In times of trouble, we often hark back to the past. When Marty McFly's parents' marriage is in trouble in the 1985 film Back to the Future, he travels back to 1955 to fix things and secure a happy future for his family. "Yeah, well history is going to change," he promises.
Manufacturers certainly can't change the history of health claims, with a rash of rejections from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and only 222 subsequently approved this year by the European Commission (EC).
Thus if manufacturers want to highlight real points of difference for their products whether through a health claim or separately for approval by the EC for the safety of a novel ingredient they have to submit convincing evidence. This, of course, costs money and even after investing in costly studies, it is not guaranteed success.
This has resulted in a tumbleweed effect in the novel foods arena. When asked what was happening in novel foods, Mintel's director of innovation and insight, David Jago was brief. "Not much," he says. "Everyone's been scared off by the EFSA regulations." Head of food innovation at Leatherhead Food Research (LFR), Wayne Morley was equally concise. "There's not a lot going on," he says.
Product manager for health at ingredients distributor Azelis, Jon Arzberger, explains: "People have been put off because they can't say anything on pack for the consumer so why would they put a novel ingredient in there?"
Some manufacturers are getting around the issue by making consumer claims instead of health claims, such as 'eight out of 10 consumers prefer this product', according to Morley.
Arzberger suggests the trend is going retro: returning to ingredients that already have a tried and tested history of consumption to avoid falling foul of legislation. "Firms are looking at more traditional ingredients such as vitamins and minerals and making claims based on them. Those claims have already been explored and worked on so they can be assured of the scientific backing."
LFR market intelligence manager Matt Incles concurs: "From a market point of view we haven't seen any really left-field ingredients. The approach is working with known ingredients because they're already on the approved list. It's the easiest win for manufacturers."
Arzberger noted a shift towards using ingredients such as fruit and vegetable extracts, which is on the back of the increasing drive towards products with ingredients that consumers already recognise as healthy, such as Innocent veg pots and fruit smoothies.
"Innovation teams have latched onto this trend," he says. "It's safe because consumers are already familiar with the ingredients. Clean-label is always an issue as well and products such as vegetable extract would be declared reasonably clean-label to start with."
Not only are more mainstream but less exciting ingredients a less risky option legally and financially, they reflect a more balanced approach that appeals to the public.
"Consumers know there isn't a silver bullet," says Incles. "Weird and wonderful ingredients are just that: weird and wonderful. Functional health benefits are a more sensible way of adding value to a product and still provide a point of differentiation for marketing."
The health and wellness trend is weathering the recession's storm. "People might be trying to economise but it hasn't changed their desire for healthier products," says Incles. "Categories such as energy drinks are growing phenomenally quickly even at £2 a can, which is three times as expensive as carbonated drinks. They're taking a lot of market share from carbonated drinks."
As part of this trend, there's a drive towards making products that are fortified with vitamins and minerals, according to Roberta Re, LFR's nutrition research manager.
Bakery is an important growth sector with 'one in 10 buying into the added-value healthy bread segment', according to Mintel.
In May Canadian yeast supplier Lallemand applied to the Food Standards Agency for approval to market a baker's yeast rich in vitamin D2 as a novel food ingredient. The company intends to use the yeast in the leavening of bread and in food supplements. The yeast is treated with UV light to enhance the vitamin D2 content.
Oat fibres are being used in bakery and meat applications for fibre fortification and to lock in moisture. "They have fewer calories per unit and lock in moisture, which gives a fresher feel to bakery products such as cereal bars and meat products such as meatballs," says Arzberger. "It also means you've got a more cost-effective product with more moisture per unit."
Reformulating products to engineer further reductions in salt, fat and sugar remains popular. Morley noted "a huge push towards reformulation" in this area, including "a lot of activity" in terms of new uses for stevia. "Salt, fat and sugar reduction are still at the top," Morley says. "It's driven by the health debate. There's more activity in salt as that debate is still ongoing."
LFR has just completed research into salt reduction ingredients and technologies, which will be published mid-July by the Food and Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium.
Building a product from tried and tested ingredients also involves less financial risk because the research has already been undertaken and consumers are already aware of the ingredient's benefits.
"This health claims issue has created a new budget for the industry," says Re. "Food and drink manufacturers need to realise they need to put a pot of funding aside for it."
This is particularly difficult in a recession. "Firms are having to look at different ways of stripping out costs," says Arzberger.
"Fibres are clean-label and can improve a product's mouthfeel and succulence. There's a huge interest in citrus fibre and oat fibre, which can be put into any product. Citrus has a ratio of soluble and insoluble fibre that can go into sauces, mayonnaise, dressing and spreads."
Further cost pressures have been created by the fluctuating supply and prices of raw materials. Short supplies of raw materials such as eggs and guar gum have driven manufacturers to design replacement products.
Guar gum is used to improve yield and texture or as a thickener, binder or stabliser particularly in gluten-free products. In 2011-12 speculators drove up prices as the oil, textile and paper industries sucked up supply. This meant product developers had to innovate with alternative ingredients to achieve the same effect.
DSM Food Specialities has been deploying an enzyme toolkit to develop innovative solutions for replacing guar gum in bakery products. With a combination of enzymes and ingredients, it promises to replicate the effects of guar gum for thickening, binding and improving texture for bakers, offering savings of between 25 and 40%.
"There are some interesting systems being implemented out there," says Arzberger. "Where there are supply restrictions, hydrocolloids such as HMPC [hydroxypropylmethylcellulose] and CMC [carboxymethylcellulose] are being used in combination with other gums to give the same effect and mouthfeel as guar gum in beverages, sauces and gluten-free bread."
Similarly, egg supply shortages were created early this year by the EU's ban on battery hens, and launches of egg replacers followed.
Tate & Lyle Food Systems, for example, has developed Hamulsion stabliser systems to enable replacement of up to 100% of the egg required in bakery products.
"The challenge with bakery products with lowering egg content is to keep a fresh and moist product," says Kerstin Werner, head of business development, Tate & Lyle Food Systems. "With our new stabiliser system solution, we managed to replace a moist muffin with similar product properties to the full-egg version."
Replacers and enhancers can improve the quality of a product and improve product margins in addition to easing supply issues.
"Even when the costs come back down again, manufacturers often stick with the replacers because they get tired of the fluctuations and want to stabilise costs," says Arzberger. "They can improve the mouthfeel and flavour of the product and improve their plant efficiencies at the same time."
Ultimately, all business comes down to money. Doesn't it? With legislative restrictions, cost and supply restraints and fluctuating consumer tastes, manufacturing novel foods is a complex matrix that certainly involves cost, but also science, innovation and, of course, the all-important factor of consumer taste.
"You can't solve it from one angle," says Re. "I can give you the scientific angle, and product development can tell you what's possible, but then a consumer might say it tastes awful. For a functional product to make it to market you have satisfy all three areas."
Perhaps innovators could take inspiration from the words of the hero of Back to the Future, Marty McFly: "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."