Anyone attending recent conferences and seminars on food reformulation held in London and Amsterdam could not fail to be struck by the technological prowess food companies have at their disposal when it comes to formulating and reformulating food products. 

For major food corporations, technological innovation is vital for commercial success and growth, but food technology has always had the capacity to provide solutions for much wider benefit. Think of Louis Pasteur and it is probably not necessary to go further to demonstrate the huge contribution advances in the formulation and processing of food have made to mankind, but one could.

Today, the work being undertaken and that will be undertaken in the future to reduce levels of three key nutrients linked with health problems – namely salt, sugar and fat – also comes into that category. 

As pointed out at the beginning of this management briefing, while food companies face much criticism over food marketing and its effect on dietary heath, the potential for reformulation to be not only “part of the solution” but a vital part is unquestionable. 

The part food companies have played in reducing salt intake in the UK through “stealth” reformulation underlines the pivotal role they have to perform, and foreshadows the role they will have to play in further reformulation and, it is hoped, improving diets.

However, for all the expertise the industry can call on, the task ahead is fairly daunting. Companies are now looking to go beyond the 15% to 20% salt reduction already achieved in many products, which will demand even more innovative solutions. The challenges in further reducing salt levels, however, are dwarfed by what food companies face with regard to sugar, given how widely it is used both for function and flavour in food products.

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Sugar consumption – and sugar reduction in processed foods – is now seen as the most important issue facing public health agencies and food companies. Only time will tell whether reduction by stealth will work as well for sugar as it has for salt. While some point to the difficulty of replacing sugar’s functional properties in formulations, others suggest that weaning consumers off sweetness will not be as easy. “The reduction by stealth technique doesn’t work well for sugar to be honest because it’s not long before you notice the lack of sweetness in a product,” reformulation expert Professor Paul Berryman said at the Food Matters Live conference last month.

Particularly if the addiction theorists are right or at least partially right, dehabituation on a scale to achieve the sorts of reductions that are necessary could be very difficult. There may only be so much that can be achieved by stealth reductions, or at least it will be very slow going, so sweeteners – and that means sweetener blends and combinations of sweeteners with sugar – will be crucial. 

The use of sweeteners is likely to become more extensive, and this has been a controversial area for the industry. Jack Winkler, formerly Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University. told the Reformulation Series conference in Amsterdam last month he believes stealth and gradual dehabituation to be the right approach to take for sugar, but also says that the role of sweeteners will be crucial. 

The use of sweeteners and other substitute ingredients inevitably leads to discussion of another significant challenge facing those charged with reducing sugar, salt and fat levels in food formulations, the “clean label” trend.

The risk of consumer suspicion or rejection of reformulated products owing to the incorporation of too many new and unfamiliar ingredients is considerable. However, a greater threat is arguably the clean label trend will hamper food scientists in their pursuit of solutions to lower salt, fat and sugar levels.

In a technological age, it is to be expected new ingredients and ground-breaking techniques will offer potential breakthroughs. These solutions may not score well on clean label properties but they will offer the best solutions. Opportunities could be missed. 

The clean label trend presents food companies with a dilemma. They want their products to be perceived as being as wholesome as possible and not full of chemicals, but the path food reformulation is on may inevitably move towards more complex formulations involving the combination of ingredients. 

As outlined earlier in this briefing, the reformulation field requires the balancing of competing priorities. Kate Halliwell, nutrition and health manager at the Food and Drink Federation, said at a seminar at the Food Matters Live conference the “differing priorities and clamouring voices” in the food and health debate made it all the more important that there is “clarity” from government, academics and industry regarding the priorities. 

The clearest example of prioritisation at the moment is the importance being attached to sugar reduction. And clean label is effectively another example of competing priorities. Owing to current consumer sensibilities on clean label, food companies may have to think about how they might limit the use of additives, but at present the higher priority must be the development of products with lower levels of nutrients of concern. 

In part wwo of this briefing, Steve Osborn of Leatherhead Food Research said a pragmatic approach is necessary to establish “mutual trust” between the industry and the consumer on the clean label issue. However, there is a case for saying the food industry needs to be more assertive in speaking out for the merits of a technological fix, setting the agenda and leading public opinion. 

The question of trust speaks to another facet of the clean label trend which is that consumers and campaigners are not only mistrustful of the labels, or the ingredients they find on them, but they are mistrustful of food the companies themselves. At a time when public trust in the food industry is not high it may be difficult for companies to persuade consumers of the merits of new ingredients and processes. 

How reformulation fits with the reputational standing of the food industry is relevant in another, broader context. It is acknowledged by public health experts that gradual reductions in levels of nutrients of concern over time is extremely effective, as the salt campaign in the UK has undoubtedly proved. The research and investment being channelled into reformulation and the technical expertise available means the food industry is extremely well placed to make a game-changing contribution to tackling diet-related health issues. 

Companies talking about “being part of the solution” in issues of public interest can sometimes sound a little like platitude. In the instance of food reformulation, that is certainly not the case. The contribution the industry can make is crucial, and is recognised as such in all quarters.