Healthy reformulation: how products measure-up

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Fat-reduction: the trend among food companies to reformulate is gathering pace
Fat-reduction: the trend among food companies to reformulate is gathering pace
Reformulation of regular products, rather than better-for-you alternatives, is helping food firms meet ever-tougher targets.

Key points

Offering consumers more information or better-for-you alternatives to regular products has little impact on population-wide consumption of target nutrients, suggests research.

Take salt reduction, for example. The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report in 2014, comparing the importance of product reformulation with consumer choice in improving diet quality.

The report found that the preceding population-wide reduction in salt consumption (5.1% between 2005–2011) was “entirely attributable to product reformulation by firms”​.

In contrast, consumers switching between products had, in fact, moved in the opposite direction and led to a slight increase in the salt intensity of groceries purchased.

What’s more, the researchers also suggested that a similar focus on reformulation is likely to be effective at tackling other targeted nutrients, such as sugar and saturated fats.

The pressure on industry to reformulate (return to top)

In spite of the progress made so far, the pressure on industry is increasing. The European Council of Health Ministers demanded in June that Member States draw up national plans by the end of this year to improve the composition of food.

In the UK, the government’s 2017 salt targets aim to squeeze consumption from the current average of around 8g per day to 6g for adults. And with obesity also high on its list of priorities, there is also, of course, the tax on sugary soft drinks due in 2018.

With no one ready to rule out further interventions, the trend among food companies to reformulate products is gathering momentum.

“The main driver for the recent attention towards reformulation is the regulations that different countries introduce to push or force the industry towards lowering salt and sugar content and the use of healthier fats,”​ says Ronald Visschers, principal advisor for food and beverage at Dutch research institute TNO.

Projects aimed at healthier reformulation (return to top)

The institute carries out projects aimed at healthier reformulation. Earlier this year, it joined forces with the University of Wageningen and six food and ingredient firms – Quorn, Zeelandia, Givaudan, Mondelez, Bakkersland and Alpina – with the aim of improving the composition of a range of processed foods.

“The project is ongoing, so we cannot disclose results yet,”​ says Visschers. “We focus on a number of difficult challenges, and together with the involved industrial partners, develop technology and find solutions for products such as meat analogues, ice cream, soft cheese and bread.”

Visschers believes it’s important to change formulations gradually. He points to a number of scientific studies that show a gradual decrease in salt and sugar allows consumers to adapt to the changed taste without resorting to different products.

“This is the main driver behind national salt reduction policies in, for instance, the Netherlands. The industry here has joined forces to slowly reduce the salt content of all bread products,”​ he says.

Why bakery is a key sector (return to top)

While the expectation among most observers is that sat-fats will become an increasing focus in future, salt and sugar are the main targets for now – and bakery is a key sector for both.

With salt, ingredient company British Bakels says the approach taken by its customers shows there’s no “one size fits all”​ solution.

Yeast-raised products rely on salt for controlling fermentation, dough rheology and, crucially, enhancing the flavour.

“Salt reduction from 1g per 100g in Food Standards Agency [FSA] 2012 salt guidelines to 0.9g per100g in the 2017 guidelines can be achieved using various technologies, including enzyme technology, to control dough rheology and yeast extracts to provide flavour enhancement where required,”​ says Greg Stone, product development manager at Bakels.

“Chemically-raised bakery products historically relied on sodium bicarbonate and sodium-based acidulants such as sodium acid pyrophosphate. Reformulation has also been successful here to achieve the targets in the FSA 2017 guidelines, where potassium bicarbonate and alternative acidulants such as calcium acid pyrophosphate and monocalcium phosphate are used.

“Key to reformulation here is matching the rate of reaction of these ingredients to provide the right level of carbon dioxide production or ‘gasing’ in the product, and at the right time during baking,”​ he adds.

The cost challenge (return to top)

With technically successful solutions available in the form of established ingredients such as polyols and fibres, Stone suggests that cost is a bigger challenge than function.

“The focus on sugar reduction still remains and reformulation options are present that can provide partial added sugar replacement of added sugar.

“However, even in the light of increasing raw material sugar costs, alternative ingredients such as inulin, polydextrose or oligofructose, remain significantly more expensive,”​ he says.

“This, along with the dislike of some of the ingredient declarations by retailers and consumers, is seen as contributing reasons that delay product reformulation.”

Labelling is a critical factor for consumer and retailer acceptance of reformulated products, agrees Adrian Short, director at Ulrick & Short.

“Consumers want to find ingredients that sound as close as possible to what you’d find in a homemade product,”​ he says.

Ulrick & Short provides starches, fibres, flours and proteins that appear on labels as recognisable ingredients, some of which offer positive health benefits as well as functional attributes that can enable a partial substitution of sugar and fats.

Post-Brexit implications (return to top)

Like Stone, Short recognises the importance of cost. In fact, he sees cost reduction driving a lot of reformulation work, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

“Reducing the unit cost will become an acute issue over the next six to nine months because of raw material price hikes.

“Our customers are looking at how to cost-engineer their products because manufacturers don’t have a lot of wriggle room,”​ he says.

In these circumstances, the emphasis is likely to shift to functional issues, such as adjusting recipes to incorporate more water.

In the longer term, however, delivering a healthier diet to people not necessarily interested in seeking out better-for-you products is set to remain the key driver.

Premier Foods’s taste challenge

Premier Foods knows all about successful reformulation, having recently won a Food and Drink Federation award for its reworking of Homepride Cooking Sauces and Pasta Bakes.

The company set out to reduce salt and sugar, as well as adding more vegetables to the range.

“Pasta Bakes proved to be a big challenge,”​ says Dave Evans, senior product development manager at Premier Foods.

“We needed to maintain the satisfying taste without adding calories, salt or sugar, while also delivering a 120g portion of vegetables, and complying with the Department of Health sales-weighted average 2017 salt target.”

A long-term approach

While the company is reluctant to share specific details of its new formulations, Evans is clear that a long-term approach was essential.

“We implemented a two-year strategy to gradually reduce salt levels in our range, and over the period we held a number of consumer product tastings to ensure that we were keeping true to the flavours.

‘No added sugar’ proved to be the other big challenge, but this was overcome by taking into account the naturally-occurring sweetness provided by the additional vegetables in the new recipes.”

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