Challenging times demand innovative NPD solutions
From affordability and sustainability to health and nutrition, the current challenges facing food and beverage manufacturers are significant. But it is possible to successfully navigate the technical complexities and even accelerate product development. It’s simply a question of taking the right analytical approach.
“Our experienced team of RSSL Food Technologists brings a unique perspective and exceptional level of food industry knowledge to the product development process,” explains Carole Bingley, RSSL’s Food and Ingredient Innovation Technical Specialist. “Whether our clients want to tackle affordability by reducing ingredient costs, improve sustainability with eco-friendly packaging or reduce waste by extending shelf life, we work with them to develop a commercially viable concept that works on every level.”
So what does this look like in practice?
Act on affordability
The rising cost of ingredients is one of the many factors driving up the UK’s food and drink prices and, as Bingley observes, there are several reasons for this volatility.
“Global events continue to impact the supply chain and have created a level of disruption on an unprecedented scale. Climate change related weather, such as the widespread flooding and droughts of last year, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine are all putting pressure on some of the world’s key commodities. At the same time, we’ve experienced the world’s worst ever avian flu outbreak which sent egg prices soaring. And there’s no escaping spiralling energy prices which continue to put huge pressure on producers’ operational costs.”
For manufacturers this means finding ways to keep ingredient costs in check is more important than ever. One of the most effective strategies is product reformulation but, as Bingley explains, it comes with its own set of challenges.
“We might look at substituting certain ingredients will less expensive ones. Or rebalancing formulations to reduce the amount of more expensive ingredients, either by increasing levels of existing ingredients or including new alternatives.
“However, from a technical perspective, any change to a product’s formulation can’t be viewed in isolation. Such is the inherently complex nature of product recipes, processing and packaging regimes, that adjusting just one ingredient can potentially impact any number of product characteristics, from taste, texture and flavour to stability and processing behaviour.”
That’s why she strongly believes in taking a holistic view. “Every aspect of the specified ingredient needs to be analysed and understood in the context of the overall product concept, so that any necessary compensatory measures can be taken to ensure a consistently positive product performance.”
Indeed, RSSL carries out a wide range of rigorous analytical testing to support manufacturers through this transition. This might involve assessing whether a newly sourced ingredient consistently meets requirements in terms of quality and performance or presents a greater risk of allergen contamination. “We could also be asked to evaluate the impact of alternative ingredients on finished product characteristics. So RSSL could, for example, identify which oil or fat would be most stable in your product formulation,” says Bingley.
Within the broad and complex sustainability platform, RSSL has identified two major areas where it’s helping manufacturers reduce their environmental impact.
The first is the use of more sustainable packaging formats. New legislative policies, growing consumer concern and increasingly ambitious environmental pledges by companies of all sizes, means its packaging testing expertise is more in demand than ever. But why?
“Changing product packaging to use less, thinner or more sustainable packaging materials can create a number of issues,” says RSSL’s Packaging Technical Specialist, David Wright. “Barrier properties and shelf life, along with pack integrity, robustness and seal strength can all be compromised during production, transit, storage and use. So it must be thoroughly assessed using relevant analytical methods that consider both product and packaging. If not, quality standards may not be maintained, risking consumer complaints and even damaging brand reputation.
“For instance, switching to a new compostable flexible film is likely to bring different barrier properties that could affect the taste, appearance or odour of the product it houses. Only by measuring the oxygen and moisture transmission rate through the film can we be show that it provides the optimal barrier protection during shelf life.”
But that’s not all. It’s also vital that analytical testing is carried out under conditions that replicate the journey through the entire supply chain, says Wright. “This is particularly important when it comes to biodegradable materials which, by their very nature and purpose, are expected to have a finite lifespan – but must still perform their functional role until the end of the product’s shelf life. By aging the materials and packaging at temperatures and humidity that mimic different environments, we can evaluate their mechanical and barrier properties to ensure these expectations are met.”
RSSL’s second focus area relates to product shelf life. Specifically, working with companies who want to explore extending shelf life as part of their commitment to reducing food waste. But, as RSSL’s Lipids Technical Specialist, Rob Griffiths points out, this must be achieved without impacting product quality or safety.
“One of the biggest challenges associated with extending the shelf life of an existing product is the development of unwanted off-flavours. There could be many possible explanations, so we start by using various analytical techniques to identify the root cause of the problem. This information then gives us the basis to evaluate how best to resolve the issue, such as adding antioxidants to achieve greater stability or reformulating in order to replace problem ingredients.”
Interestingly, he also highlights the importance of analytical testing for products positioned within the health and wellness space. “Any specific nutritional claims, such as vitamins, minerals or botanicals, would need to be rechecked to ensure the specific ingredient was present at the required level right to the end of the proposed extended shelf life.”
Of course, this is not the only technical consideration when it comes to developing healthier products.
“Take for example, a clean label declaration. While consumers may be attracted to product made from recognisable store cupboard ingredients, from a technical perspective it can be challenging to deliver an appealing taste and texture when limited to a small number of minimally processed ingredients, particularly when combined with other health-driven objectives such as sugar reduction,” explains Bingley.
That’s not to say these issues are insurmountable, but it does demand specialist knowledge. Coming back to sugar reduction, Bingley says “whatever the application, our analytics provide evidence-based answers to key questions and we use this information to shape the direction of our client’s product development project. For example, how is the sweetness profile affected? Do the product properties stay the same throughout shelf life? How are stability and texture affected? Are there implications in terms of the product processability? And so on.”
Elsewhere, creating an appealing texture has emerged as one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers targeting the buoyant plant-based food category. “Navigating this complex area requires a detailed understanding of the structural properties and composition of food formulations. Which means ingredient functionality is key,” explains RSSL’s Texture and Microstructure Technical Specialist, Fred Gates. “We know, for example, that wheat and gluten give more of a firm texture, while pea proteins deliver a more succulent mouthfeel, but the way these ingredients perform can vary under different conditions.”
As you might expect, RSSL uses different analytical techniques to measure textural attributes at each stage of consumption from first bite through to the latter stages of bolus formation. In addition, the team’s broad capabilities in microscopy enable them to build a detailed picture of a product’s structure which can help to explain why texture is not meeting expectations. “In our experience, this has proved particularly valuable for the development of meat analogue products that aim to successfully mimic the complex structure and naturally-fibrous texture of animal meat,” says Gates.
“For instance, a plant-based cheese made up of plant protein and starch that is too brittle can be analysed to establish how it behaves when you compress or cut it. Depending on what we see, we may then address the issue by modifying levels of fat, water and starch in the formulation to achieve the desired texture. In every case, our goal is to optimise formulations and help manufacturers find the product ‘sweet spot’ where everything works in harmony to create the optimum eating experience for consumers.”
At Tastes of Better, RSSL will explain how its range of scientific solutions can help manufacturers work smarter and get products to market faster. The team will share insights and real-world case studies related to current industry challenges around affordability, sustainability and health & nutrition. There will also be opportunity to put questions to RSSL’s panel of experts.