As people become more health-conscious, the role of innovation in making food and drink healthier becomes ever more important. The health profession regularly calls for consumers to eat less salt, sugar and saturated fat and consume more fibre, and the food industry is under pressure to reflect these recommendations in the products on our shelves.
Without doubt the industry recognises the need to offer foods that are more nutritionally balanced, but in many cases the ingredients and technology are limited. The role of R&D funding is therefore critical in making food and drink healthier.
As the UK government’s innovation agency, we are just one organisation supporting this cause, recently launching a competition that will channel up to £10m into R&D projects aimed at reducing sugar, salt and fat, and increasing dietary fibre.
The market opportunity resulting from these kinds of initiatives is broad, from niche health products to mass markets such as bread.
Calorie balance is the major challenge. Satiety is an important area for investigation here - and a very complex one. What is it that makes us feel full, and what keeps us coming back? Both physiology and psychology play a role. On the psychology side we have recently seen studies on whether the size of the plate we eat from or the cutlery that we use can affect the amount we eat. On the physiology side, areas such as GI are hot topics and are probably linked to fibre content.
Another big area for research is seeking replacements for fat, satfat and sugar. In some cases, one of the options can be to replace the component with something completely inert. Water and air can both be very useful ingredients when incorporated in innovative ways. But the challenge is how to maintain the physical properties and not deliver something that just seems diluted. This, of course, is where nutrient replacers come in. We are all familiar with the low and no-calorie sugar substitutes such as aspartame, but it is clear that a new generation of sweeteners are in development, especially ones that are ‘naturally sourced’ such as stevia. Fat is also a candidate for such approaches, but thus far there has been more success with the removal of total fat and substitution of satfats with those that are polyunsaturated or monosaturated. Salt does not provide calories but our consumption of it is still generally too high. Though much progress has been made in reducing the salt content of pre-packaged foods, this is still ongoing.
Finally, of course, there is the approach of adding nutrients that can be beneficial to health. Where this is a nutrient such as fibre or a mineral such as calcium, a nutrition claim can be made on products that meet the regulatory requirements. However, where science is yet to establish that a benefit can be gained from increased consumption, then a new claim has to be approved. It is probably this step that is holding back innovations, but the benefits of these types of innovations are clear, and we can only hope they will be pursued and prove fruitful soon.
Helen Munday is lead technologist on the agriculture and food team at Innovate UK