With “natural” products expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of their mainstream competitors and garner a $226 billion share of the market according to NewHope360.com, it’s no wonder that food and beverage manufacturers are eyeing changes to help position their offerings. With nearly 60 percent of snack foods now making health claims, it’s clear the tide has turned.
But of all the avenues companies consider in their quests for healthier and more natural products bearing cleaner labels — from formulation to ingredients to packaging and marketing — one important pathway is often overlooked: processing choice.
Processing choice affects quantitative measures such as formulation, flavoring and nutrition, and qualitative measures, like taste and a product’s retail placement on shelves, in bins or in coolers. In truth, the way raw materials are transformed into a food or beverage and transferred into consumer-ready packaging impacts how a product is branded and positioned.
Taken together, it becomes clear processing choice is a major component of product positioning in the marketplace.
What’s more, thanks to shifting consumer values, processing choice has never been more important to brand image. Sizeable and influential consumer cohorts committed to reading labels are increasingly demanding healthier products with more nutritious ingredient profiles and no preservatives. These demands have helped to drive the premiumization of the JNSD (juice, nectars, still drinks) sector, where consumers are willing to pay more for premium beverages that deliver an experience in flavor, color, texture and nutrition, as market research consultancy Mintel has noted. Begin with one processing type over another kind, and those premium attributes may be harder to deliver to the end consumer.
PROCESSING OPTIONS DIFFER IN BENEFITS
Currently, three principal technologies support these consumer trends with varying degrees of effectiveness. They are aseptic technology, hot fill and traditional pasteurization. A quick comparison shows what such technologies offer manufacturers and brands:
Traditional pasteurization: This standard process involves heating products to kill microorganisms and then maintaining a chilled supply chain.
Hot fill: In hot fill, products are heated in the package to temperatures high enough to sterilize the package and product. Subsequently, the package stays hot from 10 minutes to as many as 30 (as when glass bottles are inverted, and the hot product is used to sterilize the top and airspace in the necks.) Holding a package at high temperatures can degrade natural flavors, ingredients and nutrients.
Aseptic: In aseptic processing, product is heated to an “ultra-high” temperature and held for fewer than four seconds, then rapidly cooled and filled into sterilized packaging. Because aseptically filled products are exposed to heat for much less time, they tend to result in less degradation of ingredients and taste due to heat.
In addition, aseptic processing techniques can easily facilitate the “clean labels” for which consumers are increasingly scanning aisles. Tea is an excellent example for contrasting the product positioning benefits of hot fill and aseptic.
PREMIUM TEAS BENEFIT FROM PROCESSING CHOICE
As a naturally alkaline product, tea is a mismatch for high acid hot fill processing. Yet, to make use of already installed hot fill lines, some beverage manufacturers still process teas using hot fill. To make the tea suitable for processing in this way, producers “acidify” the tea by adding ascorbic, citric or other acid to lower the pH and then adding sugar to mask the bitterness caused by the acid — a turnoff for some consumers.
Meanwhile, the fastest-growing segments of the ready-to-drink tea market are at the premium end, where consumers want to be able to differentiate subtle flavor variations. Aseptic processing is equally well-suited to low and high acid products and enables the cleanest possible label for packaged shelf-stable tea: tea plus water.
Clean labels appeal to discerning consumers increasingly conscious of what they eat and drink. When manufacturers choose processing methods that support clean labels, they should see increased demand from these consumers once these clean-label products reach the marketplace, according to the 2015 Nutrition Business Journal Clean Label Report.
On the beverage side of the aisle, after the dramatic Cinderella story of coconut water, what’s the next big product? Will it be kombucha? Hemp? Chia? Making the right processing choice for product innovations can make much difference in how products get marketed, how customers later weigh a product against other contenders, and thus, how it grabs and holds market share.
PRODUCT POSITIONING ALSO INVOLVES PACKAGING
Packaging choice, the next link in the chain, is equally crucial in maintaining the integrity of premium-processed products. Packages that offer superior protection from oxygen and light go a long way in helping to preserve those premium colors, flavors, nutrients and textures the producer worked so hard to protect throughout processing.
As shown by premium ready-to-drink teas, the cleaner labels, superior flavors and nutritious ingredients enabled by smartly selected processing can help companies create products that play to marketplace trends for healthier and functional foods, positioning their products for differentiated success.