Taste Is Key In Healthier Food And Drinks

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

In an exclusive interview, Dr Tan Sze, managing director, Nestlé Research and Development Centre Singapore, speaks to APFI on the importance of understanding nutritional needs of consumers in different markets, and utilising digital technology to reach today’s consumers. By Farah Nazurah

An estimated two billion people—over 30 percent of the world’s population—suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, especially the ‘Big Four’: iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc, according to the World Health Organisation. The consequences of malnutrition can be devastating—leading to mental impairment, poor health, low productivity and in severe cases, death. Even mild to moderate deficiencies can affect a person’s well-being and development. 

Food and beverage manufacturers can help alleviate the issue of malnourishment by fortifying their products with essential vitamins and minerals, whilst tailoring product fortification to specific nutrient deficiencies in different countries.

Fortified food and drinks may promote or support overall health and wellness in a variety of ways—improving heart, bone, digestive, eye, and brain health; weight management; and increased energy and immune health. It is also essential for manufacturers to ensure fortified products taste good so it appeals to consumers.

How does the company ensure consumers like the taste of fortified foods?

Dr Sze Tan

Having sufficient essential vitamins and minerals is key in meeting nutritional requirements necessary for maintaining health and wellness across different life stages. Given this, the company works to provide consumers with healthier and tastier choices. This also includes enhancing the micronutrient profile of our food and beverage products. We do this by understanding the nutritional needs and deficiencies of consumers in different countries and adding relevant micronutrients to products they regularly consume.

We constantly carry out consumer preference and validation sessions to ensure that taste is not compromised as a result of fortification.

Which ingredients does the company fortify its products with?

The company has two examples of products that have been fortified. The first example is Milo Activ-Go, developed by the company’s research and development centre in Singapore, and it is implemented globally. The product contains protomalt—a malt extract containing micronutrients and different types of carbohydrates—which optimises energy release, muscle function and bone maintenance for children. Another example is Maggi, which delivered 110 billion servings fortified with iodine, iron or vitamin A in 2015, and the company aims to increase this number to 120 billion fortified servings by 2020.

We will continue to fortify micronutrients in our products according to the relevant needs of individuals and communities.

What are the obstacles the company faces when fortifying foods?

There are two common areas that we have to address in the fortification process:

  • Taste: Altering the recipes of our products with fortification often affects how they taste and our goal is ensure that the fortified products still taste great.

  • Dosage: As dietary habits and nutritional needs differ from country to country, we work to provide relevant fortified products to address these nutritional needs. While fortification is crucial to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies in some countries, in others where there is no deficiency in a particular micronutrient, over-fortification might become an issue. Most importantly, our challenge is to ensure that these fortified products are easy to access and affordable to these vulnerable populations.

How do you educate consumers on the importance of eating healthier?

The company aims to contribute to a healthier future, so offering tastier and healthier choices is ingrained into what we do across all various functions. Our global objectives towards 2020 include reducing the sugar we add into our products by five percent and reducing the sodium added into our products by 10 percent. To empower people in making informed choices about what they consume, we provide clear information about ingredients, nutritional benefits, health information and portion size on all our packaging.

We were one of the early adopters of the Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) in Singapore and have consistently worked closely with the authorities to offer consumers tastier and healthier choices. Take for instance our recent HCS product launch—Milo Gao Siew Dai—which features a stronger taste, 50 percent less table sugar and 30 percent more protein.

We also aim to foster healthy behaviours in children and families through programmes like “Nestlé Healthy Kids” which promotes nutrition education and healthy lifestyles among school-going children and their caregivers.

What are some food and beverage trends you see in the region?

Asia is very diverse and we see unique opportunities in each market. Nevertheless, there are a few broad trends that span the region:

  • Reality of Digital Connectivity:

    As we move closer towards the reality of ‘Internet of Everything’, we expect to see more consumers seamlessly switching between the digital and physical world. Asia has one of the fastest-growing mobile and internet penetration rates globally. From connected homes to cashless payments, food and beverage companies must learn how to engage consumers on both the digital and physical front—whether it’s through interactive digital packaging or working with technology companies to develop integrated solutions, we must adapt to an increasingly connected society of digital natives.

  • Transparency on Demand:

    With the rise of netizen journalism, easy access to information online, and fast speed of information dissemination, being transparent in business has never been more important. People are more conscious of supply chain issues and want to know where their food and drinks come from, how they are sourced, what ingredients are used, etc. Most of the time, they also expect such information to be publicly available online or at least available on demand. Learning how to respond quickly and accurately to both positive and negative feedback is crucial for food and beverage companies to retain market share and keep their reputations intact.

  • Decision-Making through Sharing:

    The increasing rate of mobile penetration has also fuelled the growth of social sharing platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. These sites often elevate everyday activities into a perceived notion of an individual’s lifestyle and personal brand. This includes the food he or she consumes and posts about online. Food and beverage companies have to find a way to be relevant in this space and create an experience, not just a product, which people want to share about and recommend on their social networks.

As there are many markets in Asia Pacific with rapidly ageing populations, how can food and beverage manufacturers leverage on the market opportunities?

It is very important to understand nutritional needs of the local market. One area where there is significant potential for growth is food as a prevention. Our colleagues at the company’s research centre in Asia, for instance, are working on research projects with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore to study the role of nutrition and early development in health and disease. In time, we hope to translate these insights into products that support health and wellness for the elderly.

Last but not least, it is also important to ensure they are delivered in formats and packaging which fit into the everyday lifestyle of this target group of people.