Innovating Toward Consumer Demands

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

Ongoing consumer demand for ‘optimal nutrition’ and more personalisation is spurring new product innovations. Arwika Ussahatanon, food and communications specialist, explains.

A huge trend reinforcing the success of the healthy food and beverage market is the expanding consumer base for functional foods, defined as foods that offer additional health benefits. It is the key driver of most innovation, from the rise of green juices, to plant-based snacks, dairy-free and gluten-free products.

The biggest trend in fact is the desire for foods and ingredients that are naturally functional as consumers shift their focus to “eating for health” from that of “eating for calories.”

A 2015 Nielsen Report on Healthy Eating Trends showed that three in 10 global respondents seek foods that are protein-rich (32 percent), have whole grain (30 percent) or are fortified with vitamins (30 percent) or minerals (29 percent) to fulfil their nutritional needs.

And these numbers are expected to grow, signalling the uptick in demand for functional foods. In Asia Pacific alone, the functional foods market is projected to increase at a CAGR of 5.9 percent from 2016 to 2026, to reach a value of US$5.04 billion.

Leading the way to bring more healthy, nutritious and safe foods to global consumers is food and nutrition research. Innovation hubs like Food Valley in Wageningnen of the Netherlands for example, are where clusters of international food companies and local research institutes work together to collaborate, create and nurture new concepts for the entire spectrum of the global food supply chain.

The Netherlands ranks the second largest agrifood exporter in the world, and is home to more than 4,150 companies, from farm to fork. Twelve of the world’s largest companies maintain major production or R&D centres in the country including Unilever, Danone, Kraft Heinz, Mars, Coca-Cola and Nestlé.

“The Dutch government’s food policy encourages companies to produce food that contains less salt, fat and sugar. They want consumers to have a greater range of healthy food options, making it easier for them to have a balanced diet. To achieve this, the government works closely with producers, supermarkets, caterers and the hospitality industry,” says Elmar Bouma, executive director-SEA of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA), based in Singapore.

A New Modelling Approach

Healthier product composition via the reduction or replacement of ingredients has become a major topic in today’s food industry. Equally important are the effects of replacers on product quality, texture, taste and shelflife. These are even more pronounced when multiple reformulations are applied.

Instead of reducing one ingredient, such as sugar content, multiple reformulations may involve reducing both sugar and fat, while increasing fibre content. Attempts at creating an overall healthier nutrient composition often come at the expense of product quality.

A comprehensive strategy can be used to generate the right reformulation solutions. With the help of various model systems, many solutions can be quickly and cost-efficiently tested. These model systems are simplified products that best represent the end product.

Typically, the reduction of a single ingredient requires a new, healthier composition consisting of various ingredients to replicate the essential functionalities of that one component.

At The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) for example, the effects of possible reformulations are efficiently calculated using theoretical and empirical computer models. Results are then translated into practice, which guide manufacturers to the best applicable solutions that guarantee the best product quality and shelf life.

TNO is currently working with food producers and ingredient suppliers to develop healthier compositions to deliver nutrient-rich foods to consumers. For example, in a partnership with a Dutch company, two patents concerned with sugar reduction were introduced in one of the manufacturer’s high-moisture baked products for breakfast cakes.

Natural Sodium Reduction

Sodium plays a major role in Asian diets. The average Asian consumes 4,600 mg of sodium per day, well above the 2,000 mg cap recommended by the World Health Organisation.

High sodium intake is known to exacerbate the symptoms of certain health conditions, including diabetes. The disease afflicts about 422 million people worldwide, with more than 60 percent living in Asia. The complete exclusion of salt from food products, however, is fraught with obstacles, including a perceived lack of taste and lower consumer demand.

To reduce sodium levels and increase the perception of saltiness in foods, Venlo-based Scelta Mushrooms created a flavour enhancer that draws on the natural effect of umami. The fifth basic taste, umami imparts a longer-lasting flavour and improves palatability.

Made from umami-rich vegetable extracts (mushroom residues), the enhancer is a natural replacement for artificial flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG), and can reduce sodium up to 50 percent in processed foods, without compromising on taste and functions.

It offers three products designed for specific applications. The liquid and powder forms are used as general flavour enhancers, alternatives to MSG, and as sodium reduction tools in savoury foods like chips, soups and ready-made meals. The baking powder allows for significant sodium reduction in baked goods like tortillas, pitas and bagels.

By gradually adapting consumer preferences for saltiness, the enhancer can potentially reduce the global sodium intake and impart a host of health benefits through better food choices.

New Fortification Vehicles

Older persons (60 and above) are a large and growing demographic, expected to reach a global population of approximately 1.2 billion by 2025. While people are living longer and healthier lives, the elderly are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, partly caused by their more sedentary lifestyles and tendency to eat less.

Their appetite is also often suppressed due to illness, extensive intake of medicines or a reduced sense of taste and smell. This could result in a lack of micronutrients in their diets, which in turn causes a weakened immune system that affects their ability to heal from wounds and atrophy of muscles, leading to more falls and possible fractures.

Mounting scientific evidence shows that fortifying foods with collagen peptides contributes to healthy bones and a more hydrated skin. Bones, tendons, cartilage, teeth and skin are mostly made up of collagen. Collagen consists of interlaced protein chains, known as polypeptides. As people age, their collagen production decreases, resulting in brittle bones and wrinkly skin.

Three years ago, Dutch start-up Fortified Food Coatings approached gelatine manufacturer, Rousselot with the idea of fortifying ready meals containing peptides and other food supplements for senior citizens and hospital patients. Collagen peptides have been scientifically shown to support mobility and promote healthy joints and bones. Peptides are also a source of protein that can be used to fortify functional foods, beverages and nutritional bars to provide specific health benefits.

Following a joint feasibility study, the company developed a new fortifying technology that uses a food printer to spray a thin layer of gelatine enriched with collagen peptides, calcium and vitamin D over restaurant-quality ready meals. The technology can be used with all micronutrients that are water-soluble and stays transparent without affecting taste, colour or odour.

The meals are chilled and packed once the premix in the gelatine has set, and can last between seven and nine days. When the meal is reheated in the microwave, the gelatine melts and the nutrients go into the meal, guaranteeing the nutritional value of the complete dish. An added benefit of the coating is that it enhances the meal’s appearance, making the food look fresh rather than dried out.

“The elderly community is one key segment that can benefit from these meals. The gelatine coatings can be fortified with micronutrients that the elderly typically lack, such as vitamin D and calcium that are crucial to maintaining bone health and boosting muscle function,” Mr Bouma points out.

The start-up is collaborating with Wageningen University and Rousselot to investigate nutrient levels and formulate the right nutrient mixes. Such collaborations will continue to offer extremely customised nutritional solutions for various target groups.

Ongoing research to expand the meals’ applications is certainly a step in the right direction to help eliminate nutrient deficiencies, or even malnutrition in a significant proportion of the population.

In the long run, they intend to apply the concept to recovery foods for athletes. The market is currently flooded with sports drinks, even though nutrients are absorbed much better when consumed as part of a meal.

Future Of Food

By 2050, a global population of 9.7 billion will demand 70 percent more food than is consumed today. Feeding this expanded population nutritiously and sustainably will require substantial improvements to the global food system.

Asian countries will have to deal with emergent populations that will increasingly make health and diet one of their top priorities. Such demands are quickly stimulating innovation on the supply side, much of which is taking place in Europe.

“A whole new food ecosystem is evolving, driven by start-ups that are responding to consumer demand by presenting healthier options and bringing new and innovative products to the marketplace,” Mr Bouma remarks. Asia can too benefit similarly through implementing new technologies and sustainable solutions.