Most Change4Life campaigns offer some sort of warning about the state of the nation’s health, but the most recent made for particularly sobering reading.
Launched in January to encourage parents to choose healthier versions of the products they already buy – it revealed that the average UK child had already exceeded the maximum sugar intake for an 18-year-old by the time they had reached 10.
The statistic is a further, if hardly needed, reminder to the UK food and drink industry that the nation’s diet has to improve.
With Public Health England (PHE) having set the industry 20% sugar and calorie reduction targets for 2020 and 2024 respectively across a number of leading food categories, manufacturers have never been under more pressure to reformulate. While those operating in some categories are confident they can fulfil the targets, others have expressed considerable doubt – leaving many to believe a tax on foods high in fat, salt or sugar is now inevitable.
It’s a scenario not helped by industry’s failure to achieve a 5% sugar reduction in five of the eight food groups measured in the first year following the publishing of the Government’s obesity plan in 2016. Only sweet spreads and sauces, yogurts and fromage frais, and breakfast cereals met the target. Meanwhile, there was no reduction at all in biscuits and chocolate bars.
“Taxation is likely, as the Government has strongly suggested this will occur,” says Verity Clifton, applications technologist at Thew Arnott. “However, if firms can prove they have made serious efforts to meet the PHE targets, and/or they can prove they have reached the maximum sugar reduction without affecting the quality of the product, then allowances or a grace period should be considered.”
Other ingredients makers express more optimism that the targets can be achieved without any extension. Robert Lambert, head of marketing and communications at Ulrick & Short, suggests they are both “ambitious and achievable”, as the ingredients technology already exists to meet them in the vast majority of applications. However, he concedes there are often commercial limitations.
“Sugar replacers, or at least good ones, demand a premium compared with the price of sugar,” he says. “Taxation is a natural progression – however, it would be a big step. It seems that as the public health crisis worsens, government intervention and incentives for manufacturers to reformulate may be the only solution.”
Similarly, Bahar Yalcindag, technical director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Tate & Lyle, remains “bullish” that food and drink firms will meet the targets – whether through adapting existing products or launching new ones. “Formulators have never had so many tools at their disposal to adapt a recipe for health but, then, we know that consumers have never been more interested in what they’re eating,” he suggests.
“Formulators need to take into consideration these evolving consumer preferences, values and needs that go along with this increased awareness. A reformulation may be technically possible, but whether it’s acceptable to the consumer is another matter.”
Such evolving consumer preferences are typified in the clamour for cleaner labels. Consumers are happy to see the bad stuff taken out – but they remain deeply suspicious about many of the ingredients being used as replacements.
This presents a particular challenge for products that have to meet the 20% calorie reduction on top of the equivalent sugar reduction, says Clifton. Typically, the ingredients used to replace sugar for structural stability
in a product have a calorific value that is the same or similar to sugar. “The exception to this is polydextrose,” Clifton adds. “However, this product has problems when it comes to clean-labelling. Equally, where sugar is required for structural reasons (for example, in cakes, and ice creams), replacement products such as maltodextrin and polysorbate may not be as widely accepted by consumers.”
Thew Arnott produces a sweetness enhancer based on liquorice called Ceromag, and Clifton believes consumers will ultimately want to see natural sweetener alternatives to sugar, especially in products aimed at children.
For any product reformulation that involves cutting out sugar or fat, the main challenge is to maintain the same sweetness, mouthfeel and texture given by the original ingredient, while reducing its use. Conventional wisdom among ingredients makers is that consumers are looking for better nutrition, but do not want to compromise on texture and taste.
Beneo claims to have carried out extensive work developing recipe reformulations that meet these technical challenges – namely through its chicory root fibres, which help to reduce sugar and calories, and oligofructose, which contributes to fruit flavours in a similar way to sugar.
In addition, the company says its new clean-label rice starch, Remypure S52, is at the very least comparable to chemically modified food starches.
“Until recently, it was impossible to create a clean-label alternative to modified starch that could withstand the freeze/thaw cycles that most ready meals experience, and still deliver an end-product that the consumer would be happy with,” says Rudy Wouters, vice president of the Beneo-Technology Center.
“So, we developed an advanced thermal inhibition process that strengthens native rice starch granules, enhancing their functional properties. This technology has created Remypure S52.”
Ingredients makers across the board are striving to meet the growing preference for natural ingredients. Working with Michelin-starred chefs, Swiss flavours firm Givaudan recently launched a new approach to sugar reduction that removes the need for sweeteners altogether.
“Through our Chef’s Council programme, we have looked at what could deliver satisfaction beyond sweetness,” explains Nely Vlasblom, product manager for beverages at Givaudan. “From there, we have been able to identify non-typical natural ingredients and food techniques that create more complex, full-bodied or impactful tastes – flavours so good, that the reduced sweetness wasn’t missed.”
The approach combines the use of novel ingredients, a new proprietary sensory language, and a deep understanding of sweetness and satisfaction to deliver up to 50% sugar reduction without using artificial sweeteners or stevia, Vlasblom says. “It is in its early days, but we have already developed several consumer concepts, including a 50% reduced-sugar orange drink that performs as well as the full sugar product in consumer testing,” she adds.
As Givaudan would testify, sugar reduction in a product rarely involves a one-for-one ingredient swap. Typically, a number of changes are required, any of which may impact elsewhere on the recipe.
Call for breathing space
Given the complexities involved in reformulating products, it’s little surprise that ingredients makers are calling for reformulation programmes to be given a chance to succeed.
“Reformulation takes time. Manufacturers and caterers – each with varying levels of experience and technical capability – will be working through their portfolios at the most efficient pace possible,” says Yalcindag at Tate & Lyle.
“Small and medium-sized companies, which make up the vast majority of the UK industry, will typically have less in-house or external technical support to draw from, and will be building their understanding of the tools and support available to them.”
With some of the nine product categories expected to miss next year’s 20% sugar reduction target, the food industry can only hope the Government can empathise with the challenges it faces.