Manufacturers are facing the complexity of competing and often conflicting demands from low fat, sugar and salt to clean labelling and functional, vegan and sustainability credentials.
COVID-19 and climate change have created instability and pushed up prices in global supply chains. And then in February, Russia invaded Ukraine, a key global exporter of sunflower oil, corn, barley and wheat, cutting off a major logistics hub for wheat and fertiliser supplies in the Black Sea.
While a deal was secured in July to free up around 20million tonnes of grain stranded in Black Sea ports, ingredient supply issues are expected to continue and perhaps escalate in 2023, with a poor harvest forecast for Ukraine.
“Around two-thirds of the crops we eat in fact only come from nine different species, so this puts us in quite a vulnerable situation as an industry and we’ve seen this really being brought to light by the situation in Ukraine,” says Carole Bingley, technical specialist, Reading Scientific Services.
A speaker at the recent Food Manufacture webinar on Ingredient Substitution and Reformulation, Bingley says supply issues around wheat, corn and sunflower oil have had either a direct or knock-on effect across most food products.
Recognising the pressure on manufacturers to find alternative ingredients, the Food Standards Agency extended some flexibility around relabelling. Nonetheless, substitution is seldom straightforward and can affect taste, texture, shelf life and cost, as well as potentially requiring changes to the manufacturing process or newly introducing allergens to products.
Ingredion EMEA, which turns grains, fruits, vegetables and other plant-based materials into value-added ingredient solutions for the food, beverage, animal nutrition and brewing markets, works with its customers to reformulate and replace ingredients rising in price or in short supply.
“For instance, this includes those affected by the conflict in Ukraine which has left many countries across Europe with limited stocks of edible oils and soaring prices,” says Helen Hook, sugar reduction & specialty sweeteners platform leader.
Stalled progress on HFSS?
Harriet Burt, policy and communications officer at Action on Salt and Action on Sugar, highlights manufacturers’ rapid response to replace ingredients from Ukraine and Russia as evidence the sector could easily move quicker to reformulate products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS).
Earlier this year, Action on Salt conducted a snapshot survey of 100 flagship products from Danone, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, and Unilever, finding over half were high in fat, salt and/or sugar of which a third were said to display misleading nutrition and health claims.
“One of the products surveyed, a popular breakfast cereal, had recently been reformulated to address the supply chain issues resulting from the war in Ukraine, replacing sunflower oil with palm oil,” says Burt. “Although we aren’t advocating for this particular reformulation (palm oil is higher in saturated fat), it demonstrates just how quickly manufacturers can change their recipes if they have to. We need them to show the same urgency when it comes to the nation’s health.”
Celebrating Food and Nutrition, a report published by the Food and Drink Federation earlier this year. claims its members have made strides in reducing HFSS foods. Kantar Worldpanel data cited by the Federation indicates reductions of 10% in calories, 12% in sugars and 16% in salt in products supplied by its members between 2017 and 2022.
However, Action on Sugar and Salt claims progress against government salt and sugar reduction targets has stalled in recent years.
“We know food manufacturers are regularly changing their product recipes, be it to reduce production costs, remove allergens or bolster sales,” says Burt. “However, when it comes to removing unnecessary salt and sugar, there is still a way to go.
“Food companies have failed to achieve almost half of the salt targets due to be met by 2017, and the last sugar reduction report (released in 2019) showed that the sugar content of products sold had fallen by just 3% compared with the 20% target to be met by 2020.”
While welcoming the regulations coming into force in October, removing HFSS products from high footfall retail areas including checkouts, end of aisles and store entrances as well as online prominence, Burt is critical of the decision to delay restrictions around advertising of unhealthy products before 9pm on TV and online. Volume offer restrictions have also been delayed.
“Now is the time for government to bring in mandatory targets with financial penalties for companies that do not comply, alongside tougher advertising restrictions, mandatory front-of-pack labelling and transparent reporting,” she says.
“It’s crucial that the recipes of flagship products and core product lines are changed, rather than the current trend of the food industry producing new, more expensive, ‘reduced sugar’ products created for a few health-conscious consumers.”
Ingredion identifies consumer behaviour as driving its HFSS reformulation work for clients, with research it conducted in 2021 suggesting 25% of consumers had switched to a healthier diet in the previous year.
“Taste, and the taste experience, is absolutely key,” says Hook. “The majority of our work when helping customers reformulate for healthier products that conform to lower fat, salt and sugar requires rebalance and taste modulation.
“Our stevia sweeteners are complementary to plant-based proteins, reducing sugar and increasing nutritional value. We also have modulators to rebalance any protein off notes – these ingredients can be combined into a system to help manufacturing ease, efficiency and less individual ingredient management and stockholding.”
And with sugar prices increasing, Ingredion’s naturally derived sweeteners and flavour modulators can help manufacturers control their costs, says Hook.
Clean labelling & functional ingredients
Investing in clean label formulations can potentially boost profits for food and drink manufacturers. Conducting a global clean label study across large and mid-sized food companies last year, Ingredion found 40% of global manufacturers had achieved price increases and 58% an increase in overall revenue after converting.
Globally, the beverage and bakery categories lead clean label reformulations. Of the four global regions surveyed, Ingredion found reformulations to be most prevalent in Europe, with greatest growth forecast for the nutritional and meal replacement beverage category.
Strong partnerships between R&D, procurement and marketing were found to be key to successful conversions to clean label, while barriers included the cost and reduced shelf life of clean label ingredients alongside inexperience with specialised ingredients.
John West moved into a another burgeoning category, functional foods, last year with the launch of its Enriched Tuna range featuring three variants: Energy with Vitamin B to help reduce tiredness and fatigue; Heart with Omega 3 to support heart function; and Immunity with Vitamin C to support the immune system.
“With consumers still living in the shadow of the pandemic and some suffering from long COVID, the demand for functional foods continues to grow,” says Jon Burton, international marketing director at John West Foods.
“The functional food market is driven by food start-ups or niche players looking to stand out in the market. To stay ahead of the curve, established food brands need to respond to emerging consumer trends and consider functional foods as a critical part of the customer value proposition.”
John West’s Lower Salt Tuna range, meanwhile, uses Big Eye rather than Skipjack tuna due to its thicker skin and larger size, lowering salt permeation to achieve 30% lower salt versus standard tuna.
Beneo, a supplier of plant-based functional ingredients including functional carbohydrates from sugar beet, prebiotic chicory root fibre, plant-based proteins and speciality ingredients from rice, reports a rise in demand for functional ingredients delivering multiple health benefits.
“Depending on the ingredient used, manufacturers can cut sugar or fat, promote sustained energy intake, and achieve appealing on pack messaging with nutritional and/or health claims,” says Rudy Wouters, head of Beneo Technology Center. “As well as boosting a person’s daily fibre consumption, prebiotic chicory root fibres can support gut and immune health.”
Ingredients should be substituted with caution, however. “Pea protein in particular has been highlighted among the food allergy community as a risk because it is turning up in places you never would have considered it necessary in the past, in meat sausages for example and breads and all sort of places,” says Hazel Gowland of Allergy Action.
With sustainability initiatives resulting in waste from common allergens such as shellfish and nut shells turning up in food products and packaging, clear labelling is vital. And Gowland says a further issue is ‘altered allergenicity’, when a previously unproblematic ingredient is altered in the manufacturing process and becomes an allergen.
Another example of unintended consequences has been some manufacturers returning to palm oil, an ingredient many businesses had moved away from due to its detrimental environmental footprint, as a substitute for sunflower oil after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Yet sustainability remains a key focus. Wouters says: “Environmental concerns have been heightened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many consumers now increasingly consider sustainability aspects when making their purchasing decisions.
“When thinking about building sustainability into the reformulation process, the credentials of the ingredients and their providers is becoming ever more important for food and drink manufacturers.”