At the UK’s recent Food & Drink Expo, a wide variety of new products were showcased, from savoury snack bars to after-dinner vinegars. After sampling every available product Hugh Westbrook wonders if more innovation might be needed to maintain consumer interest.

Judging by the quality of the food being displayed at last week’s Food & Drink Expo in Birmingham, the British food industry is in rude health – appropriate when you consider that the biggest growth area seems to be in products targeted at consumers’ well-being. dutifully traipsed up and down every aisle to see what was on offer, sampling as many olives, tapenades, sun-dried tomatoes, gourmet crisps and little tubs of ice-cream as possible in order to come away with a sense of the market.

In many ways, it was a mixed experience. There can be no argument with the quality of products being showcased. There is excellent food and drink being produced throughout the UK, while parts of the exhibition devoted to particular areas of the country demonstrated that regions make the best of their local produce.

However, there was a nagging sense of a lack of variety. After yet another garlic olive, bizarrely flavoured crisp or unusual ice-cream we began to get the feeling of having seen it all before, of there being too little distinction between offerings. Where were the exceptions and the innovations? Where were the products that we would remember from the day as having stood out from the rest?

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Innovation needed

In addition, while there are a great number of products aimed at health and well-being, is there now too much choice? While it was refreshing to see an increase in items for allergy sufferers and those with particular intolerances (even pets were catered for), it seemed that there were too many fruit juices, smoothies, teas, energy drinks and marginally enhanced waters for the market to bear.

Furthermore, when spoke to the manufacturers about how their products were differentiated from the myriad competition, some of the answers were less than satisfactory. Slight variations in fruit concoctions, different levels of fruit juice and even nattily-shaped bottles seem to be some of the marketing tools which are used. But perhaps we should be concerned that consumers may have difficulty telling one product from another after a while. Consumer interest in health issues is clearly driving the market, but are too many companies jumping on board with poorly conceived products that add little variety?

Standing out from the crowd

But enough of the gripes. There were products which jumped out from the rest and which we were impressed by. Nutrinnovator’s Altú bar stood out from the other fruit and snack bars on offer. This was not only because the recipes have more fruit and less cereal than other products but also because the company produces savoury snack bars. The ‘Peanut, Cashew and Thai Sweet Chili bars’ and ‘Sundried Olive, Tomato and Parmesan’ bars are unlike anything else on the market, but could create a new niche in the snacking sector.

The idea of savoury niche lines in non-traditional sectors is also well covered by long-established Purbeck Ice Cream whose flavours include chilli or black pepper. Of the more traditional flavours on offer, Lovington’s from Somerset impressed with its newly developed apple and rhubarb and custard flavours.

One particular small producer stood out for having a product like no other on display. Pinks Farm’s fruit syrups, in flavours such as damson or raspberry, are predominantly available at farmers’ markets and local shops in the Midlands, but as an unusual cooking ingredient or accompaniment to desserts they could find a wider audience.

A new snacking trend?

Hearty’s soy nuts are squarely aimed at the health-conscious snacking market and particularly target allergy sufferers. Their latest products are fruit bars which are packaged as chunks rather than whole bars. The company explained that this puts them into the snacking category rather than the fruit bar category. It remains to be seen whether other companies will break bars into small pieces in order to compete.

As mentioned earlier, there were many new drinks on the market. The one which impressed the most was Drink Me Chai Latte, currently available in spiced or vanilla flavour. As well as bringing an unusual variety of tea to an already overcrowded market, the product’s marketing could well help it. It is sold as giving consumers the chance to have a few minutes of peace away from their busy days, and could catch on with overworked consumers. Will we see a development in food designed to reduce stress?

Many companies from overseas were using the exhibition to try to find a foothold in the UK market. Once again, there were many examples of the same type of product already available, and it was hard to differentiate some of them from what has already become established.

However, Austria’s long-established Gegenbauer stood out with its range of unusually flavoured vinegars, while its after-dinner vinegar will be long remembered.

Hot cans and wine nuts

American company Ford’s Foods have added to their sauce range with wine nuts. These snack foods are intended not only to complement wine and other alcoholic drinks, but they are also flavoured with alcohol and have won awards in the United States.

For allergy sufferers, DariFree milk may well find wider distribution. Currently only available on mail order in the UK, the Irish distributors of this product are hoping to find companies willing to take it on. A powdered product made up with water, DariFree is made from potato, meaning that it will cause very few problems to allergy sufferers. It tastes reasonable as well.

Finally, a word for our favourite product of them all – not food, not drink but packaging. Hot Cans do exactly what they say on the tin. These self-heating cans allow food to be taken anywhere, and when opened, they will self-heat in about ten minutes. The company explained to that the patented technology will work for more than just cans and can operate with any shape of product. The idea of a walker taking a panini and coffee with them for three days and then settling down to enjoy them hot is not now as far-fetched as it sounds.

The Food & Drink Expo was an excellent event, and allowed many manufacturers to show off a range of interesting products. However, it would be good to attend similar events in the future and be excited by new and innovative items on display, rather than be merely impressed by minor variations on existing themes.

Expert Analysis

New Profit Opportunities in Ingredients and Flavours: Future outlook for product innovation and consumer influencers to 2005

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