The numbers are startling. Of the 7.4 billion people in the world, 2 billion adults are overweight, and 2 billion are undernourished. About 45 percent of all childhood mortality is attributed to micronutrient deficiency, and bad diets account for 700,000 deaths in the U.S. alone each year. On top of that, the world's 7 billion people will turn into 11 billion by 2100.
So, where does this leave the future of food?
The answer, according to Ralph Jerome, is in improved food processing.
“We’re at a convergence of incredible health care costs, food and science burgeoning because of technology and health science,” said the consultant for Mars Inc. who most recently was the company’s chief innovation officer and subsequently was given the honor of “Distinguished Mars Fellow.”
“When you think about food and chronic disease, most are preventable with improved diet,” he continued. “This is a huge challenge to the food industry, and I see great opportunity in it.”
Jerome, who held various R&D roles at Mars for 31 years, was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the New Jersey Food & Beverage Summit at the Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset. The event was presented by NJBIZ-FoodBiz NJ, New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and Rutgers University Food Innovation Center.
Centuries ago, humans subsisted on extremely high-fiber diets — upwards of 150 grams per day, according to Jerome — and now, most consume just 15 grams. This lack of fiber results in a host of health problems.
But by taking advantage of technology to get to know our food on a micronutrient level, he said, better results can be achieved.
“Because we have not fingerprinted out food, we don’t know what’s in them. When we go through breeding programs do you think what we try to improve is the flavinol or lycopene content? No, we look at yield,” he said. “We don’t look at it from a micronutrient perspective.”
Because of this, we are missing out on facets of our diet we’re not even aware of. Even with trends toward Paleolithic and plant-based diets, we don’t know for sure that what we’re eating packs the same nutritional punch as the foods of yesteryear, Jerome said.
“When you look at some of the tubers consumed in Paleolithic times, the fiber content was much higher,” he said. “We’ve bred it out, because we really like the taste of the sugar or starch. There are nutrients that go into our bioactives that we don’t even know about that go extinct over time. We need to really characterize the food.”
Following the keynote was a panel discussion on navigating the challenges on the path to economic growth, which was moderated by Alan Markowitz, a partner at accounting firm Marcum LLP, one of the event’s sponsors. Panelists included Emma Aer, partner at corporate consulting firm Veepit and former CEO of Finlandia Cheese; Brad Finkel, president, Hoboken Farms, an operator of farmers markets and maker of Italian sauces; Stefanie Katzman, president of S. Katzman Produce; and Jessica Gasser, executive vice president of strategic services with Kings Food Markets.
With the digitization of industries, how is the food industry fighting against being “Amazoned” by the encroachment of the e-commerce giant?
The answer across the board was experience — providing the customer with something they can’t just get offline. Though Gasser plugged Kings’ partnership with Instacart, which allows customers to get their groceries within two hours of ordering without ever stepping foot in the store, she still highlighted what she called “opportunities to share stories of products.”
“The days of just having a sign, that’s not enough,” she said. “[The retail associates are] the walking talking billboards, putting food in customers’ mouths so they can try it…is critical,” she said.
Finkel mirrored Gasser’s notion of putting food right in the customer’s hands. Though you can see his products in stores as well, his sauce is sold at 800 farmers markets nationwide, directly from business to consumer.
“While [customers] try getting it delivered, that’s great for some commodity items. But they want to touch their vegetables, have a conversation about their concerns about those products,” Finkel said.
For Katzman, her product — produce — essentially sells itself. The experience she sells, though, is the service her company provides.
And although the internet marketplace has provided competition for retail grocers, Aer maintained it doesn’t offer everything.
“Food can’t be digitized. Human connection can’t be digitized,” she said. “There’s still a lot of opportunity there.”