ONCE UPON A TIME…

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.

photo of the article in Food and drink technology

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.

Follow the science, Consider the whole supply chain and Listen to your consumers. Three key things a product developer must do when reformulating.

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….”

Reference

1 NOVA

2 PHE Sugar reduction progress 2015 – 2019

3 PHE Salt reduction targets 2024 

4 HFSS legislation

5 Eatwell guide

#eatwellguide #nova #biscuits #nutritionalimprovement #foodtechnology #productdevelopment #HFSS

Best Food Films: The Chef

Great food needs love, imagination and an open mind. The rise of street food.

Wow! Where do I start with this film? Do we talk about the great food, the great music (if you love salsa and the cha cha cha, this is the soundtrack for you) or the mouthwatering cooking scenes? Take your pick!
OK…or the sad reality of a kid having to “educate” his dad on how ot use twitter? Some of us, of a certain age, can probably sympathise with this last one…

What I would like to talk about is the reinvention of street food over the last few years. This post can easily sit under my posts on Trends. Just like any other real trend, it comes on the scene, gradually and quietly (sometimes) and before you know it, it is everywhere!

I remember going to a music festival many years ago and seeing a food van that was very different to the usual burger and chips food vans. It was imaginatively decorated, the cooking smells were inviting and the food itself juicy and flavourful with delicate spice notes.
Over the years the casual outdoors food scene has been transformed. Food vans and eating on a park bench have become the preferred thing to do and with good reason. They offer new flavours and textures, are informal and approachable, friendly and fun and of course good value for money. Why have a dry old sandwich for lunch when you can take a walk and enjoy some fabulous freshly cooked food? You can tell the good food trucks because, just like in the film, the queues are long. These are places of inspiration for a product developer.

I would even go as far as saying, why bother with formal restaurants, bookings and time slots when you can walk into a food paradise like say, Seven Dials Market in Covent Garden. The food there can transport you to far away places, from Mexico to Thailand and from New York to Manila!
We are very fortunate in London, with a plethora of greta treet food places, Borough Market, Kerb Campden Market, Maltby Street Market and many more. But if you think that this is a London thing, then think again. Great street food is everywhere. Just check the British Street Food Awards’ list and you’ll find many great places all around the country. https://britishstreetfood.co.uk/

Steet food offers new flavours and textures, is informal and approachable, friendly and fun and of course good value for money. A place of inspiration for any product developer.

#thechef #thechefmovie #innovation #productdevelopment #foodtechnology #bestfoodfilms #streetfood #foodvan

Trends #3: There’s more to snacks than potato crisps

Alternative bases for snacks seem to be growing in popularity in the snacks market.

With the lockdown in the UK easing and the shops opening again, I decided to treat myself to one of my favourite pastimes, a day in London. I knew it would still not be quite the same as the PC (pre COVID) days, but I did anticipate and plan the date with a lot of excitement. I was going to spend my day strolling around Kensington and Knightsbridge. I would start with a bookstore to check out any new cookery books, then move on to Whole Foods for some inspiration, I was also hoping to find this new citrus fruit called Sumo Citrus to try, then lunch in Hyde park and after this maybe a stroll to Harrods’ food hall.

OK, I feel I am losing you now, so I’ll get to the point. I had a look at Whole Foods’ savoury snacks section. There were about 10 shelves with various products. Only 2 had potato crisps and maybe one shelf had corn or rice based snacks. The rest featured snacks with a plethora of other bases. Amongst them were nuts, vegetables, pulses, cereals other than wheat, seaweed even fish skin. Some of them were claiming lower fat, environmentally sustainable, higher protein or lower calories, but all emphasised taste !

Five savoury snack products made with alternative bases like seaweek, fish skin, cheese, pulses
Just a small selection of savoury snacks with alternative bases

Of course with the introduction of new bases, we see new processes. Rather than slicing and frying or sheeting and baking, there is a lot of “popping”, drying, or extruding.
Since the launch of Snack-a-Jacks (early naughties in the UK), probably the first alternative base and technology in a long time and with a healthier message, we have seen the rise of popcorn, the slow but consistent growth of other popped products and more recently the introduction of pulses and vegetables. Sourdough is also one to watch, but we’ll talk about sourdough another day.

So, is it the end of the potato crisp ? I don’t think so. The flavour and texture sensation that you get from crisps is well engrained into our memory banks. Plus potato is a genuinely great base for flavours, both when we are cooking and when we are snacking and let’s not forget the economics of it.
If however, the question was “So, is the diversity that we are seeing in snack bases now, going to continue?” then I believe that the answer is a definite YES!
In other words, this is a developer’s dream situation. A market that ready to break with tradition, a consumer that wants to experiment and endless ingredient options.

If however, the question was “So, is the diversity that we are seeing in snack bases now, going to continue?” then I believe that the answer is a definite YES!

NB. If you have been watching any of the cookery programmes, you are bound to have noticed the introduction of crispy fish skin to add texture and interest to a dish. A great shortcut, and I am not suggesting that you take shortcuts, is Seachips. They are also great with a cold beer.

#foodtrends #innovation #productdevelopment #alternativesnacks

Innovation Tools #3: A Development Framework

What are the things that a developer needs to be aware of and develop within so that they can be free to create a fantastic product ?

I’ll keep this simple:


Q: What does a product developer need to consider during the development of a new product?
A: A lot…..The end!

Wow, that’s a bit scary, isn’t it ? But fear not.
A. We’ll break it down into bits (how do you eat an elephant?) and
B. A product developer does not need to know it all, they just need to know who to consult and bring into the team at the right time.

You can now see the link between the photo of the Parthenon at the start of the blog! You can take the girl out of Athens but you cannot take Athens out of the girl !

There are lots of ways to depict the key considerations, you can have them as a beautiful flower with the consumer experience in the centre or a golf course where you need to get to all the holes before you get to the prize… I decided to go for a house frame. It may be inflexible, but once sorted you are free to decorate the house as you like ! (Ok maybe parallels are not my strong point 😂)

Let’s explore each section:

The absolute foundation is of course food safety, legality and financial viability, for the last one I have assumed that you are developing for a food business and therefore if there is no profit, the product is not sustainable. Not much else to add here, other than that by safety you need to think microbes, toxins, contamination, allergies, foreign matter, product use etc. and by legal, think export markets, special dietary groups etc.

The pillars come next.

  • Sustainability of materials – this is key and the responsible thing to do for the planet.
  • Ethical sourcing – how are your materials produced ? This is often a procurement person’s responsibility, but it is worth you asking the question.
  • Consistent Quality – this is a product developer’s “bread & butter”. Defining and setting quality parameters, checks etc is what we do. The trick here is to think the whole supply chain i.e. from having confidence that your materials are consistent at every delivery, to what happens during your manufacturing process, during transport, retailer handling of the product and even in the consumer’s environment. The product may have left your space of jurisdiction, but it is still your “baby”.
  • Shelf life – This is another one of our “bread & butter” activities.
  • Brand Alignment – the example here is designing a recipe with for example, artificial flavours when the brand is all about natural ingredients ⛔️.
  • Waste Proofing – have a look at one of my previous posts Waste Not Want Not
  • Carbon footprint – understanding a product’s footprint and then creating a plan to reduce it is important. We’ve got to do this if we are serious about moving the dial in the race to tackle climate change. Again, this is not the responsibility of the product developer, but you do need to know enough to ask the right questions.

If you stay on top of these questions and you structure your activities to take them into account as you progress through the stages of a project – it can be done, you can build processes and templates for this to happen – then you can avoid bad surprises and put your energy in creating a wonderful consumer experience and a great tasting product. You can focus on creating recipes that deliver on a claim or promise and deliver the brief.

You can build processes and templates that will allow all the right questions to be asked at the right time of a project’s stage, so that you can put your energy in creating a fab consumer experience.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that I make no mention of nutritional targets or claims. This is simply because, if these are regulatory targets they fall within the foundations, if they are self imposed ones, for example x% of fat because it is in the brand’s DNA, they would sit under the brand pillar.

#innovationtools #productdevelopment #innovation #consumerexperience #innovationframework #innovationtemplates

Best Food Films: Chocolat

Keeping an open mind when it comes to flavour combinations can produce fireworks!

Easter is synonymous with chocolate for a lot of people and the classic chocolate film has to be Chocolat.
Is there anyone who has not seen Chocolat ? A young Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche plus other great actors and lot of chocolate. What more can one ask for ?

“Chilli…in hot chocolate ?”

The film has a wonderful plot that touches on a number of topics, the main one being how much we sometimes restrict ourselves and impose rules on ourselves, even if deep down we do not agree with them, because of what people may think.

But for a product developer and a food lover, the film offers so much more. In fact, I think this is probably the one film that I can watch without sound and still find the chocolate and food scenes mesmerising. I have been very lucky to work with chocolate a lot and I can promise you it is one of the best media to work with.

If I were to chose one scene though, it would be the one where Vianne’s character serves hot chocolate with chilli 🌶. I remember I had not seen this combination before and ran to try it. I was surprised to taste a beautiful, smooth, coco-ey hot drink, where the heat carried on and bridged the sips. It was bright and uplifting.

Not all weird and wonderful flavour and ingredient combinations will work, but our role is to keep an open mind and never stop experimenting.
I wrote about my discovery of fresh bay leaf in brewed tea a while back. This was also an unexpected combination that worked.

Not all weird and wonderful flavour and ingredient combinations will work, but our role is to keep an open mind and never stop experimenting.

#flavour #innovation #productdevelopment #chocolat #bestfoodfilm

Trend #2: Waste not Want not

Is designing product, process and packaging where nothing is wasted, the new North Star ?

This week I read about fashion designers in Japan (and I am sure in lots of other places) creating “mottainai” fashion, CNN article. Last week I spoke with a colleague, expert in sustainability, who said the one thing product developers need to be designing into everything they do is total consumption of all the energy that is used to create a product. Only last week it was Food waste action week. The food people have identified getting thrifty as one of the top 10 trends.
I think we all get the picture aa well as the importance and the urgency of the situation.

So what does this mean for a developer ? Yes it is more things to think about, yes it is more restrictions on top of the usual (regulatory, safety, cost etc) … or rather, this is one way of seeing it. The other way is that this is your opportunity to make a difference. Besides you already know that us product developers are super humans, so no problem !

On the face of it it may seem like a mammoth task, but take a step at a time. It is true what they say that the journey starts with a step. The sooner in your creative and development journey you consider these aspects, the better the product you’ll design. Before long all these considerations will become second nature.
Before you ask, I appreciate that waste reduction is not the only thing that needs to be considered. There is carbon footprint, nutritional value, ethical sourcing. These are for another post !

Once upon a time it was enough to have a great idea, create a great tasting recipe on bench and then scale it up. So long as it was legal, safe, great tasting and financially viable you were good to go. Thank goodness those days are long gone and I am glad for this.

The sooner in your creative and development journey you consider these aspects, the better the product you’ll design. Before long all these considerations will become second nature.

#innovation #wastereduction #productdevelopment #sustainability #thefoodpeople

Innovation tools #2: Idea Generation Tips

Last January I wrote about idea generation and whether this was a skill that could be learned (BTW the answer you are looking here is YES).

I then thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to put together all the ways I know about coming up with ideas”. “Why not share it with everyone!” was my next thought. “Why not ask friends and colleagues to contribute” was the one that followed.

At that point I stopped thinking and got to work and with the help of good friends I curated this edition of 20 tips plus some resources.

Big thank you to all the contributors and especially to Muryel Boulay and Riccardo Weber for their suggestions and builds.

I hope you find it useful.

I hope you find it useful. If you have any ideation tips to share, I’d be glad to have them and add to the next edition.

#ideation #ideageneration #innovation #productdevelopment #creativity&

Lesson #5 If only machines were as gentle as our fingers !

Scaling up a recipe can create quality defects that are not visible on bench or pilot plant.

The cookies were beautiful and everyone was so excited about them. They ticked all the boxes. Plenty of chocolate pieces, lovely melt in the mouth texture, a balanced aroma of chocolate mixed in with vanilla and baked biscuit notes and a gorgeous colour that made them look fresh and inviting. They were not the ones in the photograph, but looked just as homemade. The only snag was that they had only been made on the bench and here was the team talking about what the launch event would be like !

If only the forming equipment in the factory were as gentle as the hands of the product developer… Machines want to run fast, squash and squeeze and push this lovely soft dough and all the inclusions in it. By the way, machines hate inclusions. In fact they can’t stand them.
You can see where this is going now, can’t you ? The minute we started testing the recipe on the full scale production line, at the correct batch size and at speeds that gave optimum performance for the equipment and delivered a throughput that made the product financially viable, a big part of the loveliness off the product started to disappeared. The shape and homemade appearance was altered, the chocolate pieces were smashed and brown streaks of smeared chocolate were making the golden colour of the cookie turn a dirty shade of brown. The only consolation was that it still tasted great.

Can we fix this? Yes we can! to paraphrase Bob the builder, but it needs work and the combined efforts of the manufacturing team, the process developer and the product developer. There are things that can be done with the mixing and forming equipment, ways to make the inclusions less susceptible to damage and manufacturing practices that can be put in place to control production better. The key point for a product developer is to make sure they scale up their recipe as soon as possible and to plan some trouble shooting time in the project’s time plan. It also pays to speak with their manufacturing colleagues and invite them to share their knowledge and experience early on in a project. One thing I’ve learned is that when faced with a challenge, the best course of action is to reach out to colleagues and get their input and help. A collaborative solution is always better than one you come up with on your own… unless your surname is Einstein !

The key point for a product developer is to make sure they scale up their recipe as soon as possible and to plan some trouble shooting time in a project’s time plan.

#scaleup #innovation #productdevelopment

Best Food Films: A Touch of Spice

Sometimes unique ingredients can give a dish its signature and make the difference between a good dish and a great one.

A Touch of Spice trailer

This film holds a very special place in my heart, as I recognise a lot of the food and the family idiosyncrasies, even some of the accents, of my father’s family in it. My paternal grandparents were Greeks of Istanbul, fortunate enough to choose the time of their arrival to Athens. They brought with them all the traditions and recipes depicted in the film.
A generous table with an abundance of dishes prepared with love, imagination and skill was part of the cuisine and the culture. It would be unthinkable to welcome guests without a large selection of edible wonders.

“Gastronomy contains the word Astronomy” learning the planets through spice

Spice is mentioned a lot in the film. There is a lovely scene (see video) where the grandad teaches his grandson the shape of our universe using different spices.
Spice has the ability to transform a dish and often makes the difference between a good plate of food and an extraordinary one. It can add depth and complexity in the aroma and the flavour and leave consumers wondering what the magic taste is. The source and combination of spices and flavour extracts in a dish are often closely guarded secrets, whether it is a relative’s recipe, a chef’s or a big brand’s.
The supply chain director used to always tease me about all the “unique” flavours that my team would introduce into the factories. They complicated production. I could see his point, but more often that not this unique flavour was what gave a product its signature taste. As a developer you need to keep a fine balance between trying to keep the recipes you develop simple keeping new ingredients to a minimum and creating a signature taste and aroma.

The source and combination of spices and flavour extracts in a dish are often closely guarded secrets, whether it is a relative’s recipe, a chef’s or a big brand’s. They give the dish its signature taste.

#touchofspice #signaturetaste #productdevelopment #innovation #foodtechnology #spice

Innovation tools #2: Coming up with ideas

How many brainstorming techniques are there ? Probably as many as grains of sand on a beach

Last week’s post on whether creativity is a skill that can be developed, got me thinking about the numerous ways and techniques that we use to come up with ideas. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this must be a list with no end, hence the sand and beach parallel (nothing to do with the fact that because of the lockdown, I can only dream of going to the beach…).

So WHAT IF* (favourite two words ever!) I could compile a list of as many ways, techniques, environments, methods, inspirations of coming up with ideas, as I can.

Valia’s challenge

So this is not one of my usual post. This is the start of a challenge to create a very long list, that will be updated regularly. I’ll reach out to friends and I’ll ask them for their best tips:
– What techniques do they use
– Do they have any special places where ideas come flooding in
– Have they come across and idea gurus and their methods
– Are there any people that help them come up with ideas
– Do they have any best practices to help other people come up with ideas
– What conditions encourage idea generation
I’ll of course be very happy to credit your contribution on the list.

#innovation #brainstorming #ideas #productdevelopment

*What If is also the name of a creative agency (there may be others) that I worked with many years ago. They even ran a training session for us at the time that was excellent. Worth getting if you can. Amazon had some used copies available. Just to be clear re copyright, I will not be copying the book, rather capturing methods I have tried and tested over the years, some of which were sparked off by the training I had attended.