As health concerns mount, the race to reformulate our food is on. So what will tomorrow’s products look like? Julia Glotz visits Leatherhead Food Research to find out

Clean labels, EFSA health claims and low-calorie chocolate that tastes as good as the real thing talk to Leatherhead Food Research CEO Paul Berryman, and you’ll get a good idea of what’s currently keeping the food industry awake at night.

Based on an industrial complex in Surrey, Berryman and his team of 200 scientists and food experts are helping some of the biggest names in food and drink crack the industry’s most pressing challenges.

Chief among those is health. High-profile public health initiatives such as the government’s Responsibility Deal mean industry interest in salt, sugar and fat reduction is at an all-time high and Leatherhead’s reformulation practice is booming. “We’ve always had a steady stream of companies looking for reformulation tweaking their products to make them more competitive but recently health has moved up the agenda,” says Berryman. “We’re getting more requests from companies saying they want a low-fat or low-sugar version of their products and they want it to taste good.”

It is this focus on health and taste that has turned ‘nutrition’ and ‘sensory’ into Leatherhead’s fastest-growing divisions, with the sensory team doubling turnover to £1.4m from 2009 to 2010, and nutrition going “from virtually zero a few years ago to about £3m now,” says Berryman.

One of Leatherhead’s recent reformulation success stories involves fmcg giants PepsiCo and P&G, which changed the way they salt their Walkers and Pringles crisps after Leatherhead scientists discovered a way of using micro-particles to achieve the same flavour with reduced amounts.

The growing importance of health to the food and drink industry is also reflected in Leatherhead’s own growth. The institute, which is run on a not-for-profit basis and funded through the fees its 1,500 members pay to get access to its research, has just opened a new 4,000 sq ft nutrition lab dubbed the “feed and bleed centre” by staff to cope with growing demand for health and nutrition-related scientific research. “We’ll be feeding people particular diets and then taking blood samples to measure levels of vitamins or hormones related to hunger,” Berryman explains.

Such research could help companies substantiate claims that foods keep you ‘fuller for longer’ and even help with getting food-related health claims approved at EU level. EFSA’s health claims approval process has been a headache for industry, Berryman acknowledges, and he is keen to position Leatherhead as part of the solution. “We have new facilities for in-vitro and human studies exactly the sort you need to substantiate health claims and we’re saying to the industry ‘Come to us and we’ll do this properly for you’.”

Health aside, Berryman says he’s seeing increasing interest from Leatherhead’s members in ‘clean label’, the trend of having as few ingredients as possible on labels and replacing synthetic additives with natural ingredients. It’s sometimes difficult to square this with reformulation targets, which can see simple ingredients salt, sugar or fat replaced with a long list of bulking agents and sweeteners. “It’s often about making a choice about what’s more important,” admits Berryman.

So what are the reformulation challenges the industry is most desperate to crack? Low-salt bread, low-calorie chocolate and low-fat Cheddar, says Berryman. Cutting-edge technology such as the use of nano-particles and the incorporation of flavoured air as an ingredient a key trend to look out for, according to Berryman is promising to help food and drink companies create ever-healthier and tastier versions of these foods, with potentially enormous public health benefits. “People are quite likely to go from a high-calorie biscuit to a lower-calorie biscuit, but they are unlikely to go from a high-calorie biscuit to an apple,” says Berryman. “That’s why good reformulation is so important.”

But he warns reformulation remains the stuff of scientists, not magicians. “Some people will always be searching for the ultimate holy grail a food that tastes great but has no calories in it. Well sorry, but you can’t have that.”