Adapted from the 2022 "State of Green Business," published earlier this year by GreenBiz Group. Download the report here.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb when it comes to sustainable food: What we eat matters more than how it is produced. For example, a plant-based burger patty with ingredients sourced from around the world will most likely have a lower environmental footprint than a local and organic beef patty.
Yet, the traditional focus of food companies’ sustainability programs has been on uncovering and improving the way ingredients were grown and products manufactured. Sustainability only enters the conversation after an existing product has been on shelves for years or after new products have successfully passed the innovation process. This is a big missed opportunity.
"When you’re thinking about a product that’s already on shelves, there are a few interventions that you can make to reduce emissions — things like changing packaging or changing a given supplier," says Julia Collins, founder and CEO of the carbon footprint startup PlanetFWD. "But frankly, you’re limited in terms of just how much reduction you can drive. But when we think about new product innovation, there’s a tremendous opportunity to drive emissions reductions during product development."
A new food design ecosystem
Slowly but surely, this awareness is spreading in business circles, and sustainability is gaining a spot in R&D shops. Instead of only focusing on sustainable production, companies are also considering the sustainability of the products themselves. This serves as an exciting environment for a new food design ecosystem of companies, technology platforms, startups and dot-connecting industry organizations.
Rather than appearing as a straightforward framework, sustainable food design comes in different shapes and flavors. The snack startup Simple Mills, for example, scouts novel ingredients that come with inherent nutritional and ecological benefits and can incentivize farmers to adopt regenerative practices. Its innovation process is cross-functional, bringing together R&D, marketing, strategic sourcing and sustainability teams to find such ingredients and transform them into unique snacks.
"We seek to create market demand for ingredients that help diversify agriculture and in turn boost ecosystem resilience, food security and dietary diversity," says Christina Skonberg, director of sustainability and strategic sourcing at Simple Mills. One such ingredient is chestnut, a tree crop with large carbon storage potential, which the company uses as a novel flour for pancakes.
Other growing trends fit into this framework. The explosive growth of the alternative protein market is one example. Instead of trying to reduce the resource intensity of foods such as meat, milk and cheese that have large environmental footprints, this emerging industry is looking for fundamentally new ways to produce protein. And it’s remarkably successful at that.
The journey of mainstreaming plant-based proteins wasn’t quick. Tofu, veggie burgers and other early innovations have led rather uneventful lives for decades. A breakthrough came in 2019 when Impossible Foods entered a partnership with Burger King, bringing a plant-based Whopper to the United States. The trend accelerated in 2020, as consumers invested in healthier diets during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Sales of plant-based foods rose nearly twice as much as for overall U.S. retail foods in 2020, with 57 percent of households shopping for them. At the same time, most major food companies have their own plant-based lines.
As this market segment matures, it gives way to further specialization. Alternative meats are often criticized for being too highly processed and having complicated ingredient lists. In response, startups such as Nowadays are bringing next-level food design to the industry. It creates "chicken nuggets" that bring home the environmental benefits of plant-based foods while counting on only seven pronounceable ingredients. There’s lots more innovation where that came from.
Big brand-startup partnerships
Centering new products around upcycled foods is another stellar way of putting sustainability front and center by addressing the roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions that stem from food loss and waste. Startups such as ReGrained, Renewal Mill and the Spare Food Co. are at the forefront of a movement transforming ingredients that were formerly lost during harvest, left over as by-products in manufacturing processes or wasted due to minor imperfections, and turning them into new food products. Along the way, these upstarts are inspiring larger packaged food companies to follow suit.
Case in point: Danone partnered with produce-rescuing startup Full Harvest to incorporate surplus fruits and vegetables into its new Two Good yogurts. Del Monte tapped into the opportunity by launching upcycled canned beans. Both products bring mass-market clout to food rescue. With the creation of the Upcycled Food Association in 2019, the movement has also gained a valuable organizing body. Last year, the association launched the world’s first upcycled food certification, signaling that this trend is here to stay and grow.
As brands scale design innovations in these ways, they need reliable partners in crime. A range of software platforms has emerged, providing insights into the social and environmental footprint of each ingredient — a key first step toward uncovering better alternatives.
HowGood is one such tool, helping product designers understand how replacing ingredients of a product can impact its overall score in just a few clicks. Journey Foods is getting to the heart of the matter with an artificial intelligence (AI) software that aims to provide information about the potential cost and timeline of ingredient swap-outs in addition to its nutritional and environmental benefits. Planet FWD is yet another player in the field, doubling down on insights from its extensive life-cycle assessment database that was 14 years in the making and is now available for commercial use.
With design-related innovations taking place at many corners of the food system, this new way of evaluating and improving product impact is starting to gain enough traction to make a difference in the industry’s overall sustainability performance. Stay tuned for step two: mainstreaming these approaches across a company’s entire food portfolio, rather than reserving it for special product lines.
Key players to watch
Danone — is integrating sustainable food design into many aspects of its business, from producing yogurt with upcycled fruit to launching plant-based dairy products and centering R&D processes around sustainability.
HowGood — works with food companies that use its product sustainability database to gain ingredient-level insights to improve their social and environmental impact.
Nowadays — entered the food world in 2021 with a double design innovation: making tasty "chicken wings" from plants and limiting the recipe to just seven ingredients.
Simple Mills — is developing new food products from ingredients that can scale regenerative farm practices and bring back nutritional and crop diversity.
Upcycled Food Association — is giving a grassroots movement a home and certification, helping it go from niche to mainstream.