A recurring subject at the Food Matters Live conference and exhibition in London last week was, not surprisingly, reformulation. Ben Cooper reports.

The food sector has been set voluntary sugar reduction targets by the UK government as part of its childhood obesity strategy, providing companies with tough reformulation challenges. How major food producers are responding to those challenges was discussed in numerous seminars and several sessions of the Food Matters Live conference in London.

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Having listened to those discussions, visitors were then able to walk around the hall to see and sample new products being exhibited, many developed by innovative niche companies and start-ups responding to the same health trends and concerns that have prompted the need for mainstream brands to reformulate. 

It was a fascinating juxtaposition – new products created with today’s market imperatives in mind but largely unknown to consumers and, on the other han,d the challenge of adapting brands with huge consumer recognition to take account of new requirements.

At a conference panel session taking mainstreaming the role of reformulation as its topic, it was interesting to note how representatives from two major food manufacturers spoke about reformulation, and the language they used. 

“We {Hellmann’s} have been on a journey and we have an ambition to have 90% of our portfolio meeting highest nutritional standards by 2020,” Joanna Allen, global brand vice president at Unilever brand Hellmann’s, told the audience.

“But I think the opportunity is actually for us to be a little bit more creative if you like with how we go about renovation, because whilst it’s relatively simple for us to look at, albeit technically challenging, reducing nutrients of concern, actually how do we delight consumers in a way that makes that product a more appealing product?”

Allen gave as examples two new additions to the Hellmann’s range launched earlier this year, one sweetened with honey and another made from red and green tomatoes which reduces tomato crop waste in the production process by about 10%.

“Ultimately both of those have been designed to meet highest nutritional standards, so the sugar content is about 35% less than market standard,” Allen continued. “The thing that makes it interesting, the thing that makes it desirable for consumers, is because we’ve brought something new to the category that wasn’t there before. 

“So, I think we have to broaden a little bit of our horizon when we think about renovation. Think about actually how are we going to find something that tastes delicious, because, frankly, if it doesn’t no one’s going to buy it.”

Taste is, of course, the most crucial factor, whether companies are undertaking covert reformulation “by stealth”, where nutrients of concern are reduced by gradual increments over time without signalling this to the consumer, or developing a product variant with a healthier nutritional profile. 

A manufacturer can also choose to reduce levels of nutrients of concern in a core brand and communicate this to the consumer, but health campaigners believe reformulation by stealth to be the most effective way of lowering consumption of less healthy nutrients, often citing the success achieved in salt reduction in the UK by using this method. 

The stealth approach casts the food manufacturer in the role of unsung hero. A company may have applied significant resources to solving difficult technical problems and then quietly introduces the reformulated product actually hoping consumers won’t notice. 

Discreet reformulation of big-selling mainstream products may well be one of the most telling contributions food companies can make to tackling the obesity crisis, but food companies would naturally rather demonstrate their expertise and ingenuity in the form of new and innovative products.

“I would rather talk about innovation and bringing new science to the marketplace., said Sue Gatenby, PepsiCo senior director nutrition Europe, another member of the panel.

Like Allen, Gatenby used the word “renovate” several times when talking about the reformulation, and was asked why. Did the word reformulation perhaps have negative associations? 

“For me, renovating is a slightly more positive way of talking about reformulation but innovation is really where I think the focus should be,” Gatenby said. “But we have a legacy of products that we have to move, we have to change, and that has to go alongside the exciting component of R&D which is innovation.”

Clearly, new products not only have the capacity to “delight” consumers but also their creators. Product developers and brand marketers want to bring new and exciting products to market, while new product development is the lifeblood of food brands. Reformulation, on the other hand, is just something that has to be done.