Food manufacturers that are looking to make a significant reduction to the salt, fat and sugar content of their products should start the development process from scratch, rather than reformulate existing products, according to Dr Wayne Morley, head of food innovation at Leatherhead Food Research.
"It's like trying to edit a drawing," he said. "It's less messy and time-consuming to start the whole thing again.
"When you are reducing the three favourites salt, fat and sugar there's always a likelihood that food quality is going to change. But when you build a product up from scratch there's a better chance of balancing the overall flavours. And you don't have to spend time deconstructing the old product."
He said this was particularly the case when working with sweeteners. They have a slightly different taste profile to sugar, which means it's better to build the formulation by using the sweetener as the foundation.
Morley believes that taste is vital to the success of reformulation because, if it isn't right, consumers won't keep buying the new product. On top of the need to meet government targets for healthier food products, keep labels clean and ensure the highest standards of food safety and stability, this creates a huge mountain for manufacturers to climb.
"As each and every food product is different, reformulation can be a complex, multidisciplinary process and there is no 'one size fits all' approach," he said.
Despite the challenges involved, firms have been working independently of government on reformulation because it can give them a competitive edge over their rivals.
"It's a way of distinguishing your product from the next one on the shelf," he said.
As well as giving firms a competitive advantage, reformulation can also reduce costs. "Fat's an expensive ingredient," said Morley. "If its levels can be reduced the product can be produced more cheaply. If you reduce fat you have to increase the water content, then raise the viscosity to compensate. It's cheaper to use gels and thickeners to give a product more structure."
On the clean-label issue, Morley said that manufacturers needed to take into account that salt and sugar are very natural products: "We tend to forget that in the rush to replace them," he said.
He also said the drive towards using more natural colours and flavours will raise costs. "Manufacturers will have to address the shelf-life issues. Suppliers are looking at ways of increasing the stability of these ingredients and technological advances will eventually achieve this but it will come at a price."