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Designing new flavors: Behind the scenes at Cargill’s Food Innovation Lab in China

By Mark Stone July 05, 2017

How do you build a better chicken nugget? What flavors will appeal to the growing market for quick-serve meals in Asia? How do you maintain the highest food safety and nutritional standards? These are among the questions food scientists are attempting to answer at Cargill’s recently launched innovation center in Shanghai.

As the company’s first such enterprise in Asia, the Shanghai Food Innovation Center employs approximately 50 researchers, scientists, nutritionists and chefs, who are pooling their expertise across food categories — including animal protein, edible oils, sweeteners, starches, cocoa and texturizing solutions. Cargill’s team collaborates with consumers and industry peers, such as major quick-service restaurants like McDonald’s, Yum! Brands and Burger King, as well as China’s largest dairy company, Yili, to create nutritious and innovative new products.

“In Shanghai we have many different businesses, and we all have this common need,” said Manlei Gong, the facility’s director. “With the new center, we now have a place to do extensive product research and innovation, and it will allow us to better communicate and partner with our customers.”

Adapting to an evolving Chinese diet

The facility opens as the food service market in the world’s most populous nation is experiencing double-digit growth. Tastes are changing in China, too, as Western food and flavors become more popular — especially among younger generations.

“The rapid socio-economic development in China is quickly changing the diet of the Chinese consumer and the way they view their food,” Gong said. “The Chinese people, especially the young generations, love to try new things.” She gave the example of Erberry juice, which is suddenly on trend. “But consumers’ tastes change quickly, and their loyalty for a brand or a product is low,” she added.

Having the center situated in a central location in Shanghai allows Cargill to work closely with both the end consumer and large customers to develop new products. “Consumers in the city are driving the trend for new flavors in new food,” Gong said.

Experimenting in the test kitchen

At the heart of the innovation center is a large demo kitchen, taking up around 5,400 square feet. Here, extensive product research focuses on three main areas: taste and flavors, food ingredients, and menus that appeal to changing consumer demand in China.

“This is a very fast moving market, where restaurant menus are changed frequently. Restaurants can come to our demo kitchen and discover new flavors to keep up with the changing demand,” Gong said.

Beside the demo kitchen sits an equally large sensory lab, where Cargill carries out consumer testing for both taste and smell of flavors and products to meet the evolving demand of the market. The research on new flavors also factors in variables like a consumer’s age, gender and eating behaviors, so they can accurately target tastes to distinct demographics.

Creating enduring partnerships

A key partner for Cargill at the new facility is food service provider Kerry, which shares many of the same customers — quick-service restaurants. The two companies are strengthening their relationship through research, according to Ryan Schultz, senior director of Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa customer innovation for Kerry.

Kerry works with Cargill to develop customized technology-based ingredient systems in the form of a seasonings, marinades or coatings to deliver the taste, appearance and functionality in a finished product that will meet or exceed the customer’s expectations, Schultz explained.

“There is a high level of collaboration between our chefs and product development teams throughout the entire process. This is necessary to launch products as effectively and efficiently as possible in a very demanding, competitive market. The opening of the Innovation Center and its close proximity to our own Regional Development & Application Center has been instrumental in elevating our relationship to a new level,” said Schultz

For Kerry, having access to Cargill’s marketing and consumer insights is key to understanding what’s going on in the Chinese marketplace. “Both companies invest heavily in understanding the consumer and the emerging market trends. We use this information as the foundation for innovation concepts supported by a great marketing story,” Schultz said.

As both companies continue to build their Chinese operations, their partnership is gaining momentum. “Having someone you can partner with in a market and share ideas — someone you trust as a partner in the industry to help grow your business — is great,” Schultz said. “It’s been such a positive development in our relationship with Cargill over the years,” he said, adding that the two companies haven’t even yet reached the full potential of their partnership.
Todd Hall, Cargill’s executive vice president, said the center will allow the company to better leverage its strong foothold in the Asian market.

“We have multiple innovation centers around the world specializing in distinct food groups, such as animal protein, sweeteners, food texturizers, feed and such. The Shanghai facility is our first innovation center in Asia that pulls together all this knowledge from our many businesses to offer a one-stop consultancy to our customers in China,” he said.
That’s good news for consumers hungry for the next great taste.

Mark Stone worked in technology for many years before deciding to make a career out of writing about it. He lives in Canada.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.