Like ‘mind-blowing’, ‘unique’, and ‘breathtaking’, the food industry can occasionally overuse the word ‘innovative’. But there are some innovations in the history of FMCG that one can say, without a shadow of a doubt, changed the way we eat forever. Here are some that set the bar high – as well as one we think will change the industry in the future.
They say an army marches on its stomach. Well, the collective stomach of the British, French and Dutch navies in the late eighteenth century prompted one of the biggest innovations in food history. Huge numbers of sailors were dying at sea from a poor diet of salted meat and biscuits. The British Admiralty recognised things had to change if they were ever going to build an Empire. But what was the best way to supply healthier food that wouldn’t go off? With the royal backing of King George III, British merchant Peter Durant hit on a solution, and by the end of the nineteenth century, households were tasting tinned meat and fruit for the first time.
Tinned food didn’t just revolutionise food production; it advanced mankind by making it cheaper and easier to eat a healthier and more varied diet. And while there have been threats to tinned food from other innovations such as the microwave, it still has a place in our heart; a recent survey by industry body Canned Food UK revealed that we buy with 5.5 billion cans a year.
While there is some ambiguity about the inventor of screw top bottles, there’s no doubt tinsmith John Landis Mason, the founder of Mason jars, played a key role in developing the first prototypes. In the late 20th century, a French company created Stelvin technology – mass produced screw top lids for wine bottles. Whoever we have to thank for the invention, screw top bottles changed the way we store and import wine, fizzy drinks, water, and squash. (And are infinitely preferable to the oil-soaked rags that the monks of Dom Perignon used to top bottles way back when.)
60 years ago, you would only have found yoghurt in a health shop, and it would have tasted markedly different from the corner yoghurts available today. But then Swiss company Ski had the brainwave of adding sugar and fruit to yoghurt in the early 1960s, followed later by Müller, the private dairy from Germany. Thanks to a massive investment in marketing (Müller spent £38 million in 2010 alone to market the message that their yoghurts were healthy snacks) yoghurt turned from a bland health food into an explosively popular ‘treat’ which people still saw as healthy, despite often containing as much sugar as three chocolate digestive biscuits in each pot.
The beauty of the packaging itself – in splitting the fruit and the yoghurt – was that Muller involved the consumer in the eating process itself. You didn’t just buy the yoghurt; you were asked to interact with, and personalise it (by deciding how much of the fruit you added) yourself. This interaction is important today because it led the way for more FMCG brands to circumvent the question of high sugar or high fat by handing portion control over to the consumer itself. Corner yoghurts are the definitive added-value success story. And according to consumer research group Kantar Worldpanel, Brits now spend almost £1.7 billion a year on them.
Roughly a hundred years ago Ruben Rausing, the son of a Swedish painter, bought an ailing packaging company in Denmark. He knew that the distribution of milk and juices in cumbersome glass bottles could be improved – but how? It took 30 years of persistent investment and self-belief, but finally in the late 1960s Rausing and his colleagues discovered a way to bottle milk, juice and liquid food in aseptic (sterile) conditions for long periods. Tetrapak was born.
Tetrapak provided a step change in the industry. It facilitated a longer shelf life – up to a year, in cases – for products which previously had to be consumed within days. It’s little wonder that the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences called Tetra Pak “one of the most successful inventions of all time”. It sold 184 billion cartons in 2015.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest legacies the internet has given us is the sharing economy – we share holiday homes, cabs, rooms, and even pets, renting and moving freely from asset to asset, without committing to wholesale purchases. And the food industry is an extension of that. Move over multipacks; the sharing bag is King now. As sales of snacking multipacks and individual packets fall slowly, sales of sharing packets, worth £370m last year, rise, with 86% of British households buying at least one sharing bag a month, across the year. And it’s a canny move by the industry; sharing packaging adds positive brand equity to the brands by positioning them as ‘social’ goods which reflect an aspirational lifestyle.
As the world’s population continues to boom, so too does the packaging we throw away each day. In Britain alone, we throw away 8 million coffee cups from our takeaway coffee daily. Then there’s crisp packets, flapjack wrappers, the plastic bags of cashew nuts… we’re looking at mountains of rubbish on a daily basis. Step forward Swedish design duo, Tomorrow Machine, who are producing some extremely stylish and environmentally friendlier packaging. Their first invention was a shrink-wrapped snack, which, when hot water was poured into it, turned into a bowl made of biodegradable material. It’s stylish, it’s elegant, and it reduces waste. And if an industry giant steps up and follows their lead, we could be on the brink of yet another positive innovation.
In an industry of constant and occasionally baffling launches, it can be helpful to revisit the past to remember what a good idea looks like. The examples above have one thing in common – they made access to food and drink more readily available for all, no matter what their budget or social standing was. In this sense, they are truly democratic.