Who ate all the pies?

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

They might struggle to appease the healthy eating lobby, but meat pie makers are going the extra mile to reduce salt and artery-clogging trans fats, says Michelle Knott

Who ate all the pies? It's the British public, with a stupendous 86% of all households still indulging in meat-and-pastry products, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), despite the recent brouhaha over healthy eating.

"Retail sales of all pastry/meat products have risen in volume and value terms over the last two years, with a particularly strong performance from sausage rolls during 2004, when they grew by nearly 14% in volume terms," says Richard Lowe, MLC marketing director. "Last year volumes fell back slightly, possibly as a result of the government's healthy eating agenda, which may have impacted on consumption among children."

Overall pie volumes have grown by 4% over the last two years, however, and Lowe believes the upward trend will continue. "Challenges for pastry products remain as a result of the government's healthy eating agenda. But the convenience of many of these products as hand-held snacks that can be eaten hot or cold is a strong driver for growth, which will help to counteract this negative influence."

Even so, according to Maurice McCartney, deputy director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), manufacturers are taking the health debate seriously. "We need to turn around the perception that the meat industry is negative and not willing to do anything. But pork pies and products like them are more about indulgence than fuel," he says. "It's a treat and as long as people understand that it's fine. This is not about producing half-fat pork pies because no one will eat them."

One area in which the BMPA has been working closely with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is salt (or sodium, to be more precise). "The FSA wants to reduce salt because the medics say that too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure. We went to the FSA 18 months ago with proposals to reduce sodium in a range of products, including meat pies," says McCartney.

The difficulty for pastry products is that the salt is used in both the filling and the case. And while it's relatively easy to reduce the salt in the filling, where manufacturers may be able to compensate by adding other seasonings, salt plays a functional role in the structure of the surrounding pastry. "It helps the pastry adhere to the filling and also helps it stay together. I think we've pushed salt in pastry as far as we can at the moment with current technology," says McCartney.

For example, in delicatessen and pork pies, BMPA members are currently working towards a maximum sodium content of 600mg per 100g in the short term. However, McCartney says that they are unlikely to be able to meet the FSA's long-term target of 500mg by 2010, unless they can move the science of pastry forward.

With this in mind, the BMPA is currently pulling together a proposal to carry out fundamental research on salt and fat. "We want to be joined-up about this," says McCartney. "There's no point tackling salt now and addressing fat later on." [see Food Manufacture, February 2006, p5]

The most immediate pressure on manufacturers is coming from retailers, according to Martin Anderson, sales director of Walkers Charnwood Bakery, which makes Melton Mowbray pork pies and hot steak and chicken pies. The company has a longstanding salt reduction programme, but the proposed end point is different for different retailers.

Retailers are also taking the initiative on hydrogenated vegetable fats, which are the source of artery-clogging trans-fats. Pie manufacturers are stripping them out of their recipes in response to the demands of chains such as Marks & Spencer, which is removing all hydrogenated fats from its range. "Tests have shown that our reformulations in this area haven't had any detrimental effect on the pies," says Anderson. "The new versions are very good, if not better."

Other manufacturers have already established themselves as totally trans-free and are keen to fight back against any suggestion that pies are unhealthy as part of a balanced diet. "We see Pukka Pies as wholesome food," says Peter Mayes, marketing and business development controller at Pukka Pies. "Sure, our pies are not pieces of lettuce, but when you look at the facts behind them with respect to healthy eating, they stack up well.

"All our products are free from hydrogenated fats and our best-selling line, Steak and Kidney Pie, contains just 205 calories, 5.2g fat and 0.95g salt per 100g. These levels are significantly better than many other foods and this is a message that we intend to get on to the front foot with this year."

Quality is the key, according to Mayes: "It has always been our policy to source only the finest quality ingredients and produce products with 'true flavours'. We avoid the use of compound or artificial ingredients. Despite baking 200,000 pies a day, we still employ a team of on-site butchers to trim and prepare meat, all chickens are roasted on site, stripped by hand and checked for bones on three separate occasions. Our aim is to produce a quality product."

For the consumer it's largely about perception, and manufacturers are always looking for ways to 'clean up' their labels by removing additives.

Ulrick & Short (U&S) specialises in producing ingredients to do just that. One of its products, Delixivia, aims to replace phosphates in cooked and cured meats. Although it works in a different way from phosphates, this starch-based product mimics their functional properties, enabling the meat to bind with water and maintain its succulence during processing.

"Phosphates can be very off-putting for consumers, accounting for two or three lines on a label. Delixivia is made from tapioca starch and Joe Bloggs isn't scared by seeing starch on a label," says U&S director, Adrian Short. "In fact, most products would have starch somewhere in the recipe already, so you wouldn't have to declare it at all."

U&S Bakoglaze clean-label glazing products are its most important range for pastry products. These can replace egg-based glazes (which are potential allergens) and other commercial glazes, some of which can make food labels look more like a pharmacist's shopping list.

"Even if you have to declare it as starch, it's still milk, egg, additive and allergen free," says Short.

So manufacturers are reformulating for health reasons. But when it comes to developing products with exotic new flavours, they insist that there's simply no demand.

"We've had our fingers burned in the past," admits Anderson. "We produce between 30 and 40 flavoured products, supplying different ranges to different retailers. But I'd say that in each range, only around 10% of sales are generated by flavoured products."

The market tends to be relatively conservative, agrees Mayes of Pukka Pies. "Consumers want quality products rather than strange new flavours."

McCartney argues that pie manufacturers should view their strong traditions as an asset: "It's all about producing good quality pies, not about niche flavourings." FM

Related topics: NPD