At 20 years of age, Reading Scientific Services (RSSL) may not quite have the key to the door, but it's got the key to pretty much everything else. The group has moved a long way from its roots in shelf-life testing to prevent microbe spoilage. Now claims substantiation is its focal point and it invests vast amounts of time testing functional ingredients to make sure they're all they're cracked up to be.
"Manufacturers can't make the claims that they used to, such as 'a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play,'" says head of business development Jane Staniforth. Historically, it was Trading Standards that pulled things up because they were unfit for consumption, but now it's the Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] that tends to call the shots and the focus is very much on consumer perception, says business development director Sarah Marshall. The new health and nutrition claims legislation has put more pressure than ever on manufacturers to back up their claims with solid scientific evidence and some are struggling to keep up. Drinks firm Innocent recently got into trouble with the ASA because it was unable to provide enough supporting evidence on a claim that one of its smoothies could detox the body.
Although the regulations have been put in place in order to protect consumers and encourage more honesty in the food industry, in some ways they have acted as a barrier to new product development. RSSL has witnessed a rising number of enquiries regarding foods with cognitive benefits. But Marshall says that Europe's tightening up of claims makes them much more expensive to substantiate. "And there's also nothing to stop someone coming along and pinching your research," adds lipids technical manager Robert Griffiths.
RSSL was perhaps ahead of its time when it launched its cognition service five years ago. The scene was quiet for a while, but over the last 12 months, it's been busy, says Staniforth. The group's Clinical Science department uses methods developed for the pharmaceutical industry to evaluate how foods affect the concentration, short-term memory, mental acuity and alertness of consumers.
"We're not seeing a great deal of omega-3 brain health claims yet," says Griffiths. "But then again, it took 14,000 papers for omega-3 heart health to take off." Head of clinical project development Laura Marshall believes that the brain health market has plenty of potential: "We've had a lot of cognitive enquiries regarding memory and alertness. The elderly are a target market for memory improvement products and there is also an emphasis on improving children's attention at school," she says.
But despite the obvious opportunities for selling the cognitive benefits of omega-3, there are no recommended levels of the ingredient for brain health, says Griffiths, who also believes that the marine-sourced fatty acids may have anti-inflammatory characteristics. He is keen to keep up with new trends, because RSSL has to offer up-to-date services to its clients.
Omega-3 isn't the only ingredient that Griffiths has his eye on. Another ingredient that could come under the spotlight is co-enzyme Q10 because of its neuroprotective actions in neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington's and Parkinson's disease. Phospholipids, which are currently used in supplements to help with age-related memory decline, may also come on to the food scene, predicts Griffiths. "In addition, conjugated linoleic acids have been shown to have an effect on weight reduction and weight management and are currently going through the novel foods process," he says.
By all accounts, it seems the technology is there, but which companies will be brave enough to step into the unknown? Processors may be reluctant to be the first to launch a new functional product, because those that are second to market are often more successful, says Staniforth. This is evident in a variety of products, for example Yakult, which was the UK's first probiotic shot, has been eclipsed by Actimel.
While many firms are reluctant to make new claims, they may be more willing to invest in those that are tried and tested. "We thought GI [glycaemic index] might have tailed off, but it hasn't," says Laura Marshall. The low-GI trend came into the public eye a few years ago. It followed on from the Atkins diet, but unlike its short-lived predecessor, it is still going strong. A steady stream of processors have been queuing up to add low GI claims to their foods, though the focus is gradually moving towards satiety as consumers become more discerning, says Staniforth.
Food manufacturers aren't the only ones under the spotlight when it comes to backing up their claims. RSSL also tests ingredients, both from the perspective of suppliers that want to make claims on their ingredients; and for authenticity because food manufacturers may want to check that the ingredients they are dealing with are genuine.
Functional ingredients scientist Marta Ahijado says: "People are asking whether we can sense a fruit in a product to guarantee product authenticity." For example, if a firm is looking to buy a blueberry juice, then they may want to check a sample to make sure that they are getting the real mccoy and not a cheap immitation, she claims.
Once a company is satisfied that it has sourced the correct ingredients, it can develop its product with the help of RSSL's Product and Ingredient Innovation department. The team often works on the reformulation of products, such as replacing sugar with sweeteners. It also works on optimising the bitter taste of some functional ingredients, for example, masking omega-3's fishy taste.
And while certain aspects of a product have to be hidden, it is vital that others are visible. The testing of herbals is a common request, because companies want to ensure that natural ingredients have survived the production process. This work takes place in RSSL's Natural Products lab, which looks for specific bio-markers to prove that the ingredients are present and checks whether they are at high enough levels.
But even after all the effort that goes into making a food product fit for sale, problems can still occur after it has hit retail shelves. Analytical spectroscopy services, such as gas chromatography, can be used if a product doesn't taste the same from one week to another. This involves comparing a standard product with the tainted product and looking at the intensities of various chemicals present. Any chemicals that only appear in the tainted product are identified on the lab's chemical library and then scientists assess the source of the chemical, eg whether it is a consequence of the environment, or whether it is related to the product's packaging.
The results of such tests may only take a few days, but in extreme cases, manufacturers cannot afford to wait. This is where RSSL's Emergency Response Service (ERS) comes into play. "We get an ERS call most days across food and pharma," says Staniforth. "What's an emergency for one company isn't necessarily for another though - it really depends on what safety controls they have in place." The labs have a coordinator ready to answer ERS enquiries 24h a day and specialists from key RSSL departments are on hand to help companies in crises.
The Foreign Body Identification Services department often comes into play as a result of consumer complaints and its work can be vital in clearing a company's name. This is because scientists can work out what the foreign object is and where it comes from, such as if a piece of glass is from a consumer's pyrex dish, as opposed to a piece of manufacturing equipment. Or say if an insect is found in a product, then the lab can find out what species it is and its country of origin. If it is from outside the UK, then it may have come from the ingredients supplier.
"Historically we've been involved in extortion cases, says Staniforth. "For example, if someone says they've injected a drug into a product, then we would examine the food to find the piercing etc." There has even been a case when a consumer believed they had found a finger in their food. Thankfully for the manufacturer concerned, the complainant turned out to be mistaken as the suspect object was identified as a carrot peeling, but this incident certainly illustrates why scientific testing is crucial to the future of the food industry.
"Our scientific committee meets every month to discuss industry issues," says Staniforth. "We use horizon scanning and attend Food Standards Agency board meetings in order to track industry movements - we have to keep our ears to the ground." FM