Innovation Primers


Food innovation can take many forms: from appearance and taste, to novel applications, unique packaging and placement in unconventional categories. Here are five take-aways to ignite innovative thinking, from my tour of the Restaurants Canada show.

1. Break out of your category

A decade ago I suggested Loblaw develop PC frozen microwavable steel cut oatmeal. Maybe my idea was ahead of its time? Today Plats du Chef produces frozen pre-cooked cereal for Trader Joe’s and Kroger in the U.S.

Insight: Admittedly there is a hurdle to overcome: training consumers to look for breakfast solutions in the freezer case. But flagging sales in the cereal aisle show that shoppers are already seeking solutions elsewhere.

2. Uncommoditize commodities

Canadian farmers are adding value to the fruits of their labour to increase consumption and reap higher profits. We see this in oven-ready, seasoned vegetables in the produce aisle. Dairy is another example. Organic, goat, grass-fed – what else can they do to uncommoditize milk? Natrel Caramel Latte 1% milk tastes like a latte without the coffee and turns milk into an indulgence.

Insight: This adult flavoured milk breaks out of the kids segment. Elevating this commodity into an adult indulgence creates a new reason to buy it.

3. Food in pucksinnovation

Explore changing the physical format of food and how it’s packaged. From the land of hockey, Plats du Chef introduced frozen meal pucks for food service. In addition to benefits like heat & serve, portion control and easy open packaging, these meal solutions are nutritious, great tasting and reduce packaging waste.

Insight: Check out foodservice products for inspiration to bring innovation to home kitchens. On the flip side, can your retail product offer a solution for foodservice?

4. Reinvent a category

With shelf stable juice sales in decline, Lassonde re-engineered juice by adding protein, fibre and vitamins. Oasis protein juice beverage has 10 g protein, 5 g fibre and no sugar added. But this formula has downsides: it’s not a clean ingredient deck and 25 g of sugar per serving is higher than expected for a healthy beverage.

Insight: Brand owners often have a compulsion to make as many claims as possible. How many is too many? Keep it simple. Resist the temptation to over-engineer. Focus on your target audience and don’t try to be all things to all people.

5. Look to nature for inspiration

We eat with our eyes and colour affects how food tastes. Let’s look at BLACK food, more common than you might think. What tastes does it conjure up? It depends on the category, as well as our culture and experience. Nature is the source for many black foods like berries, grapes, truffles (the fungus), beans, nori, caviar, rice, quinoa, seeds, spices and squid ink. Capitalizing on an idea from Japan, Ace Bakery has introduced a black burger bun. The colour comes from powered bamboo charcoal but doesn’t impart any flavour.

Insight: Whether black buns take off remains to be seen, but it generates buzz and demonstrates the brand brings new ideas to the table.

Birgit Blain helps food brands get listings by making their products more marketable. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at

© Birgit Blain

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