When Kraft Heinz covertly changed the recipe of its ‘Mac & Cheese’ in the US last year, it claimed to have pulled off “the largest blind taste test in history”.
It replaced artificial flavours and colours in the product with more natural ingredients, but only announced the changes in March after observing no negative impact.
“People had been asking us to take the artificial flavours, preservatives and dyes out of Kraft Mac & Cheese for a long time, but they didn’t want us to change the iconic taste they know and love. We heard them loud and clear,” the company writes on the official Mac & Cheese website.
Largely hailed as a success, since going public about the changes the customer feedback on its social media pages ranges from gratitude and surprise to occasional outpourings of indignation.
Therein lies the rub for today’s manufacturers. While we no longer want our foods too salty, sugary or laced with artificial chemicals, we still expect them to look and taste as good as they always have, without paying extra for the privilege.
In 2013, Nestlé UK tackled this issue head-on when it reformulated its Kit Kat bar after “three years of challenging research and development”. It claims the resulting snack bar will see 3,800 tonnes of saturated fat removed from the public’s diet.
“As well as reformulating our products, we also look at portion size as smaller portions are another way to reduce calorie consumption,” the company says.
Many other manufacturers of big brand names have taken the safer route of developing variants of classic products to satisfy health-conscious consumers.
As well as reformulating our products, we also look at portion size as smaller portions are another way to reduce calorie consumption
And yet another response to campaigners targeting salt and sugar is to make a pledge of intent to reduce them, and then schedule those changes into a futuristic timeline.
Mars Food recently rolled out two such long-term initiatives aimed at slowly reducing both sodium and added sugar over the next decade.
In the shorter term, the company says it will introduce labels to advise customers on the frequency they should consume products – such as its Dolmio sauces – to remain within healthy eating guidelines.
Proposals of a graded sugar tax in the UK targeting the soft drinks industry have also made their mark.
Coca-Cola Great Britain recently pledged to reformulate and rebrand its Coke Zero product to taste even more like the original Coca-Cola, but without sugar.
A £10 million marketing campaign to persuade more people to choose no sugar will accompany the launch in what the soft-drink maker describes as “a deliberate attempt to change the mix of the company’s portfolio between sugar and no sugar drinks”.
Fraser Courts, nutrition specialist at Campden BRI, says that while sugar replacement remains a key trend amongst established brands, the use of novel and so-called natural ingredients is also gaining ground.
He also expects ‘clean label’ ingredient declarations and ‘freefrom’ product variants to experience rapid growth.
While larger businesses have followed a more conservative reformulation route, he sees smaller food and drink manufacturers reacting rapidly to these trends.
This has led to “a large number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups in the UK producing reformulated versions of existing mass market products, such as protein-enriched cereal bars, bakery goods produced from ancient-grains, and milks produced from oats,” says Courts.
The biggest challenges in reformulation can arise from the technical replacement of the displaced ingredient, he adds.
An ingredient that might now be perceived as ‘undesirable’ could have a technical or sensory purpose, from improving microbiological safety through to improving texture or flavour.
“Replacing the functions of one ingredient may require the use of multiple ingredients to fulfil all of the functions of the original ingredient, and may involve combination changes to processing regimes,” he says.
Cost of replacement ingredients is also a major challenge, and has been a particular hurdle in the replacement of relatively cheap sugars in the total bulk of a product.
Replacing the functions of one ingredient may require the use of multiple ingredients to fulfil all of the functions of the original ingredient, and may involve combination changes to processing regimes
Fraser Courts, nutrition specialist at Campden BRI
In spite of these challenges, Tim Rycroft, director of corporate affairs at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), believes improving the health of food products is good for business.
“The ageing population, as well as the health agendas increasingly being promoted in the Western world, are seen by many as likely drivers of increased demand for healthier products,” he says.
Like many of the larger food and drink businesses operating in the UK, he says SMEs should appreciate the potential of recipe reformulation to improve diets and to create business opportunities. However, he warns the pace of change must be governed by consumer consent.
There can also be technical limitations to consider.
“Producers of packaged foods, which have been at the forefront of this work, are finding it harder to further reduce salt without compromising product safety, quality, taste or shelf-life,” he says.
“When brands make changes – something that takes time and money to get right – they need to do so in a way and at a pace that their customers will accept. Food and drink exists to give pleasure as well as nutrition, after all.”
Colin Dennis, president and fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists, points out some other factors that have also begun to influence consumer preferences.
“More companies are now looking to make sure their supply chains are sustainable and this may also inform the ingredients they use,” he says.
Some researchers have already anticipated this trend. For example, as a common ingredient in many foods, the high demand for unsustainably sourced palm oil is increasingly being linked with widespread deforestation in South East Asia.
Late last year a team of engineers and scientists from the University of Bath and the University of York received a £4.4 million grant to develop a yeast alternative to palm oil for industrial use.
But as with any new food formulations, potential technical and safety issues must be taken into consideration when integrating alternatives into existing products, experts warn.
For instance, a dough with lower salt content may become sticky and then can’t be run through a production line.
Salt and sugar have natural preservation qualities because of their ability to lower the water activity of a food, says Dennis. Changing this can play a critical role in microbial growth and potential food spoilage.
One of the UK’s largest recorded outbreaks of foodborne botulism occurred in 1989 following consumption of a hazelnut conserve that had been sweetened with aspartame rather than sugar following reformulation, and then added to yoghurt.
“And of course you have to look at packaging as well,” says Dennis.
“There is a nexus between the product, packaging and process that one always has to consider.”
Like anything, it is all about dose. There is nothing wrong with high sugar and fat if the product in question is eaten sparingly
Colin Dennis, president and fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists
In addition, he says new research is now just beginning to reveal that total composition of a food stuff isn’t the only consideration, with studies into the impact of food structure and research into the human microbiome also showing promise.
“I see the emerging study of food structure as a very interesting topic going forward. Now we are not just thinking about analytical composition, but also about the way all those ingredients are put together in the structure of food and how that impacts on health.”
However, he warns that nutritional changes to food and drink alone may not be enough to reverse national health statistics. “Like anything, it is all about dose. There is nothing wrong with high sugar and fat if the product in question is eaten sparingly.”
Innovation – Heat treatment
The market for particulate-based foods is growing as consumers demand convenience foods with homemade qualities and an expanding range of innovative beverages.
According to packaging and process solutions supplier Tetra Pak, the traditional borders between beverages and foods are now being blurred by the presence of particles.
For example, when walnuts are added to milk, is it classified as a beverage or food?
These trends have put new demands on processing technology for heat treatment solutions, and must meet the challenge of guaranteeing food safety through pasteurisation or sterilisation processes, without sacrificing product quality.
So how can pumps, valves, heat exchangers, holding tubes, pipes and vessels be dimensioned to meet this challenge, and how much pumping force should be applied to compensate for increased pressure drops?
For particle-free products, this knowledge has been well established for many years.
But for foods involving particles, Tetra Pak says there is a clear need for a new calculation model to prevent safety breaches or product damage caused by inaccurate heat transfer coefficients that can lead to incorrectly calculated temperatures and processing time for heat exchangers and holding tubes.
Tetra Pak, which has been researching solutions to many of these problems, says it can now take the guesswork out of building heat exchanger systems for particulate applications up to 20mm in size.
This allows the heating area of heat exchangers to be much more accurately calculated, thus minimising overheating the liquid while maintaining the highest level of food safety.
“In our practical experience with commercial operations, we have been able to optimise customer installations by decreasing the heat transfer area by up to 45%,” the company says.
It adds that the potential benefits to the food processing industry are many, and include improved food quality with assured food safety, lower operating and maintenance costs, and fewer product losses.
Safety – Rogue elements
Food allergy is a rapidly growing public health problem that food and drink manufacturers must increasingly consider in their product reformulation plans.
Since 2014, manufacturers in the EU must comply with new labelling regulations for potential allergens.
But establishing when to declare an allergen is not always clear-cut.
For example, when Canadian health authorities detected undeclared nut protein in a range of products containing cumin in 2014, it later transpired that another material, mahaleb, had given a positive reading for nuts.
The lack of clarity on the potential presence of allergens recently raised an equally perplexing issue for the soft drink industry, says Chris Mayes, market development manager for process equipment supplier, Parker Domnick Hunter.
Some suppliers were unsure whether activated carbon used in CO2 treatment common in drinks processing should be highlighted as a potential allergen.
According to Mayes, much of the carbon dioxide that goes into carbonated soft drinks is filtered through activated carbon. And many producers of activated carbon use coconut shell as a starter stock. Although activated carbon doesn’t end up in the drink, “the ‘nut’ piece of the word was creating some concern”, he says.
To settle the issue, Mayes says Parker Domnick Hunter applied its technical expertise to demonstrate that not only did the activated carbon manufacturing process destroy potential allergens, but there was no activated carbon in the final product.
This reassured the soft drink industry that the coconut shell used in the processing of drinks did not need to be factored in to allergen warnings on product labels, he says.