedicated to what they call "a true showcase of serious, unrivalled ground-breaking innovation".

Innovation Live will be divided into four product  categories - general food, drinks, chilled and frozen, plus health and well-being - and will show products ranging from bottled water said to improve memory among children to chocolate that claims to support the body against the causes of acne. Manufacturers the size of Kellogg are using the attraction to showcase their products alongside smaller suppliers like Cotswold Fayre and The Amazing Food Co.

"Innovation Live will be the premier event at IFE," McDonald tells just-food. "We wanted to do it before the downturn and we have out in a hell of a lot of research into it. Innovation is one of those over-used but under-performing words. By partnering with Mintel, we can truly say that you are going to see products for the first time."

McDonald acknowledges that the downturn has had an impact on how some companies want to exhibit at IFE, with some taking less stand space than two years ago. However, he points to the attendance of brands like Cadbury and Typhoo and the début of country-specific stands from the likes of Serbia, Slovenia and Romania as evidence that IFE remains one of the most popular shows on the European food exhibition circuit.

Cadbury's decision to take a stand at IFE raised some eyebrows as companies of that size only  occasionally exhibit at trade events. For its part, the UK confectionery giant believes its attendance as an exhibitor at IFE will help it shore up its core customers and help it develop clients in channels like the hospitality sector, restaurants and leisure.

"It would be wrong to assume that you don't need to look after your base business," Cadbury out-of-home development manager Kate Roberts tells just-food. Like the majority of its fellow exhibitors, Cadbury will look to demonstrate its innovation strategy, including its work on developing chocolate free of hydrogenated vegetable and its actions in the arena of corporate and social responsibility - including, perhaps, the recent announcement to switch Dairy Milk to Fairtrade certification.

And if Cadbury is looking for some indication of how its peers have fared at previous shows, IFE is welcoming back a number of repeat exhibitors, including TSC Foods, a UK-based maker of soups, sauces and dressings.

Mark Allibone, TSC's commercial director, says the company had a "really positive experience" when it first exhibited at IFE in 2007. Again, like other exhibitors, TSC plans to use this year's show to lay out its new products, including the Calendar range of soups. TSC, which makes products fro food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice clients, will be hoping to enjoy a second positive show, where it will exhibit in IFE's "General Food and Drink" area.

Stands will be divided into 15 product sections, including areas focusing on health and well-being, one dubbed "Fit for Kids", organics and bakery and confectionery, where just-food will also have its own stand.

With around 1,200 exhibitors at the event, there will be plenty of new products on show and plenty of innovation strategies to analyse, highlighting that, despite the downturn, food and drink companies believe NPD will help them through the recession.