Food industry trends come and go, especially in the flavor and nutrition areas. However, research chefs and culinary scientists are challenged to take on one trend that is here to stay: how to create products that are not only healthy but also contain ingredient statements that can be relayed in language consumers understand.
This is a double challenge, because there are many healthy ingredients out there in the food scientist’s toolkit the consumer does not perceive as healthy only because those ingredients are described in unfamiliar or vague terms.
Product developers must either find an alternative way to make products healthy or figure out how to relay the message so consumers can accept and believe what they are eating is indeed good for them.
Food products for retail and foodservice typically are developed by a company’s research and development team. This team, in turn, relies heavily on ingredient suppliers that provide both the simple and complex specialty components that make up food and beverage products.
Some of these ingredients, of course, are the food itself -- for example, beans, rice, fruit and animal proteins. But in order to make a frozen or shelf-stable packaged food product last, developers must use functional ingredients such as starches, flavors, preservatives, colors and hydrocolloids. These hold the product together and ensure that quality remains consistent for the duration of the shelf life.
From a cost standpoint, using modified starches, artificial flavors and chemical preservatives are most efficient. They work well and add only pennies to the total product cost. However, these are the ingredients that today’s “earthwise” consumers believe they want removed from food products.
“The most frequent request we receive from customers is for new sauces, dips and dressings with only natural flavors and colors -- nothing artificial,” says Ellen Powell, R&D director at Giraffe Food and Beverages Inc., Mississauga, Ontario. Giraffe makes customized sauces, dips and dressings for foodservice.
“The days of allowing a combination of N & A [natural and artificial] flavors are over; it’s only natural from here on out. After that, and it’s a very close second, is the request to remove any artificial preservatives, such as sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate, and replace them with either natural preservatives like cultured dextrose/sugar or to remove them completely.”
Companies like Giraffe are challenged by their foodservice customers to make these ingredient adjustments. Other companies are striving to meet the goals of the mainstream retail consumer.
“Our customers have been requesting healthy ingredients in their nutrition bars for a couple of years, and we use only natural ingredients, including natural flavors,” agrees Olivia Nahoum, food scientist at Creative Energy Foods Inc., an Oakland, Calif., nutritional energy bar manufacturer.
Unfortunately, replacing these ingredients comes at a price. Natural, organic and non-GMO ingredients are often in shorter supply and cost more money. Decisions like replacing corn-based syrups with fruit juice concentrates can double or even triple a finished product’s price. Natural flavors cost more per pound, and require higher usage levels to deliver what an artificial flavor could bring at a fraction of the price. However, to stay competitive and meet consumer requests, these replacements must take place.
Over at Park 100 Foods Inc., Tipton, Ind., executive chef Michael Joy explains his culinary take on ingredient replacement: “The removal of ingredients by consumer request has created the need to go back to our culinary roots and execute great flavor blending using natural flavor potentiators, like citrus juices, vinegars and soy sauce.” Joy notes that “being creative in the blending of the five tastes also is an imperative in creating clean foods that taste great.”
As further example, Joy contributes that, “Soy sauce is a great flavor enhancer -- and it’s not just for Asian cuisine anymore. There are also lots of dried and dehydrated vegetable powders, such as mushroom powders, that add a unique taste when added below the threshold level of identifiable flavor.”
Clean and clear labels
Ingredients often have names that are hard to pronounce and difficult to understand. Consumers often wrongfully conclude that natural ingredients with complicated-sounding names must be artificial or “bad for you.” It doesn’t help when uninformed food bloggers relay false information to the public, causing unnecessary concern.