R&D 2020: The COVID-19 Effect
Like most people, I want 2020 to just start over with a completely different reality. Unlike the 196,000 people in the U.S. who have died from Covid-19, I have been fortunate. I’m only familiar with the fear, paranoia, isolation, social separation and shortages of many of life’s staples. Seven months without a haircut and we are persevering. I feel guilty for not being able to help research the cure or comfort someone in need.
At Tree Top, research and development activity is crazy busy. Just to illustrate what I mean, since January, we:
- hired two new product development people
- commercialized 13 new food products
- increased research projects by 25%
- are actively working on 41 R&D projects
- launched Tree Top’s Fruit + Water™ 50% juices
- are on track to launch six additional CPG food and beverage projects by March
We believe everyone deserves good food and won’t let COVID put a stop to what we believe. Yet COVID has adjusted how we work. Making food people love requires being in a lab formulating and tasting. That means we mask up and distance ourselves from each other to be safe and effective. Whenever possible, we work from home and schedule time on equipment to minimize lab occupancy.
We Zoom or Skype often and at times from some very strange undisclosed locations. Our workday is spread out over a longer period of time, and we never really unplug. Perhaps the biggest adjustment is zero travel. Leading a plant trial without being there in person is our greatest challenge. Sensory tasting sessions are done in solitary confinement. We recently did a central location test with more than 300 consumers. In keeping with the times, consumers were actually served samples in their cars. Life is different for us, but it hasn’t stopped by any means.
Hiccups along the way
A survey of food and beverage R&D professionals conducted by Food Processing magazine earlier this year at the start of the pandemic shutdowns asked respondents whether they thought the coronavirus situation would cause a delay in product launches, and if so, how long? More than half (52%) said it would delay them a couple of months, another 28% said a couple of weeks and 21% expected no delays whatsoever. This research coincides with what we’ve experienced at Tree Top.
From our vantage point, it’s a mixed bag. COVID has killed some projects and delayed others. Some of our fruit ingredient customers have just gone dark on us, while others demand our Zoom time and are moving full speed ahead with projects. Supply and manufacturing shortages are fallout from COVID. Shortages of some supplies like packaging are delaying commercial launches. Due to unforeseen demand, copackers either won’t return calls or simply can’t take on new business. And on occasion, we just can’t pursue new projects, because our food manufacturing plants are adjusting schedules to keep employees safe.
As mentioned earlier, the R&D survey was fielded in mid-March to mid-April, so it was too early to really see any COVID effects on ingredient choices in product development. The survey did have a question about removing or adding ingredients in the year ahead, though. Removing added sugars was on 37% of respondents’ agendas. The next 25% said they would be removing GMO ingredients, and 19% said they would be adding fruits and vegetables.
These ingredient trends are likely to persist despite COVID. Younger consumers are still interested in transparency and authenticity in ingredients. And there’s a pronounced interest in eating food and beverages for their nutritional benefits, such as immunity support, gut health, cognitive health, etc.
Big picture COVID is something we need to face head on and deal with as we continue to work together to create good food. I am very fortunate to be safe, healthy and have a fantastic job making good food for people. Our research and development team’s motto is “Go Do Stuff.” And we’re ready to help you do that too.
If you need help replacing added sugar with fruit or have a project you would like to discuss, please send me an email at email@example.com. Be well and stay safe.