The global food and grocery industry demonstrated a positive direction and how it’s working in the interests of consumers at Food Industry Asia’s ‘Food for the Future Summit’ conference in Singapore last month.

It attracted leaders from across the food and grocery sector – multinationals and Asia-based food companies, food innovators, government bodies, NGOs, and academia. Delegates were there to address three themes: sustainability, wellness (described as ingredient innovation for nutrition and health), and consumers’ quest for convenience.

I was invited to present before the conference in a panel at the Food Industry Dialogue, along with my Antipodean colleagues Tanya Barden, CEO of the Australian Food & Grocery Council, and Geoff Parker, CEO of Australian Beverages Council, and national association leaders from South Korea, China, Japan, India and others. We discussed in-common regulatory and policy issues, and no one would be surprised to hear that the main ones were obesity, wellness, and sustainability.

But it was the conference proper where we heard from major food, beverage, ingredients, and flavours suppliers about how innovation is impacting the industry and how it can collaboratively create future foods that are healthy, nutritious and sustainable.

Among the speakers were those from companies with a big presence in New Zealand, including Danone, Kellogg, Griffins, Dilmah, Mondelez, Mars, and Coca-Cola, as well as from much lesser-known innovators such as Green Monday (pork substitutes), Callery’s (low-cal, low-fat, low-sugar ice cream) and Nutrition Innovation (sugar reduction technology).

It was the innovation and the possibilities for collaboration between these giants and minnows that was a core theme. We heard about fibre-infused brownies and frozen yoghurt, low glycemic chocolate and rice (not combined, or at least not yet, as FIA Executive Director Matt Kovac said later), cricket chips and cookies (yes, the insects!), plant-based burgers, lab-grown plant-based alternatives, giant indoor-grown truffles, and alternative packaging start-ups.

The outgoing Regional President of Mars Wrigley Asia-Australia, Ehab AbouOaf, stressed the importance of “uncommon collaborations”, where big companies lend their expertise and experience in building brands, marketing, distribution and supply chain management, while start-ups bring their agility in innovation and new thinking.

Big companies talked about needing more dedicated resources to work with start-ups, the reason FIA launched a working group to bring entrepreneurs and SMEs together. Its focus will be on alternative proteins, personalised nutrition, healthy aging, gut health, sustainable packaging and other new technologies to benefit consumers.

Some interesting ideas also came out of the key wellness, convenience and sustainability sessions. One panel agreed the most effective way of dealing with plastic waste was to develop a market for recycled materials, plastic, or construction material; a company head talked about becoming an aggregator of eco-friendly packaging that would also lower the cost for partners; another discussed leveraging data to design fit-for-purpose packaging. The wellness panel discussed the importance of ingredients innovation and the need to create healthier foods for consumers.

The conference delivered all sorts of inspiration and surprises. I got to taste one of Beyond Meat’s products: a plant-based protein pattie. Had I done a blind taste test and compared it with one made of beef mince, I doubt I could have told the difference. It was impressive and tasty, but for me it emphasised the challenges that a primary industry-dependent economy like New Zealand increasingly will face in coming decades.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)