Eat the Change is launching its newest innovation next week at Expo West. Here’s a whole bunch of thoughts on why we innovate, how we innovate, and some news about the latest innovation from Eat the Change.
The Need for Innovation in Food
Innovation is oxygen for any food entrepreneur – no one builds a great food brand by copying others.
There are clear business reasons why entrepreneurs need to innovate – the best way to earn shelf space is to launch a product that’s radically different and better than what’s on the shelf. But in addition to the business imperative for innovation, there is also an impact rationale. Here are three reasons why we need to urgently rebalance our food system:
- Our overreliance on animal-based agriculture is straining global resources. While plants and animals can live in a natural balance (and have done so for millions of years), today the global biomass of livestock (primarily cows and pigs) now represents 94 percent of the biomass of all mammals (not including humans). This overemphasis on livestock skews the consumption of the resources we need to feed ourselves. Livestock accounts for 38 percent of all habitable land, 29 percent of all potable water and over 13 percent of all greenhouse gases.
- In our efforts to make food more affordable and accessible, we have moved away from biodiversity in our diets and our agricultural system to the point where there are six crops that represent 57% of all agricultural production. While there’s nothing wrong with soy, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes and sugar cane, when we create monocultures in our farms to the exclusion of the thousands of other plants (and tens of thousands of fungi), we create less resilient ecosystems and less resilient diets. We could be one weather event or crop disease away from major disruption to our food system.
- We might be able to excuse these natural imbalances if our diets were helping us live longer and healthier lives. But the opposite is happening. Which brings me to my final reason for concern - our lousy health indicators. Despite our wealth and all the advances, the United States has led in science and medicine, we rank 38th in average life expectancy (77.3 years old), lagging behind Japan (84.4), Switzerland (83.5) and behind 34th ranked Lebanon (78.8 years). Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and diabetes is a top ten cause – with diet playing a major role in both.
So we are headed in the wrong direction. We know we need to shift our food system toward healthier, less animal-intensive foods. And to quote one of my favorite Chinese proverbs (which appeared on an Honest Tea bottle cap, “If we don’t change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going.” The big food companies have demonstrated they aren’t bold enough to challenge the way we eat, so it’s up to entrepreneurs to provide solutions.
Two Approaches to Innovation in Food
There are two main approaches to innovation in food. One that has gained a lot of attention over the past few years is “Re-doing” food – using science and culinary art to recreate a category. Redoing can allow people to enjoy foods they love in the formats they love, but with different ingredients. Some of the brands using this approach are Beyond Meat and Eclipse Foods, which use plants to replicate the taste, sensory, and nutritional aspects of meat and dairy (respectively) while overcoming some of the health and environmental downsides. To succeed in the “Re-doing” of food, brands need sophisticated, often proprietary, science and culinary creativity.
The second approach to innovation in food can be called “Un-doing” food. This approach emphasizes transparency and simplicity in recipes – using ingredients everyone understands. A good example of un-doing in food is Honest Tea – which was the first bottled tea brand to offer organic and fair trade certified teas. And of course, my newest venture, Eat the Change, focuses on un-doing food by offering organic, plant-based, whole foods in snackable form, such as mushroom jerky, or our newest product, described below. Success in “Un-doing” food usually requires creative formulations with strong branding and marketing tactics.
When you think about it, these two approaches are almost diametrically opposed to each other in terms of the science or approach to food, but I think they are complementary – we need both approaches to rebalance our food system. When possible, we need to challenge people to change their habits, but we also need to meet them where they are. Someone who enjoys burgers for lunch is unlikely to switch to lentil salad anytime soon.
Innovation in Action
During the 21 years I ran Honest Tea, our most successful innovation was Honest Kids – a lower sugar juice drink that has become the top-selling organic drink for children and is carried in tens of thousands of stores including restaurants like McDonalds, Wendy’s, Subway, Chick-Fil-A, and Arby’s. The impact of Honest Kids has been impressive. When we launched our 35-calorie juice box at McDonald’s, we replaced a 100% juice drink that had 80 calories per box. In the first full year that Honest Kids was carried at McDonalds, we sold over 200 million units – which means that we (McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Honest Tea) helped remove more than one billion calories from the American diet. In addition, the children who got used to the taste of Honest Kids, shifted their palates toward a less sweet taste, which could have lifelong benefits in terms of reduced calorie consumption.
So at Eat the Change, we set out to create a snackable version of Honest Kids – a lunchbox item that parents would choose because it’s healthier and kids would enjoy because it’s tasty and fun.
Our new concept came about when my co-founder, Chef Spike Mendelsohn, was attempting to make a “better for you” carrot chip. Compared to potato chips, our chips would contain the nutrients of carrots, such as Vitamin A, and would have fewer starchy carbohydrates, oil, and salt. We tried several different drying techniques but couldn’t get the texture or margins to make sense.
We were about to give up on the project when Spike received one last delivery of frozen carrots. Since we have a policy against food waste in the office, he was confronted with a choice – make carrot soup (which would have been enjoyed in the office but would not be sellable) or try a different approach. This time instead of just drying out the carrots, he soaked them in some fruit juice and natural flavors before dehydration. Though the taste profile wasn’t exactly right, the resulting carrots had a great chewy texture that resembled the “fruit chews” that are a popular lunchbox item.
When we looked more closely at the category known as “fruit chews”, we learned that it is one of the most inaccurately named categories in food. For most of the brands, the only fruit-based ingredient is fruit juice or pectin, and the first ingredient is almost always sugar, tapioca syrup, or corn syrup. And at an average of 80 calories per pouch, the whole category is much closer to gummi bears than it is to fruit. We realized this was a great opportunity to innovate through the “un-doing” of food, and by using simple, nutrient dense ingredients, provide a better option for kids. Our new product contains only four ingredients, offers a full serving of carrots in every pouch and an excellent source of vitamin A, along with being organic and kosher certified.
To ensure this new line was fun and sought after by kids to include in their lunchbox, we knew we needed strong branding. Our longtime designer Mandy Coelho (and mother of two boys) came up with the Cosmic Carrot Chews concept– complete with the carrot shaped spaceship that we feature on our packaging. We love that space imagery is future-oriented, communicates innovation, and also is intriguing and fun to boys and girls alike.
So, this month we launch our Cosmic Carrot Chews in three out of this world flavors: Orange Mango Moonbeam, Sour Cherry Berry Blast-Off, and Apple Cinnamon Asteroid. Our aspiration will be to get them merchandised on the kid’s lunchbox shelf (near the “fruit chews”). We look forward to seeing them take off!