Mainstream processed foods trend toward healthiness

Mainstream processed foods trend toward healthiness

The processed food industry has new marching orders: Cut the sodium and salt content of foods, use lower-calorie sweetener alternatives to sugar such as stevia and erythritol, and raise the amount of fiber and mono- and polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 EPA and DHA.

Healthy and natural foods—even if only marginally healthier or better-for-you—are settling in to form a new foundation of the mainstream food world.

The evidence was easy to see at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists' annual convention last week in New Orleans.

From reduced sodium and sugar content to increased good fats and fiber, the processed foods landscape is rapidly changing to more closely approximate the one area of the foodscape that has been growing in outsized percentages over the last decade—healthy, natural and organic.

A variety of forces have been at work here, from front-of-packaging labeling schemes to government initiatives to physician pronouncements on the diet-based twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, to the prevailing consumer zeitgeist for natural health. The latest example is the government’s recently unveiled Dietary Guidelines that dismantled the old food guide pyramid in place of the new MyPlate graphic.

New Guidelines are more than MyPlate

Lost in the hoopla over the design of the MyPlate graphic was recommendations within the larger Dietary Guidelines. For example, the guidelines places refined grains in the same category as added sugars and saturated fat. Does this mean white bread, rice and pasta will begin to wane as whole grains rise? What does this mean for innovation as companies roll out whole-grain versions that still look and taste like unhealthy refined grain versions?

Another example: the Dietary Guidelines recommends 250mg/day of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. This is the first time any government agency has come out with any recommended intake level of the key omega-3s in fish oil.

"At 250mg, that's where you get the greatest bang for the buck, and at least 200mg of DHA is recommended," said Penny Kris-Etherton, professor in the department of nutritional sciences at Penn State, and president of the National Lipid Association. "The guidelines recommend specific fats to reduce: saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and calories from total fats. You should replace them with poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids."

Omega-3s are appearing now in all kinds of different foods—eggs, peanut butter, juice, milk, cheese, yogurt, muffins and more.

The challenge to the food industry is to use omega-3s that contain DHA and EPA, and not the shorter-chain ALA from flax, to remain consistent with the guidelines.

For formulation advice, market trends and more, see the Ingredient Intelligence Monograph on omega-3s.

Salt of the earth

In 2010 the National Salt Reduction Initiative began the voluntary quest to reduce Americans' salt intake by 20 percent in five years. Sodium causes high blood pressure—a significant marker for cardiovascular disease, the top killer. Because nearly 80 percent of all sodium intake comes from processed foods, this initiative is aimed squarely at the processed food industry—which was out in force in New Orleans last week for the annual IFT convention.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend 2,300mg/day sodium for the general population, and 1,500mg/day for those at risk—those with hypertension, those 51 years and older, and African-Americans.

The average American, however, consumes 3,436mg/day, according to Soon-Yeun Lee, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. How to get from 3,400mg to 2,300mg - let alone more than 50 percent less, to 1,500mg?

Problem is, salt is much more than a taste enhancer. It increases overall flavor intensity and balances the taste of food, improves mouthfeel, enhances sweetness, and masks the metallic or chemical off-notes in some products. It is also an excellent food preservative.

"Salt is magical—it's this uber-seasoning," said Leslie Stein, Ph.D., at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She noted one potential solution is arginine, which amplifies the efficacy of salt, so that the salty taste of sodium can be doubled without the addition of more salt.

Other solutions are being driven by the food that is perhaps most reliant on sodium—soup. Campbell's Soup Co. makes nearly seven times more products with reduced sodium levels than just five years ago. In 2010 alone, Campbell's introduced 25 soups with low-sodium levels—410mg/serving. "We reduced by 32 percent the sodium in tomato soup, and 75 percent of those who purchased the tomato soup who were aware of the reduced sodium say they are more likely to buy it again due to the reduced sodium levels," said Campbell's Beth Roche, director of global sensory and product guidance. "The wellness benefits of reduced sodium are a motivator for future purchases."

The efforts are not without challenges. For example, Roche said that the soup company has experimented with "well over 200 batches" of reduced-sodium formulations for its vegetable beef soup and "we haven't found any that has gotten it right with consumers."

Lee has conducted consumer research around replacing high sodium levels in soups with herbs. "The overall 'liking' of soup increases significantly with salt added," she said. "Herbs significantly lowered the amount of salt people needed to add to make the saltiness of soups 'just right.' But salt is the major driving factor of soup liking, not the herbs, so salt has to be there."

A study published this week in the Journal of Hypertension noted that 32 nations have salt-reduction initiatives. It concluded that the most successful strategies were led by government and combined with food reformulation, consumer awareness efforts and labeling actions.

Sugar alternatives

The other great ingredient that consumers have a love/hate relationship with is sugar. The paradox is thus:

"Sugar has great taste but calories," said Alex Woo, Ph.D., vice president of product innovation at Reb-A stevia supplier Sweet Green Fields. "High-potency sweeteners have no calories but are artificial."

The challenge for the food industry, according to Sanjay Holay, senior vice president at NSM Research in Illinois, is to "reduce the sugar content, match the sweetness, maintain the natural positioning, minimize the off-taste and validate consumer preference."

The functional ingredients world has trotted out natural sweet flavor agents from honey to Reb-A stevia, and natural bulking agents from erythritol to prebiotics inulin and FOS. Flavor houses have been developing taste-modifying techniques to block or mask off-notes.

"Taste perception can be masked by congruent flavors," noted Robert Sobel, Ph.D., at flavor house FONA Intl. "People know grapefruit tastes bitter, so why not make an energy drink grapefruit and that will succeed in masking the off-notes of the functional ingredients?"

Make food healthier

In Europe, the European Food Safety Agency has put out two lists, one positive and one negative. On the positive list—nutrients to consume more—are iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, fiber and protein. On the negative list—to limit—are total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugars and sodium. It is also working on developing a so-called "nutrient profiling" scheme, which ranks foods based on their nutrient composition.

What nutrient profiling really means is that EFSA is looking to ban nutrient-fortified junk food. Will such initiatives find a home in America?

There are other ways that the healthiness of diets, processed foods in particular, can change.

"Public relations, popular books, conferences," noted Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. "These all work together to influence dietary guidelines. So if you want to do something for the 2015 guidelines, start now to help set the agenda."

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