Innovations in food ingredients are sometimes based on pure research — as was the case with the advanced whey protein ingredients that came onto the market some 20 years ago. But more often than not, new ingredient solutions are found when a food processor asks a supplier-partner to help meet a need or solve a puzzle. High-intensity sweeteners, for instance, allowed soft drink marketers to develop diet sodas that taste sweet without the calories.
In 2014, food manufacturers may be more needy than ever. They need ingredients that will allow them to reduce sodium and sweeteners without a corresponding drop in consumer appeal, and many need to retool familiar formulas for popular foods in order to please consumers who are on a gluten-free diet or avoiding GMOs. And nearly all food makers need to create or reformulate products with an eye toward a clean label. So processors expect a lot from their ingredient vendors.
“Ingredient suppliers have to be one step ahead of the next innovation,” says Carole Inman, vice president of sales and marketing at Specialty Commodities Inc., Fargo, N.D. “The development teams are busy pushing the boundaries.”
Inman is a specialist in ancient grains for a company that sells specialty grains and seeds for the food and pet food industries. Her company is busy finding new sources of flax or chia or developing easier-to-use forms of ancient grains like quinoa and millet.
Other firms are rolling out yeast extracts that can enhance flavors in dairy products, or starch replacements and natural colors that can save money and offer clean-label benefits. New sweetener and texture solutions are showing up on trade show floors. The pipelines are filling, and as new ingredients emerge, food processors will need to put them to work if they want to meet consumer expectations.
Ancient grains, gluten free
It's estimated that as many as one in three U.S. consumers is either on a gluten-free diet or actively avoiding gluten. For the food manufacturer, that means wheat is out. In the many gluten-free products introduced in the last few years, ancient grains like quinoa have filled the void along with rice, seeds and nuts. But quinoa is not the only option, and ingredient suppliers like Specialty Commodities are working to strengthen the supply chain for other alternatives, says Inman.
“What's old is new again,” she says of the interest in things like buckwheat. “I wake up and my inbox is filled with inquiries for buckwheat. We have handled it for years, but until recently when was it used for anything other than pancakes?
Chia is hot right now, but for a while it was almost too hot.
“Everything was chia at [Natural Products] Expo West two years ago,” Inman says. “But the supply wasn't there yet and it nearly flamed out.”
Now prices have moderated and the supply has begun to catch up, so chia will be more broadly available for new products or reformulations. Swapping flours and grains requires some serious trial and error, Inman says, but pearlized and flaked forms that are just now being introduced allow for easier integration and changeover.
These ingredients are finding their way into a wide variety of product types, but they are most likely to end up in the kinds of products that already appeal to early adopters and consumers who are the most ardent label readers.
“As an example, sorghum crisps are being used in energy bars,” she says. “Energy bars were barely in existence a decade ago. Now they are huge. Lunch replacement bars are big.”
Quinoa supplies have opened up, and quinoa — actually a seed — is being used in a variety of foods including pasta and cereals.
“You can now find quinoa derivatives in absolutely every aisle of a grocery store like Kroger, even though less than a year ago it was being mocked in a TV commercial during the Superbowl,” says Inman.
Food formulators now have more options when it comes to quinoa, with more varieties and colors and added features including kill-steps, plus organic and non-GMO certified versions and forms developed specially for ease of use.
Ancient grains provide fiber and carbohydrates, adding nutrition and satiety to foods in which they are used. As a seed, quinoa is also high in protein. If used in combination with vegetable-based proteins, quinoa, soy, lentils and other legumes and grains can be important parts of a vegan formulation.
A good example of this can be found in the Qrunch Burger line of frozen, meatless patties, offered by Qrunch Foods, Denver. These next-generation burger substitutes come in a variety of flavors whose ingredients include quinoa, millet, amaranth and vegetable extracts. Some flavors include lentils and others pinto beans, and all are organic and GMO-free.
Reconstructing flavor … without salt
Revamping the foundation of a formula often means that some adjustments will need to be made all the way through to the fixtures and finish. Taste is always paramount, and flavor ingredients play a key role in a product's success. But with today's label-watching consumers, not just any flavor additive will do.
Making foods sweeter or saltier or finding ways to enhance and maintain inherent flavors has long been a part of the food technologist's challenge. New umami ingredients, salt substitutes and flavor modulators allow that work to continue without impeding clean-label objectives.