With 22.8% of Latin American adults and 7% of children under five considered obese or overweight, nutrition experts and international agencies like the FAO have called for urgent change – something industry has acknowledged needs to happen.
With reformulation just one aspect of addressing this – reducing fats, sugars and salt, for example – Steve Osborn, formulation expert and co-founder of food tech and innovation management firm The Aurora Ceres Partnership, said plenty could be learned from Europe and the United States.
“When you're a late arriver to the party, you can jump in a little later and not go through the pain of the early stages; you can already have learned from other mistakes. So, Latin American manufacturers have that opportunity to already catch the moving bus,” Osborn told FoodNavigator-LATAM.
There was a vast array of new technology behind ingredients used to replace the likes of sugar, fat and salt, he said, including innovative extraction processes and novel ingredient sources and forms.
Hollow sugar crystals developed by Nestlé, for example, had recently been used in its new Milkybar Wowsomes chocolate bar in the UK and Ireland, reducing sugar content by 30%. The crystals or 'structured sugar' were hollow to maintain the taste of sugar at lower inclusion rates.
“In terms of technology to replace sugar, I think Europe and the US are leading the way,” Osborn said, and whilst technologies that allowed straight-forward sugar reduction remained “few and far between”, there were plenty of other technologies that manufacturers in Latin America could potentially access.
“It allows them to have off-the-peg solutions. Where US and European food and ingredient manufacturers have spent all their time developing, for example a pea protein, at the point now where Latin America is following on the health reformulation journey, they've now got these ready-to-go solutions to incorporate into the product.”
Attention! Why are you reformulating?
However, Osborn said the biggest mistake Latin American companies could make was to idly follow in the footsteps of European or US companies -“you've got to be sure of the reason behind the need to reformulate”.
Reformulating to tackle obesity, for example, was fine but it was important to understand the reasons behind the obesity, which could be different in Latin America versus Europe, because it impacted reformulation choices and communication, he said.
Understanding consumer needs was also vital, he said. “Ultimately, manufacturers have to have permission from the consumers, implied permission, to reformulate their product.”
Cost was one big factor to consider, for example, thinking about whether reformulation would drive costs past what consumers could afford or were prepared to pay, he said. What drove purchase decisions and how the product was used was also important, he said.
Osborn said Horlicks – a malted milk drink manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline in the UK – was a good example of this. The drink was widely regarded as a senior's bedtime drink in the UK but in India it was considered a nutritious morning drink for children. Reducing calories in this product, therefore, might be good for senior bedtime drinkers but would be far less interesting for younger consumers relying on the calories to start their day, he said.
“It's just about understanding how and why consumers are using the product and then getting the fundamental message across to show [a food or drink manufacturer] is addressing this particular need and not just doing it for the sake of it.”
Don't demonize ingredients
When it came to reformulating in the lab, Osborn recommended manufacturers avoided demonizing ingredients - “demonizing an ingredient is dangerous”.
Fat was a great example, he said, where 30-40 years ago industry became obsessed with fat reduction and then, years later, the science justifying this turned out to be “reasonably bad science”.
“We made the mistake of saying 'fat is bad', 'fat is the demon' and 'get fat out of your diet' and now that isn't actually true. The cynical part of me is looking at this sugar discussion about sugar being the 'enemy' and you've got to sort of wonder how convincing the arguments are around sugar. I attended a talk recently where someone was saying you can actually build a better case, a more convincing case, around obesity and the increased use of mobile phones and tablets, for example,” he said.
“I do question what will ultimately happen in five, ten, 20, 30 years’ time. Are we going to look back at this sugar reduction exercise and feel we were a bit foolish like with fat? Only time will prove or disprove that.”
Osborn said the difficulty when reformulating to reduce sugar was finding alternatives that also corresponded with another big need for clean label and easy-to-understand ingredients.
“You can take sugar out of a product to make it inherently healthier but you've got to replace it with something; you can't just take sugar out of a product because you're left with a void. Yes, you can replace it with an artificial sweetener or natural sweetener and you can replace the bulk with one of many bulking agents. But already, you're starting to replace a clean label ingredient with at least two alternatives and that then flies in the face of everything we've been trying to do in the last few years in terms of cleaning up labels.
“...It's not to say that's wrong, it's just somewhat paradoxical of other reformulation efforts over the years.”
Osborn said the key for manufacturers was to take a holistic approach, prioritizing “balanced nutrition” ahead of demonizing ingredients.