Interview with an Innovator

Kerry’s David Hamilton: ‘Science and technology will be a fresh food game changer’

The chief innovation officer predicts that continued exploration of Asian food, greater understanding of the gut microbiome and populous health will all play a part in the future of product development.

17 May 2019
asiangut healthhealthingredientsmanufactureNPDtechnology

Hamilton on Paper – CV

  • Started his career in hospitality, working in restaurants across the UK and Europe for 12 years
  • Moved into product development at the age of 28, joining Dairy Crest to make speciality cheeses
  • Was hired by Kerry in 1994 to create a food business, rising to the position of chief innovation officer

Insight, consumers, food craft, technology and, above all, science – those are the key elements of David Hamilton’s approach to innovation. “You link all of those and you can create that bit of magic,” he says.

Hamilton initially started his career in professional kitchens, led into the industry by his mother, who “saw and cultivated my unrealised passion at 14 years old. A keen gardener, she grew a huge array of fruit and veg, experimented making her own cheese and there was always homemade bread every day on my return from school.”

By age 21 he was running restaurants, but his career in hospitality was later curtailed by a health scare, and he was advised by doctors to change employment.

“Sweating over a stove for 16+ hours a day wasn’t really what excited me. It was understanding why people love food and what excited them about food,” he recalls. So he wrote letters to all the supermarkets and big food manufacturers, detailing his background and asking if there were any roles for people like him.

“I got ‘nos’ from everyone bar one lady.”

That lady was Celia Stanley (now Holt), a long-time figure in NPD who has worked for Greencore, M&S and 2 Sisters. “Celia took a real gamble on me and lit a new food fire in me that still burns bright today,” says Hamilton.

Though he only worked a single year at Dairy Crest, it inspired a lifelong passion that has carried him through 26 years at Kerry, where he is currently chief innovation officer.

With around 40 chefs (many of them with Michelin backgrounds) and a further 40 technologists and scientists on his team, his attention is less focused on the kitchens and recipes these days and more on the scientific advancements that are revolutionising the way food is created and consumed, as he tells Tom Lee.

 

We are driving a change in the health and nutrition of our products. If you look at replacing fat, salt or sugar in everyday products, you can’t do it without truly understanding the science behind food ingredients. How you can manipulate them naturally to replace what you are taking out and keep the taste and texture of the original product. Using this natural understanding of science, we took 850m calories out of our products over the past year.

Science and technology will be a fresh food game changer. It is this that will allow new insights to be formed.

The gut microbiome is a fascinating area. Consumers are finally starting to recognise that their gut health can affect their wellbeing. Being able to make the ideal claims in the UK is difficult, but working through the science of ingredients and looking at new ways to process via different technologies is creating exciting new possibilities.

I’m really loving furikake at the moment. Just sprinkle it on rice dishes, meat, even chips! It’s amazing.

I think there will be a continued revolution in Asian cuisines, they tick so many boxes – taste, texture, vibrancy, health perceptions and excitement – all the things that consumers are asking for. Our challenge is to find ways to bring concepts to life that are fresher, authentic and in formats that fit wider eating occasions.

Natural smoke technology can play many roles. We have a global smoke business, leading in creating the most amazing natural flavour profiles for countless products. We can also distil smoke, take all the aroma and flavour out of that liquid, yet it retains all the preservation properties of smoke – and, of course it’s totally natural.

I think fermentation has a huge role to play in replacing salt notes. Fermentation of different natural ingredients can replace salt. Vinegar fermentation experimentation will also support the delivery of flavour.

We all talk about personalised health, but we probably haven’t even got our heads around populous health: food that’s perhaps generally suited more to women or men with key vitamins, minerals, etc. It’s not really about calling out men and women on pack, but individuals are starting to understand what their body needs, so they will look for the language and claims that fulfils this.

One of the most remarkable changes I’ve noticed on the food landscape is how the digital world is changing how we learn, explore, advertise and share our food experiences. 25 years ago, the term ‘food porn’ wouldn’t have come into your mind, but food is really sexy now. People talk about food pretty much more than they talk about anything. Its Instagram everything! ‘Photograph it, share it, love it!’

How we’re shopping has changed. It was a two-weekly big shop 20 years ago, and nowadays it’s almost an every-day shop. How people shop and how people interact with food on a daily basis has changed immensely: our customers now buy online, they buy it hot straight to the office, to the house. How we develop for that, how we use our factories and kitchens differently to fulfil these new occasions and consumer needs, is exciting and challenging in equal measure.

My proudest creation is the City Kitchen brand of meals created over 10 years ago... an idea that countered all the negative perceptions of ready meals. I stood in a store in Canary Wharf, London, for a few evenings, talking to people looking for a quick fix. My aim was to create a branded product range that answered all the negatives and put something positive in their place. In its first year we hit £17m in retail sales value. It was a real step-change in meals and many have copied the packaging and product format since.

Recognition is all fine if it’s to the team. They have done all the developing, trials and testing. If the teams around me are seen as the best in their class, are respected and enjoy their job, I’m doing something right. And, of course, If the products sell and consumers keep coming back, then that’s the business icing on the cake.

Our understanding of consumer relationships with food has really grown… Our discussions these days rarely start with a recipe – that’s the easy bit. It’s about what someone wants from their food and why. In the morning, it’s often something that’s going to revitalise you, energise you and kick-start your day. It’s got to be easy and quick, something that you can eat on the go, natural, healthy, fresh and full of taste. I see so many people having Red Bull for breakfast. A natural product full of goodness with the same vibe could have a big impact.

The pace of change has also increased. When I joined Kerry, there was a fax machine at the end of the corridor and you’d wait to hear it click into action with an opportunity letter, there were no mobile phones or lap tops. It was slow – blimey, that makes me sound old! Everything is so instant now, you need to be first, you need to be ahead of the market, customers and consumers want everything at warp speed and our teams live in the fast lane most days.

We’re looking at seeds and the different farming of seeds, so you get higher protein outputs. This could support any idea, from high protein drinks to new proteins in a meat replacement. Farming of ingredients, changing the way those ingredients deliver, may be in its infancy but it’s something we must follow.

I recognise I am nothing without the teams and colleagues around me. In Kerry for the past 25 years, I have had great mentors. All have had very high expectations but never at the expense of people. Together we will always make a difference.

I’m giving back. No matter how many great ideas we launch, which I admit is a huge energy driver, it pales into insignificance when you can help individuals on their life journey. From working with Arrival Education, supporting and coaching truly amazing socially and ethnically diverse young people, to the Special Olympics, where you can play a small part in changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, opportunities like this, when they come, should be embraced. They are life changing.

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