Consumers are striving to ditch the sat-fat and eat five-a-day, so food manufacturers are serving up innovation.
In need of a fast-food fix but worried it could damage your health? You're not the only one. As governments worldwide urge us to eat less salt, sugar and fat, more and more consumers are demanding healthier food and drinks. And this trend is not lost on food manufacturers.
"There is a definite demand for healthy food, and manufacturers are responding to it," says independent food industry analyst Ruth Huxley. "The food industry is now so competitive that manufacturers have to be on the look-out for every opportunity to stay one step ahead of the competition. And in healthy eating they have spotted a real opportunity."
One self-styled healthy-eating innovator is Anglo-Dutch food manufacturer Unilever, which this year is opening a further two research and development 'centres of excellence'. Four such centres were opened last year as part of the company's revamp of food and drink R&D in Europe.
When plans for the revamp were first unveiled two years ago, Unilever chief executive Patrick Cescau promised to rebuild public confidence in food manufacturing and urged the industry to drive down the levels of sugar, salt, trans-fats and saturated fats in products. Clearly, Unilever's R&D masterplan is primarily intended to create a more competitive business, but true to Cescau's words each R&D centre has been launched with nutrition in mind.
First came the Structured Emulsions Centre at Vlaardingen in the Netherlands last year. Focusing on developing margarines, spreads, mayonnaise, salad dressings and dairy cream alternatives, researchers at the centre intend to produce products with more essential fatty acids and vitamins, and less saturated and trans-fats. "We have a deep expertise which will allow us to deliver taste, health and convenience [to] consumers around the world," says Carla Hilhorst, centre director.
The Assembled Foods Centre of Excellence in Cisterna, Italy, is focusing on composite food products such as meals, salads, snacks and bakery goods. It also aims to achieve "step changes in naturalness and nutritional goodness".
"Today we celebrate our passion for food and R&D excellence. These two ingredients allow us to bring restaurant quality to people's plates at home," says centre director Roberto Nardi.
This year will see the unveiling of Unilever's Dry Foods Centre in Helibron, Germany, and the Liquid Foods Centre in Poznan, Poland. Cynics will be tempted to see these developments as a huge marketing exercise to jump on the healthy-eating bandwagon. But Unilever's food and drink R&D boffins insist they can make a difference.
The centre of excellence for drinks, for example, which opened last year at the Colworth Science Park in the UK, claims to be focusing on producing beverages with 'real benefits'. Plans to develop 'healthier' versions of the entire beverage range are already under way.
Take 'weight-management' tea. This is a key market for Unilever and the business is currently pouring huge amounts of research cash into studies on the effect of so-called catechins – tannins found in green tea – on body fat.
"Catechin does seem to have an effect on body-shape," says centre chief executive Phil Evans. "And we have already launched products in France and Italy that contain high levels of this compound."
The centre will also be looking to develop products that contain high levels of an amino acid called L-theanine. This also occurs naturally in tea, and studies indicate that at doses found in just two to three cups, the chemical increases alpha brainwaves, which are associated with a relaxed but alert mental state.
"If you ask people why they drink coffee, it's because it gives them a boost, but ask them why they drink tea and it's because it helps relax and revive them at the same time," Evans says. "We have quite a lot of evidence to show this is due to theanine and are now working on bringing products with higher levels which are not so much to relax you, but help you focus."
Stressed out or not, most of the world probably won't be that surprised at seeing a range of teas on their supermarket shelves claiming myriad health benefits, but what about ice-cream? Unilever's Ice Foods Centre of Excellence, jointly operating from Colworth Science Park and in Caivano, Italy, is not the most likely candidate for providing healthy food, but this is what it is promising.
Opened last June, the product development centre for ice-cream, as well as ice-based foods, aims to use natural ingredients such as milk, fruit and cereals to minimise the fat, sugar and calories in their products. But can Unilever's researchers really make ice-cream healthy?
Jeff Underdown, ingredients technical product leader at the ice foods centre, believes so. "We've discovered that ice-cream is an excellent delivery system for calcium," he says. "We've done clinical trials that show the body's uptake of calcium from ice-cream is at least as good as milk itself."
But, as Underdown acknowledges, there is no real point in producing an item that has excellent calcium delivery if you are still delivering high levels of sugar and fat. "We want to get reasonably low fat levels, reasonably low sugar levels and a reasonably low calorific product, and then deliver this calcium benefit," he says. "We have to get the base recipe of the ice-cream right first."
This is not easy; today's ice-creams typically contain a hefty 8 to 10 per cent fat, with levels nudging 15 per cent in premium versions. And while undesirable from a health perspective, fat performs several crucial functions in ice-cream, such as stabilising the air bubbles and slowing down the melting rate. It also provides that essential creaminess.
Manufacturers of existing low-calorie ice-creams fight the fat by introducing 'inulin' to their products. This chicory-derived fibre helps lower fat levels while retaining texture. More recently, Unilever has also adapted its freezing process to deliver low-fat ice-cream with the required creaminess. As Underdown says, his team can now freeze ice-creams to much lower temperatures than manufacturers would conventionally, yielding a frozen structure which has the much-coveted creamy texture.
"Small ice-crystals and small air bubbles equal a creamy product, so what you need to do in an ice-cream is to create small air bubbles and ice crystals and keep them in that form," he says. "Our new freezing process helps to create and maintain these very fine microstructures. We can reduce fat levels down to 5 per cent, or even four per cent, and still make creamy ice-cream."
And, believe it or not, low-fat and creamy is just the tip of the healthy ice-cream iceberg. Unilever is also developing ice-creams that contain probiotic bacteria, micro-organisms that are claimed to benefit the gastrointestinal tract by improving its balance of intestinal microflora. According to Underdown, probiotic ice-cream would provide a very easy way to ensure you frequently get a controlled dose of the bacteria.
"In a chilled product such as Yakult or Actimel, the bacteria count often decays with time, but in a frozen environment we have shown that this doesn't happen," he explains. "The bacteria effectively remain in suspended animation, so they don't multiply, but they don't die either... the bacteria load remains constant throughout the lifetime of the product."
However, don't expect to see Unilever's final product yet; when it comes to adding bacteria to ice-cream, the food giant is still working on a few problems. While taste is always important, preserving bacteria during manufacture is equally critical.
Unfortunately, a key step in ice-cream making is pasteurisation, which kills any bacteria. As Underdown says, his team now has to find a way of introducing the probiotic bacteria after pasteurisation.
"This takes some careful handling of the bugs themselves and the format that you deliver them in," he explains. "We are considering using yogurt as a component of the ice-cream mix. The bugs will actually be part of the yoghurt preparation and added to the mix after it has been pasteurised."
So, as Unilever works on the best way to incorporate probiotics into ice-cream and find an antidote to caffeine, what will food manufacturers worldwide be looking to deliver in the coming years? Analyst Ruth Huxley has the answer and it's more than simply health.
"What will also drive manufacturing innovation now is sustainability, the environment and rising energy costs. A manufacturer needs to assess the carbon footprint of any product and look for the most energy-efficient process or it will lose competitive advantage," she warns.
"[In 2006] we had ready-meals... today we have the media picking up on wonder ingredients. The food industry has to keep moving, and does keep moving, all the time."
While we can't be sure the general public has had its confidence in food manufacturing restored, we can be confident we will be hearing more plans for healthier, more nutritious, and sustainable products in the future.