Ingredients put to the test

13 March 2013

The best food ingredients are those that can survive challenges in a reliable way. Leatherhead Food Research’s head of food innovation Wayne Morley outlines some of these challenges, their developments, what they aim to show and how business can respond to them.

Ingredients are, of course, the building blocks of foods; they combine together to form structures at the micro and macro level. These structures then break down in the mouth to form new textures and release flavours, and then break down further in the body during digestion. The ingredients may undergo physical and/or chemical changes or indeed survive unchanged. Whatever happens, the best ingredients are those that survive a number of challenges in a robust and predicable manner, both now and in the future.

Challenge 1: Final product functionality

Every ingredient in a finished product is there for a specific functional reason. If this isn't demonstrated, the ingredient should be removed or replaced. This means ingredients should be replaced rather than just added to an already complex formulation, and that significant reformulations should start from scratch. Product developers should research ingredient functionality prior to any reformulation activity, and the functionality is especially critical if the ingredient is highlighted in any way on the product label.

Too often in the past, the addition of a new functional ingredient has resulted in a more complex formulation, but increasingly, the old ingredients are now being removed. This is important in order to not interfere with the efficacy of the new ingredient as the functionality may be a clear differentiator for the product. The importance in meeting this challenge is obvious as the trend towards functional ingredients and products continues.

Challenge 2: Ease of use

The best ingredients are those that are easy to use in manufacturing processes. This means they are supplied in a convenient physical form, preferably a free-flowing powder, although relatively low-viscosity liquids are also convenient. Less so are gels and suspensions. The ingredient should dissolve easily in water (preferable) or oil, and be supplied in an appropriate unit size such as a 25kg sack. For bulk ingredients, larger units such as 1t bags should be available. Finally the ingredient's packaging should be easy to open and dispose of.

A clear trend in manufacturing is increased mechanisation and reduced labour, with harmonised formulations for multiple markets contributing to longer run times and increased efficiencies. This is likely to accelerate in the future so there will be continued pressure on the suppliers to provide ingredients that are more flexible and user friendly. Indeed a food manufacturer may select a more expensive ingredient if the advantages in factory performance can be demonstrated and quantified.

Challenge 3: Compatibility

Ingredients, of course, do not exist individually in foods, so it is important that the desired functionality is not affected by the presence of other ingredients. For example they should be easy to combine with the other ingredients and the order of addition of the ingredients should not affect the functionality. Many products contain high levels of salt or acid, so the ingredients should be able to cope with these as well as not undergoing any unexpected reactions.

This challenge may be slightly easier to meet in the future as the trend for lower levels of salt, fat and sugar continues. Salt in particular can be damaging for the functionality of many ingredients and gradual reductions may ease the impact. However, a significant unknown is the wide usage of potassium chloride as a salt replacer so product developers will need to assess the impact of potassium ions on the functionality of key ingredients. Also of relevance for this challenge is the development of milder products with reduced levels of acid, and again this may benefit the functionality of key ingredients.

Challenge 4: Natural/clean labelling

You may consider your ingredients to be 'natural' or 'clean-label', but ultimately it is all about the consumer perception of the label declarations. In particular, an ingredient will meet this challenge if consumers recognise it and appreciate the functionality. Consideration should therefore be paid to the use of 'E numbers' and ingredients that contain the letter 'x'. It is not just the ingredients' declaration that matters, as the ingredients may be referenced elsewhere, such as in claims' statements or allergen declarations. Finally, reductions in salt, fat and sugar are always required even though these ingredients may be considered to be natural.

As for salt, fat and sugar reduction, the trend in reformulating with natural or clean-label ingredients will clearly continue. The response from ingredients' suppliers and food manufacturers should be two-fold. Firstly, increasing the range, availability, and performance of such ingredients will continue, and ingredients' suppliers should be commended for their work to date in this area, especially in starches and colours. Secondly, perhaps the less obvious but more difficult task is educating consumers about the true nature of some ingredients. Xanthan gum for example may be from a natural source, but many consumers are not aware of this.

Challenge 5: Final product cost-effectiveness

The headline figure for any ingredient is the cost per ton or cost per kg, but of course many ingredients are used at very low levels or are diluted before use. It is therefore a good idea to calculate the cost of an ingredient at the level used in the final product, and use this information to focus any cost-saving activities. The savings from any ingredients' reductions or replacements are of course welcome, but this work should start with those that carry the highest cost in the product. In practice, this often means fat and sugar.

Cost has always been an important factor in any product-development exercise and indeed reformulating for a cost reduction is often carried out shortly after a product launch. The retailer and manufacturer margins will continue to be under pressure as consumers demand ever cheaper foods so the requirement for all ingredients to justify their presence on the basis of cost will continue.

"The best ingredients are those that are easy to use in manufacturing processes. This means they are supplied in a convenient physical form."

Challenge 6: Shelf-life stability

The shelf-life of foods ranges from days to years and the ingredients should be selected with this particular requirement in mind. The storage conditions themselves vary greatly, especially temperature - from frozen (-18ºC) to tropical (40ºC), but also humidity. Temperature cycling can be a particular problem, and we know that many products will be abused in the supply chain and retail environment, as well as by consumers. The best ingredients will be robust to these variations and will also allow accelerated shelf life protocols to be applied.

Just like cost, shelf-life stability has always been important and will always be so in the future. It may be that the shelf-life of foods may continue to increase as the pressure to reduce waste increases. This is likely to be especially relevant for short-shelf-life foods, where an extra day or two may make a difference. The trend for developing foods with reduced levels of salt, acid and preservatives will make such increases more difficult unless there are contributions to the preservation from the other ingredients.

Challenge 7: Microbiological status

The first requirement of any manufacturer is to produce safe and stable food, and the microbiological status of any ingredient depends on many factors, including the sourcing, manufacturing protocols, packaging, and so on. Some ingredients may be considered to be inherently safe and stable (such as acids), but problems can still occur. It is advisable that the microbiological status of any new ingredient is in-line with the others used in the formulation, and of course robust specifications are important. Finally a certificate of analysis, or preferably a certificate of conformance, is required for each delivery and/or batch of an ingredient.

The future requirements for ingredients towards meeting this challenge are much the same as for the shelf-life stability described above. The use of new ingredients that are of a lower microbiological risk will be advantageous as it may be possible to reduce the levels of the key preservation ingredients such as salt, acid and preservatives, whilst maintaining the overall safety and stability of the food. This may take the form of lower microbiological counts or easier decontamination during manufacture.

Challenge 8: Efficient product scale-up

Efficient scale-up is one of the holy grails of product development and ingredients have an important role to play. The work will start in the development kitchen or pilot plant and the ingredients must perform with these types of equipment as well as in the factory. In practice, this means that they should be robust to differences in mixing time and intensity, and absolute temperatures, as well as heating and cooling rates. In addition, the ingredients for kitchen-scale development may themselves have been prepared in small quantities using pilot facilities. Obviously the quality should be the same as the production material, and the shelf life should be long enough for the product developer to store for some time. Ambient storage is generally preferred, then frozen and finally chilled.

There are significant overlaps in the responses of businesses in meeting this challenge to the earlier one on the ease of use in manufacturing. Manufacturers cannot afford to spend significant time conducting expensive factory trials so the onus will increasingly be on the ingredients suppliers to facilitate efficient scale-up. In the future, this may also be a differentiating factor between two or more suppliers of similar specification ingredients.

Challenge 9: Efficient specification and traceability

All ingredients should be supplied with robust specifications that form part of a dossier along with specifications for the packaging, manufacturing process and the product itself. The ingredients' specifications should only contain parameters that are important and can be measured, with realistic upper and lower limits around a target value. These aspects are of importance in troubleshooting activities, which often require traceability all the way back to the manufacturing arrangements for specific ingredients. The suppliers of these ingredients should be able to supply this information quickly, and, of course, it is desirable for any product-quality issues to be traced back to some other aspect of the product mix.

A likely trend in meeting this challenge is the increasing importance of provenance to consumers. From industry-wide schemes such as Fairtrade or Organic, to specific examples such as the estates for tea plantations, traceability back to the farm may be a given for some types of ingredients. It is also possible that ingredients suppliers or food manufacturers may be able to gain first-mover advantage and benefit commercially by meeting this challenge.

Challenge 10: Surviving the manufacturing process

The manufacturing processes for foods are wide and varied, involving many processing steps, equipment types and technologies. Typically, these will require the ingredients and products to be subjected to heat and sheer forces, as well as being held in storage tanks and transported along pipework. The materials will undergo various physical and chemical changes, and may be totally unrecognisable at the end of the process when compared with the beginning. The ingredients of course must survive the complete process and emerge with the desired functionality intact. This does not necessarily mean that the functionality is unchanged, but that any changes are reproducible and desirable.

The most challenging aspect of any manufacturing process is often the application of heat for the microbiological decontamination of the food. The development and application of novel decontamination technologies, such as ohmic heating, high-pressure processing and Shaka retorts, will challenge the functionality still further. Ingredients suppliers therefore should familiarise themselves with these technologies and ensure that their offerings are just as effective, if not more so, in the future.

What this means

There are of course many other challenges, some of which may be specific to the food industry sector that a manufacturer operates in. These include the regulatory environment, which can vary greatly depending on the application and geography, and the importance of labelling accuracy when considering allergens. Removing or replacing ingredients can have a significant impact on the quality of the product, so the importance of robust consumer research cannot be overstated.

Wayne Morley joined Leatherhead Food Research in June 2009 to manage the ingredients and product innovation team following over 22 years in Unilever.
You may consider your ingredients to be ‘natural’ or ‘clean-label’, but ultimately it is all about consumer perception.
It is advisable that the microbiological status of any new ingredient is in-line with the others used in the formulation.
Manufacturing processes will require ingredients to be subjected to heat and sheer forces, as well as being held in storage tanks and transported along pipework.

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