Dave Dzisiak uses popcorn as a case in point about how additive and ingredient suppliers are working to help food companies meet consumer demand for healthy products with natural ingredients and cleaner labels.
As commercial leader for oils for Dow AgroSciences, the agricultural sciences side of Dow Chemical, Dzisiak was involved in the development of Omega-9 Ingredient Solutions, an offering of customized oil, spray oil and shortening applications for baked goods, snacks and packaged foods, launched by the company last summer.
The first food manufacturer to use the new product – and a partner in its development – was Pop Weaver, an 80-year-old American firm that accounts for a third of the world’s supply of the popular snack food. “Popcorn is a naturally healthy whole grain snack,” says Dzisiak from his office in Calgary, Alta. “We helped Pop Weaver develop a smarter solution for their microwave popcorn brand, one that maintained their signature buttery taste while improving the health profile of the product.”
According to Dzisiak, most microwave popcorn makers rely on palm or coconut oil to remove trans fat from their product. Those oils, however, also increase saturated, or “bad”, fats. Not so with the oil made from canola grown mostly in Western Canada using Dow-engineered, omega 9-enriched seeds.
By switching to the new oil (with assistance from Dow’s omega-9 solutions team, which provided analytical support like nutritional and chemical analysis to help develop proper product formulation), Pop Weaver cut the amount of saturated and trans fats in its microwave brand in half. It also increased the amount of so-called “good fats” – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – by roughly the same ratio, a health-boosting benefit that helped earn the product approbation from the American Heart Association. “We believe quality and progress shouldn’t require compromise,” says Dzisiak. “Omega-9 can enhance the healthfulness of packaged foods while preserving the key functional qualities of food products.”
That claim, of course, isn’t restricted to omega-9 or the elimination of saturated fats – not by a long shot. Consumer awareness within greying Western populations continues to grow over the potential of diet and natural foods to help stave off, avoid, fight and/or manage a long list of chronic diseases and medical conditions. And food companies around the globe are listening. As a result, most are now trying to develop natural or organic ingredients and additives that boost the health profiles and clean the labels of their core products without changing taste, texture or other key qualities customers expect from them.
Not surprisingly, those efforts are creating many exciting opportunities for ingredient makers. “The design and delivery of bio-based ingredients for healthier and safer products is the main driver in the industry today,” said Peggy Steele, global business director of Danisco. The Danish multinational supplies more than 10,000 customers worldwide – including many of the world’s largest food manufacturers – with bio-based ingredients that are used to make some $20 billion worth of finished products annually. The company’s key focus areas are bioactives (cultures and natural sweeteners) with clear health and nutrition profiles, and enablers (emulsifiers, pectin, gums and systems) that boost the functionality of processed foods.
According to Steele, one of the most popular categories of food ingredients today is probiotics. She notes too that demand is being driven by one of the leading consumer trends for fortified food products – digestive health. “The market is huge and it’s growing in double digits every year,” she says. “Even during the [2008 recession] people kept buying.”
In addition to helping people’s guts work better, some strains of the beneficial bacteria now used in many food products are also showing promise for the delivery of additional health benefits, such as cold and flu prevention and immune system improvement. One example is the clinical dose of one billion CFUs – or colony forming units – contained in every 100 gm of Loblaw’s Pro Advantage yogurt.
“Certain bacteria have certain benefits,” Steele explains. “It’s important to look at strains that are good and find and match the minimum dose with the highest benefits.” She notes that a recent clinical study involving 500 daycare children found an 80-per-cent reduction in antibiotic use by those who ate a probiotic blend-boosted yogurt.
Other strains, she adds, are showing “indications” in animal studies that they might also help weight management and even inflammation, which could have positive impacts on everything from heart disease and arthritis to lupus. “We are working hard to figure out the protective qualities of bacteria that provide benefits and how to focus them,” says Steele. “It’s difficult because this is a very competitive and protective and regulatory industry. There are few people who can invest the kinds of money and resources that are required. But the potential rewards are immense.”
Peter Jones agrees. A food scientist at Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba, Jones is both Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Functional Foods and director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, which does research on health and nutrition in support of industry in Western Canada. He believes both consumer and commercial interest in food ingredients has hit fever pitch. “A new era has dawned,” he says. “We’ve gone way beyond giving daily quotas of nutrients. The game now is to develop super-charged foods that possess additional abilities to ward off all kinds of health problems.”
As an example Jones points to last year’s ground-breaking decision by Health Canada to allow food products fortified with plant sterols to carry labels claiming they help reduce cholesterol – a Canadian food industry first. Within days of the decision, Unilever Canada announced that its Becel pro.activ calorie-reduced margarine – which carries the claim – was already available and being sold in Canadian grocery stores. “This is a great sandbox to be playing in,” says Jones, who oversees a staff of 125 at the five-year-old university research centre. “There are all kinds of exciting things coming down the pipe.”
In addition to products fortified with plant sterols, Jones expects to see the development of many more novel foods made from ingredients packed with a variety of natural chemicals and protein, from vitamin D and calcium, to omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics. “Probiotics are one of my favourites,” he says. “There are so many possibilities.” Jones notes that like omega-3, which is known to lower blood fat levels, probiotics are being looked at by medical researchers for their ability to help build resistance in sick people and ward off harmful bugs such as C. difficile. “These food studies are invading the pharmaceutical field,” he adds.
Some food industry watchers, however, think there is a tipping point beyond which consumers will balk at buying fortified foods – even those made with health-enhancing natural ingredients. “There is an industrial assumption among food manufacturers that consumers will clamour for food with healthy ingredients – but that’s false,” says Carol Culhane, a food industry analyst, writer and speaker who provides market evaluation and regulatory compliance services through her Toronto, Ont.-based company International Food Focus. “They don’t want medicalized foods.”
According to Culhane, consumers won’t pay premium prices for additives they don’t want or don’t think they need. “There can be pushback,” she says. “Most people just want to enjoy their bowl of oatmeal in the morning. They don’t care about all the claims.” Culhane also notes that the public doesn’t always embrace foods fortified with little-known ingredients like gluten, omega-6, or even sterols. “I see a lot of promotion [for sterol-packed margarines] but not a lot of market activity. It makes you wonder if it’s a win to add health ingredients to established products.”
The bottom line, says Culhane, is that food makers should beware, noting: “They shouldn’t make the assumption that consumers with be there waiting with their pocket books to buy your foods fortified with these healthy additives.”