The New Products Forum held last week by Mintel and the Leatherhead Food Research Association brought the food industry bang up to date with trends and predictions for new product development. just-food.com's Bernice Hurst was there to get the lowdown.

There was a clear theme running through all the sessions at the LFRA/Mintel International New Products Forum held on 5 February. As we move further into the 21st century, there will be more ageing babyboomers rushing around, too busy to stop for chores such as shopping, preparing, cooking and eating their meals. What they will want, instead, is meal solutions that are delicious and contain whatever nutritional requirements they need at that particular moment in time.

In the brave new world of new product development, you must "innovate or stagnate", according to chairperson Dorothy Mackenzie of Dragon International. The theme of her keynote address was "responding to opportunities". Mackenzie's consultancy specialises in identifying and realising market opportunities, brand positioning and communication.

Dragon has published studies on functional and organic foods, and so has looked at both sides of the coin. "People are living an accelerating lifestyle which gives opportunities for more convenience and functional foods, total meal solutions and partnership branding opportunities," she maintained.

Food of the future is going to target niche markets. There will be products for different age groups, different genders, different occasions and different dietary whims. There will be packaging suitable for eating on the hoof. We won't have to chill or heat, the container will do it for us. The sizes and shapes will be convenient whether neat, square Tetra Recarts that take up minimum space in our cupboards or containers that fit neatly into the cup-holders in our cars where we will partake in 'dashboard dining'.

Convenience is King?

We will not have to worry about balancing our vitamin or mineral intake, or eating too much sugar or salt or fat or calories, just so long as we choose well. There will be choices aplenty for each and every one of us no matter who or where we are. And we will not have to worry about making time to shop. There will be different distribution channels. We will be able to select our food not only from supermarkets or the Internet, but also from chemists' shops that will be transformed into 'wellbeing centres'. Or we can order in advance and collect from train stations.

If we feel the urge to cook something, we will be able to choose gourmet meals devised by top chefs. The ingredients will have been pre-measured and packed into neat little containers with simple to follow instructions for each and every stage. As Dorothy Mackenzie put it, "we will be able to learn instant cooking skills".

And we will be happy with this. All our needs and wants will be met and we will not have to slow down. If we make the right choices, our food will deal with stress and hypertension, it will keep our cholesterol levels low and prevent coronary heart disease. On top of all that, it will taste wonderful because flavours will be intense. And we will not be charged a premium so price will not present any obstacles to eating a healthy, well balanced diet. There will, of course, be lots of indulgence products but these, too, will be designed for convenience.

Convenience was, perhaps, an even stronger thread at the conference. Every presenter recognised consumer demands for convenience and was seeking their own version of this Holy Grail - how to grasp the opportunities so that both customers and shareholders were happy.

Health, high impact and convenience were highlighted by Jeff Nicholas, Director of Brand Marketing for S&A Foods. Since its cottage industry inception in 1986, Parween Warsi's business has moved into four factories and grown into a market leader in chilled meal solutions with an anticipated turnover this year in excess of £100m (US$140.8m). The initial Indian dishes that introduced many of us to a new type of eating have been expanded to include Oriental dishes. Other cuisines are currently being tackled and will be added in the not too distant future. In spite of the different cooking methods needed, and the 450 products cooked daily, Nicholas stressed the use of high quality, fresh ingredients and the 24-hour turnaround on orders.

Lest we forget: organics

Organics, too, got a look in. A case study presented by Jean-Michel Boyer traced the research behind Kalibrio, a concept devised in 1999 in the wake of consumer demand for a next-stage range of products to follow on from Vitagermine's successful Babynat range. Vitagermine aims to become one of the leading European companies in the field of organic nutrition for children by 2010.

Expert Analysis

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Kalibrio is a line of organic breakfast products and snacks for children between three and ten years old. It claims to have a high nutritional content, a natural source of vitamins and minerals, no additives or artificial flavourings, empty calories, fillers or preservatives. Plus good taste and a fun and attractive image. "This differs," said Boyer, "from other products in the European market which contain hydrogenated saturated fat, simple sugar, artificial flavouring and preservatives but are promoted in colourful packaging which makes nutritional claims focusing on energy, calories, vitamins and minerals."

Kalibrio was launched following pan-European studies into children's views on food and nutrition. As a result, according to Boyer, it has been built for and by children whose advice was taken on everything including the brand's character, Kali. Kali will become a companion leading children "through the world of nutrition and the environment". The brand is promoted through a programme which goes to school and health professionals as well as a website which acts as a "communications forum".

Responding to customers and simultaneously anticipating what they will want at some future date is the tightrope on which new product development exponents must  balance to survive and thrive. Creenagh Lodge of Corporate Edge, specialists in innovation and branding, explained her concept of future backward.

"Winners have to forecast what consumers will want in the future and work backwards to figure out how to deliver on time," she said. "Consumers want edited choice, brands they can trust to make the right choice on their behalf. They may want greater choice in terms of services," she explained, "but pressures of modern day living don't give us time to make these decisions."

So one of the conveniences which must be provided, along with choice, is an edited version which is not too broad to handle but broad enough to suit all of the people all of the time.

By Bernice Hurst, just-food.com com correspondent