If you work in the food, beverage and nutrition sector, chances are you’re busy. Rapidly changing consumer values, big changes in food and nutrition policy, and data-driven insights are working together to drive major change in every single part of the food and beverage industry. Today, there is no status quo. And hopefully, like me, you’re more excited than ever about what that means, the possibilities and what you can do about it.

We’re seeing several incredible opportunities for the industry to make products and brands more meaningful and valuable in the coming years. I’ll highlight two especially exciting areas where we’ve invested in building deep knowledge: food values and sustainable nutrition.

Food values

Have you ever sized up someone from the contents of their shopping cart? Most people have. A bag of chips is more than a bag of chips; it’s a reflection of that person’s food values and an expression of personal identity. Food values are derived from our core values. They reflect our gender, life stage and experiences, education, income, geographic location and culture. They evolve and are shaped by changes in society, politics, regulations, agriculture, and technology. And of course, food values represent intensely personal preferences and beliefs — they’re emotional. Ask someone what they think about a certain food or beverage or way of eating and you’re likely to get a passionate point of view.

As “what consumers value” changes, it drives changes in the food system. These values, and our understanding of them, have moved well beyond just taste, cost and price. They are impacting the way food is grown, how it’s produced and consumed and every step in between. More consumers want to know exactly what’s in their food and where it comes from. They want to know where it was grown, who produced it and how, and who touched it before it arrived in their home — and they’re driving extreme transparency in the food system. Technology is helping fuel a faster cycle of change than the industry has ever experienced, and there are no signs of it letting up any time soon. Together, these influences are creating an incredibly dynamic and competitive landscape, causing companies to rethink and rework the way they do business.

Product development, rebranding, reformulation and repositioning is going on at an unprecedented pace. Large companies that once took months or years to reformulate or develop new products are changing their ways to do this work at a much faster pace. They are also buying more up-and-coming brands and products that align with consumers wants, needs and — vitally important — their food values.

Savvy brands are eager to learn as much as they can about the changing food and nutrition landscape and consumer values. Fortunately, they have better analytical tools and more data-driven insights at their disposal than ever, including FoodMinds’ Food Values Factor Analysis. As we sought to understand the implications of changing food values, we created a framework for consumers’ converging and diverging values around food and drink: a lens through which we could identify and analyze the factors impacting these values. The framework we developed considers several interrelated social, political, regulatory, agricultural and technological factors, that are changing the way food is produced, distributed, marketed, regulated, sold and consumed. It provides fundamental context and perspective that effectively elicits more meaningful insights into the diversity, interconnectivity and depth of consumer food values today. It also provides a pathway for applying those values to products and brands.

The foods and beverages you see today are a social and cultural commentary. They tell the story of how consumer values are driving change in the food system. In the coming years, we expect the story will continue to be action-packed.

Sustainable nutrition

As we look at the direction of social commentary and consumers’ changing food values, we see a clear interrelationship between values and sustainable nutrition.

Climate change is a huge topic. Within it, sustainable food systems have been identified as a priority in the U.S. and around the world. This conversation has been mostly focused on addressing the food systems impact on the environment.

A growing area of interest within this larger movement is sustainable and nutritious food systems — essentially, producing nutrient-rich, safe, affordable and culturally acceptable foods in a way that limits environmental impacts. Research in this area has exploded in recent years, and there is a growing dialogue in global public health communities, on the need to better understand the convergence of nutrition and sustainability. The conversation centers around the need for the most nutritious foods to be grown in the most sustainable ways possible, to feed the world’s growing population in the future.

While some groups have been championing the importance of looking at sustainability and nutrition together for years, it has certainly not been a mainstream conversation. However, climate change — and value-driven consumers — are changing that.

Thinkers and leaders in public health, agriculture, nutrition research and the food industry have initiated conversations and projects around sustainable nutrition. In fact, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee advocated for inclusion of guidance on sustainable diets in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although it didn’t make it into the policy document, we expect the issue to be addressed in some way, somehow, even if outside of the DGA process.

With consumers changing their food values, where sustainability was once one conversation and nutrition another conversation, they are becoming the same conversation.

That means there is an opportunity for food and beverage companies and brands to do something with sustainable nutrition. But getting it right is essential. It’s critical that companies take both a science- and fact-based approach to the sustainable nutrition conversation, and they take time to think about their sustainability and nutrition work together.

While changing the food system will take time, consumers can change their minds overnight. Considering the pace of consumer-driven change, the competitive advantage of the future will go to the companies who put food values top-of-mind today.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, March 2018 – Food & Beverage PR Issue.