Fancy Food Show 2010: ‘Design Thinking’ or ‘Stomach Thinking’?

100628-demian-fancy-food-showI took the opportunity recently to speed through the Fancy Food Show, the great confluence (purportedly) of all things gourmet and culinarily high-brow held every summer at New York’s Javits Center.  At first blush the floor of the show looks like a mash-up of Disney’s Epcot Center, Whole Foods, The Euro-Zone Dairy Farmers Union, an orthodox kibbutz and Trader Joe’s with booths that stretch on into the distance with seemingly every nationality and/or food type represented.  One thing was clear through the culinary cacophony… cheese is king.  I have never before seen so much cheese in one place.  It was everywhere.  Not to mention that its funk could be smelled over all else no matter what booth you were at.  I began to feel sorry for the ruminants of the world that must be working overtime squirting out all the milk needed to quell humanity’s obviously insatiable appetite for the stuff.

Anyway, it wasn’t cheese I was seeking.  Well… it might have been.  I wouldn’t know until I found it.  The ‘it’ that I came to the Fancy Food Show in search of was innovation.  Specifically, innovation in food that would help to bridge the gap between today’s young people and the healthier eating habits that seem to continue to allude them.  And society at ‘large’ for that matter.

And what did I find?

… not much.

Maybe I was looking in the wrong place… not sure.  But either way, I came away from the Fancy Food Show thinking that the food industry is in a strange position, caught between two worlds.  Prominently on display was a tumultuous mix of companies that proudly tout history and age-old tradition in their food products as well as companies that promote new technology and new ingredients in theirs.  The world of tradition, where that cheese or that cured meat have been made using the same process for hundreds of years.  And the world of, for momentary lack of a better word, ‘modern’ food consumerism, which targets the consumer and what they perceive to be convenient, tasty, aspirational, healthy, fun, cool, etc.  This seems to me on opposite sides of the spectrum.  While a piece of artisanal ham may be the perfect ‘craving killer’, taste great and be convenient, that story is not getting told, lost behind the garish packaging and graphics of current food products.  Unfortunately I think there has been a disconnect between the health lessons that have been learned over thousands of years of food history and the consumerist attitude that we have toward eating today.  If it doesn’t have a slick and fun ad campaign that we and our friends see during our favorite TV shows then we don’t want to eat it.

Maybe that is a discussion for another post… but on this day I was looking for something different.  So much of the food that is sold today is about consumerism.  The product that you think will fulfill your perceived eating desire at that moment.  Even from a traditionalist standpoint.  What I was after was new products that draw the food consumer away from a purely consumption mindset to one of participation.  As IDEO’s Tim Brown put it in his TED Talk, participation engages people in the process and enables them to learn by making.  The notion of building in order to think.  As food consumers we need to actively participate in our eating if we are going to make it our own and learn how to do it correctly.  And healthily.

Traditionally those that participate in their food consumption understand the importance of this by either learning to produce it or cook it themselves.  Two methods that are either too specialized or too removed from today’s consumer to have a ubiquitous impact on our collective health.  What I wanted to know was if their are companies out there right now that are innovating new ideas and products that seek to engage the consumer in some way that fosters a sense of participation in their eating.  Sure there are healthy snacks being produced.  And products that promote a healthy lifestyle.  But very few, if any, that truly engage the consumer in a meaningful, educational way.

I think there is huge opportunity here for the food industry to develop products and ways of thinking about our food consumption that could have lasting positive benefits to our collective health.  But is this the type of ‘design thinking’ that is is being applied to the food products that we buy?  I am not sure that the food industry is asking itself these types of questions.  Or looking at product development in quite this way.  Sure the questions are tough and the answers are not readily evident.  But new ways of thinking about our food consumption hold great potential.  Not to mention that we may all end up looking like the people on Wall-E if we don’t.