PHILADELPHIA — Consumers today want snacks with simple ingredients, but developing such products is hardly simple. Just ask the food scientists at FMC Health and Nutrition, a global supplier of naturally derived ingredients for food and beverage companies.
“I think the No. 1 challenge, regardless of the trend or what happens to the food or functionality, is it needs to taste good,” said Marshall Fong, global consumer insights director at FMC. “We’ve been challenged by our customers to help them in responding to some of these trends while making sure the products taste every bit as good as the less healthy versions of those foods.”
Achieving a clean label becomes even trickier when aligning with other consumer health trends, such as low-fat, high-protein or gluten-free. With the addition or subtraction of ingredients comes the puzzling task of achieving an acceptable taste and texture while delivering the desired health claims. Some consumers may forgive slight differences in color or appearance, but a product ultimately must appeal to the senses.
“When we try to define taste, we look at a number of different factors,” said Ross White, applications manager for nutrition in the Americas region at FMC. “It’s flavor, texture, aroma in some cases, and just the overall eating experience and trying to understand how the end consumer is moved or driven to buy that product and repeat purchase of that product as they’re also looking for those healthful benefits.”
Shoppers are seeking convenient options for consuming protein on the go, but adding the nutrient to certain snack foods, such as chips or crackers, may significantly affect flavor and mouthfeel.
“When you start to introduce protein into something like that, some kind of snack food that wouldn’t typically contain a high amount of protein, right away initially you have a technical challenge because you’re introducing an ingredient that, from a taste, a texture, a functionality, a processing standpoint, is not inherently in that food,” Mr. White said.
Conversely, he added: “Products that already contain protein can oftentimes handle more. When we look at categories that are quick delivery systems or convenient ways of delivering protein, certainly beverages and bars come to mind, which typically are already going to contain some protein, then there’s an expectation that you can push the limits of how much more protein you can get into those delivery items.”
Formulating gluten-free snacks presents similar challenges. Manipulating a food product to maintain texture or taste in the absence of gluten may result in a complicated ingredients panel.
“Gluten provides a certain elasticity from a sensory standpoint,” Mr. White said. “It’s what really gives the texture to a nice slice of bread or a muffin or croissant. When you take that out and try… bringing that texture back with a combination of various textural agents and water, you can get into some other ingredients that have some pretty big names on the label.”
Substituting wheat for gluten-free grains seems like a simple swap but may result in a noticeably different mouthfeel.
“Rice has a completely different texture (than wheat), so now I have to add something on top of that rice, get a texturizing agent in there to try to move that back into a wheat gluten-type texture, and that tends to be very challenging,” Mr. White said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in the space of gluten-free. A lot of the trend is trying to achieve acceptable textures as opposed to textures that are identical to the original baked goods.”
To understand which attributes of a product are particularly important to consumers, FMC researchers conduct comprehensive sensory evaluations and blind consumer tests within a given food category.
“Some of these insights help us work with our customers, if they’re looking at formulations and an exact match and have their heart set on an exact match because that’s what the brand is about or that’s what the product has historically been like, we’re able to tell them maybe this isn’t the right formulation for you,” Mr. Fong said. “Maybe these are the attributes that are important, and those we can manage through formulation, in the case of wanting to move away from an ingredient that’s not as natural.”
Complicating the trend of clean label is its lack of definition. Perceptions of so-called “natural” products and ingredients vary among consumers.
“Oftentimes we have to really understand from the customer what they’re defining as natural, and they in turn are driven by what their end consumers are calling or considering natural,” Mr. White said. “When we look at clean label, that might limit the ingredients available to modify texture and taste, simply because customers are interested in only seeing certain ingredients on their finished label.”
Products with simple ingredients also may have a shorter shelf life.
“Some of the challenges when people are looking to move to restricted ingredient declarations is you do tend to see reductions in shelf life or the overall quality that can be maintained in that food,” Mr. White said. “That is some of the education piece of helping our customers and consumers understand that with the processed food that is sold today and with the ability to help us distribute that broadly, there is a need for various ingredients to help in that regard.“It’s not impossible to move toward cleaner labels, and in many cases we can as we start to understand how people define it, but certainly it does create some challenges in what’s ultimately feasible in terms of maintaining the same quality and delivering the same finished food that they might be used to today.”