Trends #3: There’s more to snacks than potato crisps

Alternative bases for snacks seem to be growing in popularity in the snacks market.

With the lockdown in the UK easing and the shops opening again, I decided to treat myself to one of my favourite pastimes, a day in London. I knew it would still not be quite the same as the PC (pre COVID) days, but I did anticipate and plan the date with a lot of excitement. I was going to spend my day strolling around Kensington and Knightsbridge. I would start with a bookstore to check out any new cookery books, then move on to Whole Foods for some inspiration, I was also hoping to find this new citrus fruit called Sumo Citrus to try, then lunch in Hyde park and after this maybe a stroll to Harrods’ food hall.

OK, I feel I am losing you now, so I’ll get to the point. I had a look at Whole Foods’ savoury snacks section. There were about 10 shelves with various products. Only 2 had potato crisps and maybe one shelf had corn or rice based snacks. The rest featured snacks with a plethora of other bases. Amongst them were nuts, vegetables, pulses, cereals other than wheat, seaweed even fish skin. Some of them were claiming lower fat, environmentally sustainable, higher protein or lower calories, but all emphasised taste !

Five savoury snack products made with alternative bases like seaweek, fish skin, cheese, pulses
Just a small selection of savoury snacks with alternative bases

Of course with the introduction of new bases, we see new processes. Rather than slicing and frying or sheeting and baking, there is a lot of “popping”, drying, or extruding.
Since the launch of Snack-a-Jacks (early naughties in the UK), probably the first alternative base and technology in a long time and with a healthier message, we have seen the rise of popcorn, the slow but consistent growth of other popped products and more recently the introduction of pulses and vegetables. Sourdough is also one to watch, but we’ll talk about sourdough another day.

So, is it the end of the potato crisp ? I don’t think so. The flavour and texture sensation that you get from crisps is well engrained into our memory banks. Plus potato is a genuinely great base for flavours, both when we are cooking and when we are snacking and let’s not forget the economics of it.
If however, the question was “So, is the diversity that we are seeing in snack bases now, going to continue?” then I believe that the answer is a definite YES!
In other words, this is a developer’s dream situation. A market that ready to break with tradition, a consumer that wants to experiment and endless ingredient options.

If however, the question was “So, is the diversity that we are seeing in snack bases now, going to continue?” then I believe that the answer is a definite YES!

NB. If you have been watching any of the cookery programmes, you are bound to have noticed the introduction of crispy fish skin to add texture and interest to a dish. A great shortcut, and I am not suggesting that you take shortcuts, is Seachips. They are also great with a cold beer.

#foodtrends #innovation #productdevelopment #alternativesnacks

Innovation Tools #3: A Development Framework

What are the things that a developer needs to be aware of and develop within so that they can be free to create a fantastic product ?

I’ll keep this simple:

Q: What does a product developer need to consider during the development of a new product?
A: A lot…..The end!

Wow, that’s a bit scary, isn’t it ? But fear not.
A. We’ll break it down into bits (how do you eat an elephant?) and
B. A product developer does not need to know it all, they just need to know who to consult and bring into the team at the right time.

You can now see the link between the photo of the Parthenon at the start of the blog! You can take the girl out of Athens but you cannot take Athens out of the girl !

There are lots of ways to depict the key considerations, you can have them as a beautiful flower with the consumer experience in the centre or a golf course where you need to get to all the holes before you get to the prize… I decided to go for a house frame. It may be inflexible, but once sorted you are free to decorate the house as you like ! (Ok maybe parallels are not my strong point 😂)

Let’s explore each section:

The absolute foundation is of course food safety, legality and financial viability, for the last one I have assumed that you are developing for a food business and therefore if there is no profit, the product is not sustainable. Not much else to add here, other than that by safety you need to think microbes, toxins, contamination, allergies, foreign matter, product use etc. and by legal, think export markets, special dietary groups etc.

The pillars come next.

  • Sustainability of materials – this is key and the responsible thing to do for the planet.
  • Ethical sourcing – how are your materials produced ? This is often a procurement person’s responsibility, but it is worth you asking the question.
  • Consistent Quality – this is a product developer’s “bread & butter”. Defining and setting quality parameters, checks etc is what we do. The trick here is to think the whole supply chain i.e. from having confidence that your materials are consistent at every delivery, to what happens during your manufacturing process, during transport, retailer handling of the product and even in the consumer’s environment. The product may have left your space of jurisdiction, but it is still your “baby”.
  • Shelf life – This is another one of our “bread & butter” activities.
  • Brand Alignment – the example here is designing a recipe with for example, artificial flavours when the brand is all about natural ingredients ⛔️.
  • Waste Proofing – have a look at one of my previous posts Waste Not Want Not
  • Carbon footprint – understanding a product’s footprint and then creating a plan to reduce it is important. We’ve got to do this if we are serious about moving the dial in the race to tackle climate change. Again, this is not the responsibility of the product developer, but you do need to know enough to ask the right questions.

If you stay on top of these questions and you structure your activities to take them into account as you progress through the stages of a project – it can be done, you can build processes and templates for this to happen – then you can avoid bad surprises and put your energy in creating a wonderful consumer experience and a great tasting product. You can focus on creating recipes that deliver on a claim or promise and deliver the brief.

You can build processes and templates that will allow all the right questions to be asked at the right time of a project’s stage, so that you can put your energy in creating a fab consumer experience.

#innovationtools #productdevelopment #innovation #consumerexperience #innovationframework #innovationtemplates

Best Food Films: Chocolat

Keeping an open mind when it comes to flavour combinations can produce fireworks!

Easter is synonymous with chocolate for a lot of people and the classic chocolate film has to be Chocolat.
Is there anyone who has not seen Chocolat ? A young Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche plus other great actors and lot of chocolate. What more can one ask for ?

“Chilli…in hot chocolate ?”

The film has a wonderful plot that touches on a number of topics, the main one being how much we sometimes restrict ourselves and impose rules on ourselves, even if deep down we do not agree with them, because of what people may think.

But for a product developer and a food lover, the film offers so much more. In fact, I think this is probably the one film that I can watch without sound and still find the chocolate and food scenes mesmerising. I have been very lucky to work with chocolate a lot and I can promise you it is one of the best media to work with.

If I were to chose one scene though, it would be the one where Vianne’s character serves hot chocolate with chilli 🌶. I remember I had not seen this combination before and ran to try it. I was surprised to taste a beautiful, smooth, coco-ey hot drink, where the heat carried on and bridged the sips. It was bright and uplifting.

Not all weird and wonderful flavour and ingredient combinations will work, but our role is to keep an open mind and never stop experimenting.
I wrote about my discovery of fresh bay leaf in brewed tea a while back. This was also an unexpected combination that worked.

Not all weird and wonderful flavour and ingredient combinations will work, but our role is to keep an open mind and never stop experimenting.

#flavour #innovation #productdevelopment #chocolat #bestfoodfilm

Trend #2: Waste not Want not

Is designing product, process and packaging where nothing is wasted, the new North Star ?

This week I read about fashion designers in Japan (and I am sure in lots of other places) creating “mottainai” fashion, CNN article. Last week I spoke with a colleague, expert in sustainability, who said the one thing product developers need to be designing into everything they do is total consumption of all the energy that is used to create a product. Only last week it was Food waste action week. The food people have identified getting thrifty as one of the top 10 trends.
I think we all get the picture aa well as the importance and the urgency of the situation.

So what does this mean for a developer ? Yes it is more things to think about, yes it is more restrictions on top of the usual (regulatory, safety, cost etc) … or rather, this is one way of seeing it. The other way is that this is your opportunity to make a difference. Besides you already know that us product developers are super humans, so no problem !

On the face of it it may seem like a mammoth task, but take a step at a time. It is true what they say that the journey starts with a step. The sooner in your creative and development journey you consider these aspects, the better the product you’ll design. Before long all these considerations will become second nature.
Before you ask, I appreciate that waste reduction is not the only thing that needs to be considered. There is carbon footprint, nutritional value, ethical sourcing. These are for another post !

Once upon a time it was enough to have a great idea, create a great tasting recipe on bench and then scale it up. So long as it was legal, safe, great tasting and financially viable you were good to go. Thank goodness those days are long gone and I am glad for this.

The sooner in your creative and development journey you consider these aspects, the better the product you’ll design. Before long all these considerations will become second nature.

#innovation #wastereduction #productdevelopment #sustainability #thefoodpeople

Innovation tools #2: Idea Generation Tips

Last January I wrote about idea generation and whether this was a skill that could be learned (BTW the answer you are looking here is YES).

I then thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to put together all the ways I know about coming up with ideas”. “Why not share it with everyone!” was my next thought. “Why not ask friends and colleagues to contribute” was the one that followed.

At that point I stopped thinking and got to work and with the help of good friends I curated this edition of 20 tips plus some resources.

Big thank you to all the contributors and especially to Muryel Boulay and Riccardo Weber for their suggestions and builds.

I hope you find it useful.

I hope you find it useful. If you have any ideation tips to share, I’d be glad to have them and add to the next edition.

#ideation #ideageneration #innovation #productdevelopment #creativity&

Lesson #5 If only machines were as gentle as our fingers !

Scaling up a recipe can create quality defects that are not visible on bench or pilot plant.

The cookies were beautiful and everyone was so excited about them. They ticked all the boxes. Plenty of chocolate pieces, lovely melt in the mouth texture, a balanced aroma of chocolate mixed in with vanilla and baked biscuit notes and a gorgeous colour that made them look fresh and inviting. They were not the ones in the photograph, but looked just as homemade. The only snag was that they had only been made on the bench and here was the team talking about what the launch event would be like !

If only the forming equipment in the factory were as gentle as the hands of the product developer… Machines want to run fast, squash and squeeze and push this lovely soft dough and all the inclusions in it. By the way, machines hate inclusions. In fact they can’t stand them.
You can see where this is going now, can’t you ? The minute we started testing the recipe on the full scale production line, at the correct batch size and at speeds that gave optimum performance for the equipment and delivered a throughput that made the product financially viable, a big part of the loveliness off the product started to disappeared. The shape and homemade appearance was altered, the chocolate pieces were smashed and brown streaks of smeared chocolate were making the golden colour of the cookie turn a dirty shade of brown. The only consolation was that it still tasted great.

Can we fix this? Yes we can! to paraphrase Bob the builder, but it needs work and the combined efforts of the manufacturing team, the process developer and the product developer. There are things that can be done with the mixing and forming equipment, ways to make the inclusions less susceptible to damage and manufacturing practices that can be put in place to control production better. The key point for a product developer is to make sure they scale up their recipe as soon as possible and to plan some trouble shooting time in the project’s time plan. It also pays to speak with their manufacturing colleagues and invite them to share their knowledge and experience early on in a project. One thing I’ve learned is that when faced with a challenge, the best course of action is to reach out to colleagues and get their input and help. A collaborative solution is always better than one you come up with on your own… unless your surname is Einstein !

The key point for a product developer is to make sure they scale up their recipe as soon as possible and to plan some trouble shooting time in a project’s time plan.

#scaleup #innovation #productdevelopment

Best Food Films: A Touch of Spice

Sometimes unique ingredients can give a dish its signature and make the difference between a good dish and a great one.

A Touch of Spice trailer

This film holds a very special place in my heart, as I recognise a lot of the food and the family idiosyncrasies, even some of the accents, of my father’s family in it. My paternal grandparents were Greeks of Istanbul, fortunate enough to choose the time of their arrival to Athens. They brought with them all the traditions and recipes depicted in the film.
A generous table with an abundance of dishes prepared with love, imagination and skill was part of the cuisine and the culture. It would be unthinkable to welcome guests without a large selection of edible wonders.

“Gastronomy contains the word Astronomy” learning the planets through spice

Spice is mentioned a lot in the film. There is a lovely scene (see video) where the grandad teaches his grandson the shape of our universe using different spices.
Spice has the ability to transform a dish and often makes the difference between a good plate of food and an extraordinary one. It can add depth and complexity in the aroma and the flavour and leave consumers wondering what the magic taste is. The source and combination of spices and flavour extracts in a dish are often closely guarded secrets, whether it is a relative’s recipe, a chef’s or a big brand’s.
The supply chain director used to always tease me about all the “unique” flavours that my team would introduce into the factories. They complicated production. I could see his point, but more often that not this unique flavour was what gave a product its signature taste. As a developer you need to keep a fine balance between trying to keep the recipes you develop simple keeping new ingredients to a minimum and creating a signature taste and aroma.

The source and combination of spices and flavour extracts in a dish are often closely guarded secrets, whether it is a relative’s recipe, a chef’s or a big brand’s. They give the dish its signature taste.

#touchofspice #signaturetaste #productdevelopment #innovation #foodtechnology #spice

Innovation tools #2: Coming up with ideas

How many brainstorming techniques are there ? Probably as many as grains of sand on a beach

Last week’s post on whether creativity is a skill that can be developed, got me thinking about the numerous ways and techniques that we use to come up with ideas. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this must be a list with no end, hence the sand and beach parallel (nothing to do with the fact that because of the lockdown, I can only dream of going to the beach…).

So WHAT IF* (favourite two words ever!) I could compile a list of as many ways, techniques, environments, methods, inspirations of coming up with ideas, as I can.

Valia’s challenge

So this is not one of my usual post. This is the start of a challenge to create a very long list, that will be updated regularly. I’ll reach out to friends and I’ll ask them for their best tips:
– What techniques do they use
– Do they have any special places where ideas come flooding in
– Have they come across and idea gurus and their methods
– Are there any people that help them come up with ideas
– Do they have any best practices to help other people come up with ideas
– What conditions encourage idea generation
I’ll of course be very happy to credit your contribution on the list.

#innovation #brainstorming #ideas #productdevelopment

*What If is also the name of a creative agency (there may be others) that I worked with many years ago. They even ran a training session for us at the time that was excellent. Worth getting if you can. Amazon had some used copies available. Just to be clear re copyright, I will not be copying the book, rather capturing methods I have tried and tested over the years, some of which were sparked off by the training I had attended.

Innovation tools #1: Practice Makes Perfect

You can become more creative if you turn idea generation into a habit.

I am reading Seth Godin’s book The Practice at the moment. One of his fundamental starting points is that creativity is a skill and not a talent and that it can be learned. If it is indeed a skill and you can learn it, then as with all skills once you have been shown how, all you have to do is practice and practice some more.
I have spent thirty plus years creating new products. I always maintained that I was very lucky to have worked with a group of naturally creative people. People with the talent of creativity. But now, looking back at the times when we were at our most creative, I can see a pattern emerging. We had created certain habits and rituals that got us practising generating ideas on a regular basis.
Every Monday morning for example, we would all have our first coffee of the day together and we would talk about new things we had seen, done, tasted, experienced over the weekend. Sometimes we would have a theme, sometimes not, but we would always end up the session with some new ideas.

Photo by fauxels on

Another habit we had was to add 30 min at the end of every meeting with a supplier, where they would present new ingredients to us, to brainstorm ideas sparked off by the presentation.
Or, once a month we would pick a trend or a topic and have an hour’s brainstorming or half a day’s hands on prototyping.
I think you’ve got the gist. Those sessions were not only allowing us to practice and perfect the skill of being creative, but they were also great fun and were helping us recharge our batteries. If I were to distil all this into “How to create the habit of being creative” I would say:

Build regular creative time into your diary It can be a certain day and time every week, or an agenda item in a team meeting or larger events x number of times
Involve othersBe generous and “spread the love” practice creating with others
Keep it freshTry different creative techniques, different venues and different topics
Bring it back to your innovation prioritiesFun as it may be, coming up with lots of ideas about new yoghurts, it won’t do your biscuit business much good. Then again I did launch a Yoplait / McVitie’s yoghurt desert pot once…
How to create the habit of being creative

I believe Seth Godin has a valid point. Creativity can be approached as a skill to be developed and you can get better at it if you practice. Of course you need to practice while being in the right frame of mind, but this is a topic for another blog.

We had created certain habits and rituals that got us practising generating ideas on a regular basis.

#productdevelopment #sethgodin #creativity #innovation #ideageneration

Lesson #4 Is there such a thing as “Too much chocolate” ?

Optimising recipe and process so that we can deliver on the product’s promise.

Before all you chocoholics, and I include myself in this, rush to answer “NO”, let me tell you a story.
There once was a young product developer that was given a new project, to develop an indulgent chocolate bakery product. It had to have all the cues of a premium confectionary product and with the lightness and crispness of a biscuit. This was the brief that led to the launch, many years ago, of probably the first confectionery bar targeting younger women from a big biscuit player in the UK market.
Luckily there was a business in the group at the time, that already made a wafer product that was intensely chocolatey, beautifully crisp in texture and yet melt in the mouth because of a stunning confectionary cream between the delicate wafer layers. This luxurious eat was completed with the bar being covered in chocolate. It sounds too good to be true, ready made innovations, and it was ! The bar was the wrong size, the chocolate and the cream were too bitter and even though we had all the right elements, when put together, the product did not look premium enough for our UK consumer, nor did the taste work for their palate.

There was a lot to be designed and redesigned, but eventually after much recipe work, many trials and consumer tests we were almost there. The taste was great, the size was right, two delicate looking fingers in a golden flow wrap. We just could not get it to look premium enough. Too much chocolate was being blown off the top of the bar as the bar was going through the chocolate enrober, thus exposing the wafer on the surface, even creating holes in the chocolate where the wafer was showing through.
The easy solution would have been to blow less chocolate off. Financially the product could carry a bit more chocolate (This was lucky. Remind me one day to tell you the story of HobNobs as it’s been told to me by its creator), and after all who does not like more chocolate! Problem solved, right ? WRONG !

McVitie’s Riva launched in 1994. Not to be confused with Lovell’s Riva launched in 2019.

The extra chocolate totally imbalanced the eat. It detracted from the delicate nature of the wafer and the special melting profile of the cream. The product was no longer delivering on its promise of luxury and light.
The next days and weeks we worked tirelessly on the manufacturing equipment and the flow properties of the chocolate and in the end we managed to get the right amount of chocolate, no more – no less, to sit on the top surface of the bar. RIVA was launched and in its first few years it brought in new consumers, high revenue and profit and grew the chocolate biscuit bar category. A happy ending to the story and very proud young product developer…
More it not always the answer, even if this is chocolate. What is always the answer, is designing a product that delivers on its promise and is true to a brand’s essence.

The extra chocolate totally imbalanced the eat. It detracted from the delicate nature of the wafer and the special melting profile of the cream. The product was no longer delivering on its promise of luxury and light.

#productdevelopment #recipeoptimisation #chocolatebars #foodtechnology