How AI Can Bring More Accuracy and Speed to Food and Beverage Development

by | March 21, 2024

In the food and beverage space, the companies that are most in tune with consumers’ demands—and the fastest to act on those demands—have a better chance of capturing the largest share of their markets.

Traditionally, creating new products (and tweaking the formulation of existing products) has been time-consuming, expensive and error-prone. First, research and development teams and marketers must extensively research trends and consumer demands, brainstorm ideas and get buy-in from executives. Then, food and beverage scientists must pinpoint the right blend of ingredients, concoct a prototype of the physical product, send the prototype to a lab for testing and wait for the results. One missed calculation at the formulation stage could put a company back at square one.

But moving forward, artificial intelligence can streamline that process. AI-driven product formulation and simulation stand to enhance companies’ ability to speedily bring new foods and beverages to market.

AI can help companies with market research

Product formulation starts with market research. When companies understand what consumers want to see in their foods and drinks, they’re more likely to create products that people want to buy.

But traditional market research methods in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space, namely, focus groups and surveys, require a lot of time and planning—and don’t necessarily produce accurate results. Why? It can be hard for people to know what kind of products they want, and that aside, they don’t always share their true thoughts. Still, focus groups, surveys and other traditional methods shouldn’t be done away with, as they can provide valuable insights and may be supplemented with artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence can help food and beverage companies better understand consumers’ preferences. AI can scrape online data, such as comments in online forums and on social media platforms, to give brands a snapshot of how consumers are talking about their products—and foods and beverages in general. From there, R&D and marketing teams can find commonalities between the data the AI brings to light and the data they get from focus groups and surveys.

The role that AI can play in food and beverage formulation

While market research is crucial, it’s only one part of the equation. Food and beverage companies first have to land on the right formulation. Then, any products they develop must undergo rigorous testing for safety and adherence to all applicable laws. This process can take weeks, and in the fast-paced market of today, every day counts.

AI can speed up food and beverage formulation by helping companies simulate products digitally rather than physically. Essentially, using AI, companies can make a digital twin for each new product, akin to how engineering companies leverage CAD software to model engines and other complex products before actually building them. For instance, say a company wants to develop a new plant-based protein bar. An AI tool can sift through the internet, examining different ingredient options and formulations, and then test multiple product concepts virtually. Rather than having to coordinate with a lab over the span of weeks to test products that might miss the mark formulation-wise, the company can get a relatively accurate picture of winning formulations—and then build only those products and send them for lab testing. AI won’t replace physical testing, but it can reduce the amount of physical testing new food and beverage products have to undergo for development, saving companies time and money.

Moreover, companies can use AI to comb through data from around the world to identify and vet the origins of ingredients and materials. With that knowledge, companies can more easily make sure they are working with well-understood, validated ingredients and materials.

Some food and beverage companies are already applying AI for formulation purposes. According to an article in Food Technology Magazine, a publication produced by the Institute of Food Technologists, “NotCo is wielding an AI-based platform it calls Giuseppe to help developers create plant-based versions of animal-based foods by analyzing products at the molecular level and providing alternative plant ingredients.” Another company, Spoonshot, is using AI “to leverage food science principles with data relating to the physical and chemical properties of ingredients and to understand how ingredient interactions impact a final recipe.” In the future, I predict that more food and beverage companies will leverage AI for product formulation purposes to meet consumers’ demands.

Food and beverage companies will still have to yield to the realities of fragmented global supply chains

Despite all the ways AI can help food and beverage companies streamline new product development, AI can only help to an extent. Brands will still have to yield to the realities of fragmented global supply chains, many of which use outdated processes and technology.

AI might tell a company that a certain ingredient is optimal, but the supply chains the company relies on may call that ingredient something else or may not have it at all. Even if the ingredient is available, it may be difficult or impossible for the company to obtain it due to costs and logistics.

When more supply chains update their technology and processes, food and beverage companies will be able to harness the full power of AI in product formulation—and stay ahead of the market.

Please note, this article originally appeared in Forbes, as part of the Forbes Business Development Council. You can access this piece within the publication here.

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