Consumers are asking bigger questions of the Food Industry.
How to create foods to serve individual health?
How to reduce obesity?
How to make communication of food and nutrition more truthful?
How to create memorable food experiences
How to create more sustainable ingredients and foods?
Consumers are more demanding with increasingly divergent interests, tastes and habits. The new generations are redefining what is popular and interesting with millennials currently being the primary influencer in the marketplace. Millennials eat many snacks as part of their multitasking lives and value both indulgent as well as healthy foods, with natural and clean label being high on list of preferred attributes. This group particularly values products that bring novel sensorial experiences such as mixtures of sweet and salty, fruit with spices, or different, more adventurous, textures. They also value products with a Story that provides context and connection. Millennials are very communicative via social media and like to broadcast their points-of-view, good or bad.
Artificial as a public enemy is the new global reality with a global “Natural” trend expanding and putting increasing pressure on artificial ingredients. According to a recent study by Nielsen, Brazilian consumers prefer foods that are 100% Natural (68%); Low fat (60%); Low sugar (59%); Low Salt (49%) and are willing to pay more for products that are environmentally friendly (48%) with organic or Natural ingredients (49%). A global trend of “Clean Label” is also growing, initially focused on reducing artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives and more recently expanding to include focus on other ingredient factors such as GMO, use of pesticides, sustainability, animal welfare and farming methods as decision factors for consumers. This increased emphasis on “Clean Label” attributes is driving the need for more education and understanding of new technical solutions that can satisfy this demand. As well, the food industry is learning quickly that they need to adapt to a new level of information transparency regarding their product ingredients and manufacturing practices.
Interestingly the increased consumer focus on the details of product composition, the factors related to their production and their effect on health is coming at a time when the food supply is safer than it has ever been, with increasingly rigorous manufacturing and quality control as well as increased scrutiny of ingredient and food biology. Many factors related to overall health and wellness have progressed positively in the last 50 years, including dramatic decreases in the global levels of extreme poverty, basic education and literacy as well as an increase in the overall quality and length of life.
The focus of health related issues has changed as well, with more focus on non-communicable diseases such as Ischemic Heart disease, and Stroke, which are now the top two causes of death worldwide. However, this changing dynamic there are still some regions where undernutrition is still the major concern and the main health prevention focus is providing adequate nutrition and preventing transmittable infectious diseases. Thus, the mindset of the consumer, especially in more developed nations, has shifted from a focus of obtaining foods for sustenance and pleasure, to include an increasing focus on foods that help support a healthier life. Improved scientific nutritional knowledge along with anecdotal evidence from blogs, family and friends increasingly informs consumer opinion and creates a shift in market demands. This mixture of scientific facts and less-informed opinions is creating significant pressure on the food industry to adapt to rapidly changing consumer opinion even when these changes may be counter intuitive to scientific or technical understanding or at times even confusing. In the marketplace and on social media, mistrust of the food industry and food science is at an all-time high forcing companies to adopt new product composition and communications strategies.
One example, which illustrates the dynamic nature of the changing market as well as the challenges present for both industry and the consumer, is the movement to decrease the sugar content of foods. Evidence is clear that sugar, as a caloric substance, consumed in higher quantity can increase risk for obesity and diabetes, mainly through weight gain. What is not so clear is whether sugar, independent of its caloric load, differs from other calorie sources regarding its impact on health. In opposition to a focus judging the health effect of a specific ingredient, stronger data supports focusing on the role of overall diet quality and its impact on health. In this case, individual foods or ingredients are not the villains. The overall composition of the diet based on daily, monthly and yearly choices will be the determinant of health outcomes.
Nevertheless, according to a recent GlobalData research study, sugar is a top concern with 43% of consumers polled citing they are “actively trying to reduce consumption of sugar”. In this study, consumers increasing link sugar content with weight gain and the concern for sugar rises with older age groups. With this increased consumer pressure to reduce sugar content, the food industry is looking for strategies to change the profile of their products. However, the challenges to reduce sugar content are greater than ever, both because of the complexity of functionality of sugar in the various food compositions as well as consumer opinion concerning potential sugar substitutes. Sugar plays a role not only as a sweetener in foods, but also contributes to texture, flavor, shelf life, freezing point, color and moisture retention among other attributes. In addition, the many synthetic sweeteners developed over the past 50 years including compounds such as Cyclamate, Saccharin, Sucralose, Neotame, Acesulfame-K, and Aspartame are now perceived as “artificial” and unpopular by more health conscious consumers, despite significant safety and use data. Other more novel and natural solutions including Stevia and Monkfruit as well as sugar alcohols such as Erythritol, Isomalt, Lactitol, Sorbitol and Xylitol have gained ground. Thus, the technical community must throw out previously learned lessons and ingredients and, presented with significantly novel challenges, must rediscover the best formulations and ingredients to provide excellent final sensory characteristics. Even more novel sweetness solutions have very recently come onto the scene as potential formulation tools, including Allulose, a combination of “rare sugars”, and two novel sugar-containing structural innovations, Nestle´s recently announced Sugar crystals and Sudzucker Group´s DouxMatok. These solutions provide significantly lower calories than regular sugar, but with similar sweetness and functional characteristics compared with other sugar substitutes.
With the focus of Consumers and Food companies on improving the nutritional characteristics of foods, a core challenge is optimizing sensory aspects to maintain consumer acceptance. Many traditional foods have attributes of odor, taste and texture that consumers are not willing to change or compromise. Thus, food companies must rely on sensory technology such as flavor modifiers and enhancers, sensory blockers and harmonization to create the best sensory experiences. Alterations in food composition by lowering sugar, salt or fat, or increases of healthful ingredients such as protein or fiber must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis to understand the effect that these changes may have on key sensory attributes and adapt ingredient and flavor profile to best produce a successful outcome. It has been proven over and over again that, “Taste is King”, and that consumers will not sacrifice good taste in their search for healthier food choices.
In summary, the marketplace is increasingly dynamic with a greater demand for diverse experiences and products with a healthier profile. This scenario of highly demanding and critical consumers, presents the food industry with complex challenges, including the need to understand new technical challenges and develop novel ingredient solutions, communicate in a way that is truthful and open, and all the while not sacrifice the sensory aspects that provide core value to the consumer.
STEVEN CHARLES RUMSEY, PhD, General Manager, Technology and Innovation, Duas Rodas