01 May 2019

Having your cake and eating it too – innovation in the food and drink industry

The food and drink industry is one of Europe’s largest manufacturing sectors, with, according to FoodDrinkEurope, an annual turnover of €1,109bn. However, in order to capitalise on this lucrative industry, manufacturers must follow (or more ideally stimulate) changing consumer demands and government initiatives. 

One of the most significant recent consumer trends has been the increased demand for healthier foods and drinks. Consumers have become much more conscious of maintaining a healthy and balanced diet and are looking more critically at the ingredients contained within their food and drink.

In recent years there has also been an increased awareness of the methods of manufacture, the inclusion of additives and the sourcing of food and drink ingredients. The desire to live healthier lifestyles has resulted in, among others, an increased demand for new vegetarian and vegan options, nutritionally improved and ‘gut healthy’ foods. 

This change in consumer purchasing is reflected in the given drivers for innovation in the food and drink industry, with health food trends (natural, medical and vegetal) reported as showing the greatest increase in 2017, particularly in the soft drink sector, which was recorded as the most innovative sector in 2017.

No doubt this change in manufacturing drivers is, at least partly, related to the new national guidelines, such as those published by Public Health England (PHE), which aim to reduce the amount of sugar in children’s food by 20% by the year 2020, and the general EU benchmark of reducing added sugars in food products by a minimum of 10% by 2020, with respect to the baseline levels of member states at the end of 2015. 

But what if consumers grow tired of this healthy lifestyle trend and want to give in to ‘naughty’ urges once again? Is it possible to maintain a healthier lifestyle and continue to eat the comfort foods that we all know and love? Essentially, is it possible for us to have our cake and (quite literally) eat it too? 

Fortunately, many food and drink manufacturers have committed extensive time and resources to looking at this exact issue. In recent years, research and innovation in the food and drink industry has not been solely focused on providing new healthy, micronutrient filled foods for us to try. It has also looked at how to make the food and drink products traditionally associated with higher calories and increased amounts of fat, salt and sugar healthier, while maintaining the texture, taste and appearance we have come to expect and enjoy. 

Reduced Fat Fish and Chips

Fish and chips is quintessentially British fare, using a batter formed from a slurry of wheat flour and water. However, deep-fried foods
such as these absorb large amounts of oil during cooking, which significantly increases their calorific content and reduces the nutritional value.

Fortunately, VA Whitley & Co Ltd, a UK supplier to the Fish and Chip and Fast Food Trade, has perfected a healthier batter which comprises fava bean flour (from the Vicia faba bean) in place of the traditional wheat flour. The fava bean flour has been found to reduce fat/oil uptake during cooking, while importantly maintaining the familiar colour, texture and taste of traditional fish batter.

Not only does this batter reduce the overall calorific content of the resulting food product, but it also meets many of the other consumer-driven demands of today. For example, the use of fava bean flour provides additional health benefits over wheat flour as it is higher in protein, fibre, and trace minerals. Fava bean flour is also gluten-free, and so is suitable for those among us who are either intolerant to or just prefer to opt for gluten-free alternatives.

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Low Sodium Salted Treats

It is well documented the consumption of excessive amounts of sodium can produce detrimental effects on the circulatory system, such as high blood pressure, as well as kidney affections, water retention, and stomach ulcers.

While many manufacturers have gone some way to meet the PHE salt reduction targets, this has to be balanced with a strong consumer demand for the flavour and organoleptic qualities of salt, particularly sodium chloride.

In order to reduce the amount of salt required in food products, ConAgra Foods Ltd, a US based food manufacturer, found that a solution to this conundrum is to use salt with a mean particle size of less than 20 microns. This invention is based on the fact that reducing the mean particle size of salt increases the total surface area of salt for a given weight. The larger surface area of salt acting on the tongue, provides the same salt perception to the consumer but with the advantage of lower amounts of salt. ConAgra’s proprietary Micron Salt, can be found in its Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn.

Healthy Chocolate

“Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power…it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.” – Justus von Liebig.

While chocolate is a favourite treat for many of us, an increased consumption of sugar has been linked to the higher levels of obesity
in the UK, with the Health Survey for England 2017 finding that 64% of adults were either obese or overweight. Obesity has in turn been linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes. One food product often discussed with respect to the increase in obesity is milk chocolate, as over half of the weight of a chocolate bar may be due to sugar alone.

IMMD SP Z OO, a company specialising in the field of biotechnology, has dedicated research into finding ways to make chocolate healthier for consumers. Its patent (WO 2018/087305) describes a chocolate product comprising a polyphenol-rich plant extract, preferably trans-resveratrol (t-RSV).

The incorporation of polyphenols in milk chocolate has great health implications as polyphenols have been shown to interfere with glucose absorption in the intestine. IMMD SP Z OO also states that the chocolate containing polyphenols can provide ‘antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-hypoxic, vascular supporting and/or other health benefits’.

Low-Fat Baked Goods

Over the years, bread and bakery products have become a staple in our diets. However, compared to other food types, baked goods can contain higher calories and higher amounts of carbohydrates, along with providing fewer vitamins and minerals.

One particular type of baked product which is known for its higher calorie content is puff pastry. Puff pastry is formed from a dough laminate containing many alternating layers of the basic dough and a fat. Fat plays an integral role in forming the puffed final product.

During baking, the water contained within the dough is turned into steam, which is trapped by the thin layers of gluten, causing the dough to expand. The fat layers contained in the dough act as a barrier, preventing the gluten layers from joining together. In order to function as an effective barrier layer, the fat used must contain certain levels of plasticity (to enable the dough to be rolled and folded when creating the laminate structure) and firmness (as softer fats can be absorbed by the dough).

While it would be desirable to produce puffed pastry products which do not weigh as heavily on the calorific scales, this problem cannot be solved by simply using less fat or substituting the fat for a softer alternative, containing lower trans fats.

However, AAK AB, a company specialising in vegetable oil and fats, has developed a reduced fat bakery emulsion that enables the preparation of low-fat puff pastry. In order to reduce the fat content of the emulsion, while still maintaining the required plasticity and firmness, the patented bakery emulsion replaces part of the fat traditionally used with natural additives, such as maltodextrin, which mimic the properties of the fat.

Reduced Sugar Soft Drinks

As discussed above, national organisations, such as PHE, have heavily publicised targets for reducing the sugar content of a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intake by at least 20% by 2020.

One organisation taking this challenge head-on is Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS), a European based company owned by Japanese manufacturing company, Suntory, which has announced that it aims to reduce the sugar content of all of its existing and new beverages to less than 4.5g per 100 ml (compared to previous 10 to 11g per 100 ml). LRS has managed to remove a staggering 25,500 tons of sugar and 98 billion calories from the company’s annual drinks production and states that this dramatic change has not affected the taste of the soft drinks produced.

So, how are manufacturers meeting these new government-led and consumer-driven targets?

One main method of lowering sugars in food is to replace at least some of the sugar present with sweeteners. Unfortunately, the incorporation of higher amounts of sweeteners can lead to the presence of an off/bitter taste. It is known that the presence of artificial sweeteners within food products not only stimulates the human sweet taste receptors, but also activates bitter taste receptors (TAS2Rs), causing this unpleasant ‘off-taste’.

In recent years, LRS has been reformulating its drinks products in order to reduce sugar content while maintaining a sweet taste. One method of achieving this is discussed in the patent of Suntory Holdings Ltd, WO 2018/225817, which discloses a sweetening composition comprising a combination of natural sugars, high-intensity sweeteners and low concentrations of sodium. The invention utilises the fact that the perceived sweetness of a food or drink product is increased by the presence of sodium.

Protecting Market Share

Producing food and drink products which meet all of these requirements can provide companies with a competitive advantage, but the question remains: how can this advantage be maintained and how do companies prevent competitors reaping the rewards from their research and investment?

We see numerous examples of food and drink manufacturers maximising the effectiveness of their IP protection as they develop innovative product ranges and tests to meet fast-moving consumer demand. IP protection can relate to the finished food product, a specific combination of ingredients or the manufacturing process itself, as well as working with design law to protect the aesthetics of products, the food product itself and its packaging.

This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of Intellectual Property Magazine.

Laura Clews
Managing Associate