The founder and chief executive of consultancy firm Nutrition Sustainability Strategies worked for 25 years across 23 food categories at industry giants Danone, Mars, and General Mills. She recognises the transformative power of foodtech and argues that food innovators and investors need to bring consumers back to the centre of the conversation

By Murielle Gonzalez

Maha Tahiri portrait photo

Maha Tahiri, the founder and chief executive of consultancy firm Nutrition Sustainability Strategies is a food industry veteran and the newest advisor to investment firm Emerald Technology Ventures. Founded in 2000, Emerald is a heavy-weight player in the investment arena. It has raised five venture capital funds, backed 70 emerging industrial technology businesses through more than 400 investment transactions, and managed five third-party investment mandates, including for the governments of Singapore and Switzerland. Tahiri’s appointment heralds the fund’s expansion in the food sector – it made the announcement a week after participating in the $26.5 million funding round of cultured meat producer Future Meat.

For Tahiri, joining Emerald’s advisory board is an exciting opportunity to continue doing what she loves – to make a positive impact on food supply at scale. “We are working on a market study to understand the current state of open innovation in the food industry to develop a service offering to food corporates later this year,” she tells me, sparking a conversation about food technology, business strategy, and the roles that science and consumers play in the bigger picture – to build a food ecosystem that is resilient, sustainable, and based on health and nutrition fundamentals.

A doctor of human nutrition, Maha Tahiri worked at big food and drink companies Mars, Coca-Cola, Danone, and General Mills. She held roles at the intersection between scientific research, regulatory affairs and communication, always aiming at creating foods that delivered health, wellness and innovation.

At General Mills, for example, Tahiri led a project with its R&D teams for decreasing fat, sugar, and salt from the food supply on more than 75% of the sales volumes.

Her expertise on the innovation front is equally significant, having worked in projects that added probiotics and other functional ingredients to everyday foods – at a time when gut health was not trendy.

In 2018, Tahiri left the corporate world to embark upon a mission that inspired her career in the first place – making an impact on people’s lives through the food they eat. She founded the consultancy firm and has been working with businesses from the seed stage up to publicly traded companies.

“I have worked in 23 categories of food, so what I bring [to my clients] is consumer and innovation strategy, and business development,” says Tahiri. “I also connect the small companies with big corporations and other partners that can help them grow their business.”

Tahiri also sits at the advisory board of challenger brand MeliBio, a US-based early-stage company with the technology to produce honey without bees. And speaking about foodtech, she is adamant about putting consumer needs in focus.

To the point

Maha Tahiri

Do foodtech companies connect consumers?

There’s a huge gap between foodtech companies and consumers – unfortunately. I think most of the time it’s more about tech than it is about food.

I think the foodtech community needs to hold on to their science because that will bring the new food categories to an unbelievably inspiring level, but foodtech innovators need to get back to the consumer and understand that food is not tech. Food is very intimate, and I do believe that investors and foodtech companies need to pay more attention to the relationship between the consumers and the food they eat.

What do you make of the excitement around the plant-based category?

If you look at the plant-based category, we’ve made tremendous progress compared to 20 years ago in terms of taste. Still, we’re not there yet in terms of nutrition.

In part, consumers buy plant-based foods because it is supposed to be healthier for them or better for them – and that’s not yet entirely true.

If you compare some of the products in the plant-based categories to their equivalent, they are fattier, have more salt, and more calories, because [companies] are really trying to compensate for taste, which is understandable because they want to enter the life of consumers.

The plant-based category needs to grow-up because it’s a category defined by what it is not – it’s not meat, it’s not dairy. It’s not chicken. It’s not an egg. It’s like a teenager in rebellion.

How can the category grow up?

We should be aspiring to have a plant-based category that creates new foods and new flavours that are not mimicking another taste but creating a new one.

When Cheerios or Coca-Cola came to the market, these flavours did not exist before. With plant-based foods is the same. It is a time for us to create new flavours, new foods so that the kids of today develop nostalgia for these foods in 20 years – that is ‘growing up’ for the plant-based category.

Climate change and sustainability are named as drivers in foodtech development. Are these issues not relevant to consumers?

Whether those topics are relevant or not to the consumer depends on geographies, socioeconomics and many other factors.

For example, when you create an alternative protein product, one consumer likes it because it replaces meat, for example. For another consumer, plant-based meat is a way of giving vegetables to their children. So, the question is different – are consumers sensitive to the reasons why founders are doing this?

Does this relate to the personalisation trend we have seen of late?

Personalisation in food has always been there but at different levels. I don’t think in the 50s everybody was the same either.

Consumers are different from each other, and they have different needs. The personalised nutrition trend of today is an expansion of the phenomenon, and it is about wanting something that is adapted to me as an individual. That’s an even higher level of what we’re talking about in terms of consumer needs.

So, what can companies do to align their efforts to the needs of the consumer?

I left big food corporations because I saw more innovation in small companies. I believe small companies are the ones that will transform the food system. But for that to happen, foodtech companies need to take into account the consumer and not put them off the new technologies, like what happened with GMOs.

We need to start conversations about what we are going to call products that are created with cellular agriculture, or products with precision fermentation, for example.

How are we going to present these new products to consumers? And how will the new products answer consumer needs? The answers to these questions are really going to determine the pace at which the masses will adopt the new food categories.

We need to have a narrative that’s very clear on what precision fermentation is, and when there is gene modification. We may even need to think about whether a regulatory framework needs to be put in place. But above all, we need to make sure that there is no hijacking of the conversation.

Is nutrition part of the new conversations to have?

Understanding nutrition is part of understanding the consumer. Take weight management in the US, where everybody is counting calories, for example. It’s proven that countries where there is a huge knowledge about calorie counting have higher rates of obesity.

The way to help them eat less is by helping make a connection with their food. Instead of talking about the different food groups and making the conversation too geeky, tell them to have at least three colours of food on their plate to ensure diversity of nutrients.

Instead of telling people, you need to change everything in your life, tell them 80% of what you do is good – so let’s work on the 20%. This approach understands people’s lives and how you can affect a change.

Tahiri argues that product development is an opportunity for foodtech companies to create products that respond to consumer needs. And the earlier they start thinking about the pipeline, the better.

“The uniqueness of foodtech companies is that the first product is created with a lot of passion. Most of the time, it’s brought about to satisfy a personal need, and the connection between the first product with the founder is very strong. But they need to go beyond,” she says. “Think about the pipeline of innovation with a vision for the future. Founders that do this early on make strategic decisions quickly,” she concludes.

Date published: 10 March 2021

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