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Reformulation & Innovation are Key to Securing a Healthier & More Sustainable Future for Food

Reformulation to improve nutrient profile, ingredient innovation and diversification of protein sources to include more plant-derived options, will define the future of food, advise contributors to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF)’s new Nutrition Bulletin Special Issue: Food reformulation and innovation: future solutions for healthier and more sustainable diets.

The Special Issue comprises a series of newly-published papers which examine the key public health issues and the technological advancements and challenges that are influencing the future of food products. A key theme throughout the publication is the importance of reformulation and, in particular, innovation for creating a future food supply that is both healthier and more sustainable. The publication covers topics such as sugar and sweeteners, protein, saturated fat and fibre, and includes a set of case studies of new ingredient developments.

The publication also highlights issues surrounding the need to mitigate the environmental impact of food production, the high prevalence of obesity globally and its association with the severity and outcomes of COVID-19 infection, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on issues such as food insecurity and food system disruption, and the need to strengthen the future resilience of the food system.

Processing foods for better, not for worse

In the concluding paper of the Special Issue, Professor Julian McClements, University of Massachusetts, highlights the opportunities the food industry has to address both public health and environmental issues, through clever food processing. Professor McClements, said: “Just because many of the processed foods currently available are unhealthy when overconsumed, this does not mean that processed foods per se are unhealthy or undesirable. It is possible to create healthier processed foods by the careful application of science and technology.

Nutritionists have encouraged the general public to consume more fruits and vegetables, nuts and wholegrains for decades, but this has not done enough to improve the overall health status of the general population, or overcome the imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended. Many people do not have the time or resources to prepare foods from fresh ingredients every meal. Instead, many rely on the convenience of processed foods that are relatively quick and easy to prepare. We should, therefore, be encouraging the food industry to create healthier processed foods, rather than demonising all processed foods.

Processing often improves the safety, palatability, bioavailability, and shelf life of foods, thereby increasing the healthiness and sustainability of the food supply. Nevertheless, food technology approaches should be combined with other strategies to achieve these goals, including changes in government policies that promote healthy eating, such as targeted taxes, fiscal incentives, research funding, subsidies, education, and regulations on marketing and promotion, as well as changes in agricultural practices, such as regenerative agriculture, which includes farming and grazing practices that aim to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

An important message throughout the Special Issue is that, while some people steer away from foods containing ingredients that are perceived as ‘unnatural’, processed foods don’t have to be unhealthy, and acceptance of new ingredients will be a key to ensuring a healthier and more sustainable future for the food supply as demand for food grows alongside increases in global population.

Communicating the benefits of plant-based protein

A paper by Marta Lonnie, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, and Alexandra M Johnstone, University of Aberdeen, highlights that diets that are both healthier and more sustainable are a valuable means to improve public health as well as food security, while reducing the impact of the food system on the environment. Healthy eating guidelines globally recommend a diet that is predominantly plant-based.

In the paper, Lonnie and Johnstone explore the public’s perspective of plant protein as part of a more sustainable and healthy diet, and conclude that, in order to facilitate the shift towards more plant-based diets, it is crucial to communicate how to put this into practice effectively. For example, it is key to emphasise that desired health outcomes, such as building muscle and weight control, can be achieved through both animal and plant-derived sources of protein, and that what is particularly important is the nature of the “protein package”; the other essential nutrients being provided by protein-rich foods. Animal-derived proteins present in milk, fish, eggs and meat are accompanied by a particularly abundant array of vitamins and minerals, in a bioavailable format, that are still needed if intakes of these proteins fall or are substituted by plant-derived proteins.

Looking at the technical aspects of plant-derived protein options, Simon Loveday, AgResearch New Zealand Ltd, discusses the opportunities presented by emerging plant-derived protein sources, but also highlights key challenges, including: physical and chemical differences between plant and animal proteins; the resource-intensiveness of extracting proteins from plants; and issues with sustainability credentials of plant sources. Looking to the future, Loveday highlights emerging protein fractionation technologies that are set to produce healthier and more sustainable protein ingredients.

Creative innovations

The Special Issue also shares a selection of case studies from across food industry sectors that respond to health and sustainability trends and challenges with creative solutions. These include innovative ingredients to facilitate reductions in sugars or saturated fat and help to increase the amount of fibre or healthy fats in foods.

One of these case studies concerns the development of cocoa pulp as a sugar replacer for chocolate. While cocoa pulp is usually a waste product of the cocoa bean, this case study showcases how it can be pasteurised, frozen and dried to create a workable ingredient for chocolate manufacturing. Chocolate made with cocoa pulp has approximately 35% less total sugar when compared to a typical 70% dark chocolate and is higher in fibre, however a sugar reduction claim cannot be made as chocolate made with cocoa pulp is slightly higher in calories. This is due to a higher percentage of cocoa liquor and cocoa butter – which has a high fat content – in the product, and illustrates the risk of the unintended consequences that can occur in reformulation.

Another case study focuses on an emerging sweet-tasting protein as a sugar replacer. This protein is 10,000 times sweeter than natural sugar, with very small amounts needed to impart the same sweetness, making it around 90% cheaper than sugar and with a smaller environmental footprint. The protein still needs to undergo regulatory approval but has been approved for research and development use with collaborations from leading food and beverage multinationals, and its use in foods is expected within two years.

The future of food

Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General, BNF, who provides the Editorial to the Special Issue commented: “This Special Issue illustrates some of the innovations being introduced by the food industry to improve the nutrient profile of food products and thus potentially improve public health, but also showcases the many challenges faced. While reformulation, on its own, can only take us so far on the journey to healthier and more sustainable dietary patterns, it certainly has an important part to play alongside innovation, new product development, and reconnection with the principles of good nutrition. Looking to the future, ultimately, we all need to play our part in improving appreciation of the personal and wider social and economic benefits of a healthier diet and lifestyle, of the building blocks of good nutrition, and their practical application in terms of meals and overall dietary pattern.”

Nutrition Bulletin Special Issue: Food reformulation and innovation: future solutions for healthier and more sustainable diet is now available via: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14673010

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