The global food industry continues to struggle through the issues of ingredient substitutions, contaminants, fraudulent behaviour in some parts of the food chain, improved methods of analysis and growing consumer distrust.

Traceability, preferred supplier contracts and the increased vigilance of manufacturers across a constantly evolving set of quality criteria continue to challenge loyalties and trust across distribution and supply channels.

Drivers of change

Consumer awareness of the link between diet and health is also augmenting. ‘Clean labels’ offer a marketing advantage, while health claims and inflated, non-scientific messages about the supposed benefits of ‘miracle’ fruits, antioxidants, and ranges of foods or food ingredients have led to a plethora of product innovations that, in many cases, fail to justify the hype.

At the same time, there is a growing incidence of dietary and lifestyle-related health problems in the developed world. Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and cholesterol are all closely related to improper diet. This is exacerbated by a rapidly aging population, driving up healthcare costs across the Western world. In the future, governments will be unable to afford the healthcare bills, but these could be reduced significantly by a focus on the malnutrition of those over 60 years old.

Regulators across the world are struggling to implement effective policies around health claims for
two main reasons:

  • Globally, food law is based on risk aversion, as distinct from health promotion. Regulators need to make a paradigm shift in mindset to cope with risk-benefit analysis based upon improving population health.
  • There is a distinct lack of scientific evidence of a measurable change in the key biomarkers of health. Current regulators, such as the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), still treat food health claims as they would medicines, and require a similar level of clinical evidence of the efficacy of the food in question.

Growing industry trends

Of great interest and promise is the rapidly evolving scientific understanding of the human microbiome. Modern methods of analysis have established the fundamental importance of this microflora to health and wellness, and the human body’s immune reactions. Though still in its infancy, this emerging science will dominate food, diet and health in the very near future, potentially eclipsing nutrition in our understanding of human life.

The food industry needs to move from creating low-cost foods to providing foods and diets that offer nutrient density, are designed more for senior members of the population, improve health and quality of life, and minimise the threat of premature death.

As health claims begin to be accepted by regulators, more functional foods are likely to be marketed. Opportunities will increase for ingredient suppliers with specialised, even patented, products, backed by science-based clinical evidence of efficacy and physiological impact.

Some of the current trends in food manufacture and marketing will increase in popularity. The desirability of clean labels has resulted in an increase of natural flavours and colours. Starches have evolved into many different forms and there is a growing use of unconventional products such as potato starch. Herbs and spices are being widely used, bolstered by the involvement of chefs as part of the food manufacturing development process.

"The growing scarcity of water, the pressure on animal feed and the rapidly growing Asian population, with its increasing demand for meat, will create huge problems for the supply of safe protein sources."

Sodium reduction will remain a priority, despite some controversial views of the impact this has on public health. Many ingredient mixes have replaced sodium salts with potassium salts (such as raising agents used in baking) and there is a constantly growing list of ingredient combinations being promoted as replacements for salt. Interestingly, public health analysts indicate Western populations are significantly deficient in dietary potassium, and the use of potassium salts to replace sodium may in fact be a health benefit for most people (excluding those with chronic kidney disease). There are exciting new ingredients in which salt particles have been restructured to maximise salty taste, while significantly reducing sodium content. This allows for clean labelling, as salt is the only ingredient added.

Food biotechnology has potential in many areas. There are a growing number of ingredients, including bioactives, being harvested from the sea or fermented from algae. These possess functional properties that will enable innovation in texture development, emulsification and a range of technological properties that are desirable in finished food products. The fluctuations in global prices for food gums (for example, guar) offer opportunities for new combinations of replacement ingredients. Suppliers are developing smart combinations of gums and starches to provide manufacturers with solutions that allow the substitution of unreliable or expensive ingredients.

Biotechnology also offers interesting options for smart food production. Enzymes can be used to reduce glutamine contents in the outer surfaces of cut potatoes prior to fat frying. The result is a significant reduction in the formation of acrylamide from the Maillard browning reaction. Enzymes may be used to create pasteurising or sterilising conditions in food processing. The use of enzyme-processing aids has potential applications in identifying or minimising emerging health risks.

Future challenges

Sweeteners remain a challenge. Sugar reduction is considered key to obesity issues and there are novel combinations of natural alternatives that may show promise: the use of stevia with erythritol, and gums to create the mouthfeel that is lost when sugar is removed are examples of fresh thinking in this area.

There are still food products that provide effective marketing messages, but in many cases the science that lies behind them continues to be controversial. Examples of this might include probiotics and prebiotics, antioxidants and fibre.

"Suppliers are developing smart combinations of gums and starches to provide manufacturers with solutions that allow the substitution of unreliable or expensive ingredients."

Ingredient delivery systems have created new opportunities for food product development, shelf-life and the ability to provide efficacious quantities of bioactives in food. Encapsulation, in its broadest sense, provides exciting new horizons. At one extreme, nanotechnology locks many nutrients into process-stable particles.

At a larger scale, micro-emulsions and double emulsions allow the encapsulation of incompatible or sensitive ingredients into stable spheres containing fat or water, and often surrounded by hydrocolloids or proteins. These technological solutions allow better preservation of sensitive or reactive ingredients. Accurate dosing of expensive bioactives becomes a real possibility; as does the incorporation of ingredients contained in their optimally stable conditions into foods where the environment is normally hostile.

Proteins and processing

Product development is likely to focus on creating foods for a healthy diet, particularly for the increasingly aging population. The growing scarcity of water, the pressure on animal feed and the rapidly growing Asian population, with its increasing demand for meat, will create huge problems for the supply of safe protein sources. One of the biggest health problems for the elderly is protein malnutrition. Thus, protein ingredients will become an important part of the optimisation of health.

For food manufacture, high-pressure processing is becoming commercially significant. This allows non-thermal processing to extend shelf-life while retaining enzymic activity, flavours, colours and other sensitive ingredients in the finished food product. It offers new ways of creating textures, food structures and quality food systems that have been impossible to achieve through thermal processing.

High-pressure processing extends shelf-life and mitigates the need for preservatives, including salt.