The story of nutritional improvements in biscuits.
If we were to write a children’s book about how biscuit recipes evolved over the years, it would start something like this: “Once upon a time, biscuits were made using partially hydrogenated fats with trans fatty acids, artificial colours and flavours and had a lot of salt and sugar…”
This is an article I wrote for June’s edition of Food & Drink Technology where I take a whistle stop tour of nutritional improvement in biscuits, attempt to see what the future holds and the role that food scientists and technologists have to play.
The NOVA classification of foods1 mentions artificial flavours and colours, hydrogenated fat and trans fatty acids with negative connotations regarding the role they should (not) have in someone’s diet. Reading it I admit that I feel a sense of pride that as a food technologist I have played my part in removing these ingredients and additives from biscuits produced in the UK.
I was there when…
- Partially hydrogenated fats were removed
- Artificial flavours and colours were replaced by natural ones
- Saturated fat was reduced, especially in savoury biscuits
- Salt content started to come down
- Fibre levels were increased across certain brand ranges
- Sugar reduction and calorie reduction became central to a business’ growth plans
These changes span 25 years and are the result of a lot of hard work, research and development across ingredient suppliers and manufacturers and in some cases, equipment manufacturers. If I were to distil the learnings of this work into three areas of focus for food technologist or scientist, these would be the following:
Follow the Science
A product developer will always have a large number of things to consider, from consumer acceptance of a reformulated product, to its financial viability and from regulatory compliance to project interdependencies. Their starting point though should always be science, especially as there is so much misinformation out there.
A good example here is the removal of partially hydrogenated fats in the ‘90’s. When scientists confirmed the harmful impact of trans fatty acids in these fats, then reformulation and sourcing of alternative fats became an imperative.
However, even a small change in functional ingredients like fats or salt can require significant process changes and sometimes investment in a new process. For example, salt reduction can affect the strength of a biscuit. A more fragile biscuits means that transfer points and packing need a rethink or that mixing and forming need to be modified to strengthen the biscuit in different ways.
Understand the options available to you and chose the most appropriate one for your brand, product, process. For sugar reduction2, there are three approaches that can reduce the overall amount of sugar consumed.
Consider the whole supply chain
A change in one ingredient can often have implications for the whole supply chain. Fried snacks were the first to change from high saturated frying fats to high oleic sunflower oil. The biscuit industry followed by changing spray oil in savoury biscuits from coconut oil c 80% sat fat to palm, sunflower or mixtures of the two. Procurement departments had to identify and audit new suppliers and put new contracts in place whilst coming out of other contracts. In turn, ingredient suppliers had to ensure farmers planted enough crops.
Listen to your consumers
If I have learnt one think in all my years in the industry this is that consumers are extremely precious about their favourite brands and products. A nutritionally improved product that consumers reject by switching to alternatives with poorer credentials, is of no use to anyone.
When it comes to nutritional improvements that affect the sensory characteristics of a product, there can be two approaches: implementing consumer perceivable changes or slight non perceivable changes.
Switching from artificial to natural colours fell in the first category. In the early days of natural colours some could not be replicated using naturally derived ingredients and were therefore taken out of a product’s portfolio.
Salt reduction followed the second route when it started as a voluntary initiative in 2004. PHE later issued targets for 2017 and more recently new targets for sweet biscuits and cake for 20243. The route taken then by most brands was to execute small reductions every 6 to 12 months, thus gradually re calibrating one could say, the palate of the nation.
The way forward: Research, Prioritisation and Education
We do not need a crystal ball to see that there will be more legislation for products high in fat, salt and sugar4, nor that the industry will continue to make further nutritional improvements whilst trying to maintain great taste. It is also true to say that the low hanging fruit have been picked. I believe that the way forward needs to include:
- Investing in ingredient technology as well as in developing new processes. Both need to be high on the list of priorities for businesses, research centres and government.
- Continuing research into the role of nutrition in human health. For example, we have just scratched the surface of understanding the effect of nutrition on our microbiome.
- Educating consumers from an early age on how to have a balanced diet5 and an active life, finding creative ways to make it easy for people to make better choices.
The pandemic has shown us that when there is clear prioritisation and collaboration, anything can be achieved. Few believed that a vaccine could be created and rolled out within months.
What if for example, all technology that enables reformulation and nutritional improvement was open technology and there were substantial incentives for process improvements so that new technologies could be adopted quickly!
We are not ready to write the end of the story, yet, but my hope and belief is that when we do it will go something like this “…and all the people of the land followed a balanced, healthy diet and the people that baked lovely, tasty biscuits worked hard and collaboratively to make their biscuits as nutritious as possible and the scientists of the land continued their research supported by the all.
To be continued….”
2 PHE Sugar reduction progress 2015 – 2019
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