Ingredients: A matter of taste
People are travelling much farther afield than the traditional holiday resorts of Europe; as a consequence, they are being exposed to an ever-increasing range of sophisticated foods and tastes. The result is a willingness, indeed a desire, to experience those same tastes and flavours in food purchased in the UK.
The search for new flavours, the need to secure supplies and issues such as sustainability are leading to an increasing number of partnerships between European-based ingredients suppliers and producers in far-flung parts of the world.
Lifestyle changes, health awareness and the greater need for more convenience are big factors in determining the business strategies of ingredients companies. Sometimes changes in taste and the demand for certain products can happen almost overnight.
Demand for ingredients can change rapidly because of the influence of TV celebrity chefs and changing lifestyles, says Peter van Cotthem, UK general manager of Verstegen Spices & Sauces. Television chefs using ingredients have created instant demand, especially over the last five years. Demand is also increasingly due to consumers' experience of eating abroad, and through their curiosity for new flavours. One area where this has developed is in new types of curries, based on Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian recipes rather than better-known traditional Indian cuisine.
To meet this demand, Verstegen recently bought a Rotterdam-based curry manufacturer called Kumar that manufactures what is claimed to be authentic Indonesian and Malaysian curries as well as Indian ones. Aimed at the top end of the market, the curries use fresh rather than dried ingredients, and the production process is a lot more manual in order to achieve the necessary authenticity. The process involves making fresh herb- and spice-based sauces called 'bumbus'. Twelve curries in the Kumar range will be offered to small professional companies.
Kerry Group has also been acquiring businesses, including Breeo Foods, Dera Holding, Prima and G Adams Pastry, and has recently integrated its ingredients, bio-ingredients and flavours divisions to form a single business: Kerry Ingredients & Flavours. Integrating several previously independent Kerry operations into the single business has allowed the company to capture all its technology and applications capability more cost effectively, says strategic marketing director, Karl Burkitt. In terms of product development work and tackling big issues, such as health, it allows Kerry to draw on multiple technologies, he says. "What our customers value about this approach is the way it removes the need to work with numerous different technology suppliers on the same project. The result is that we can simplify product development, reduce time to market, and optimise the supply chain."
It also allows faster product development. Chefs, development technologists and food scientists work with ingredients and flavours across the full range of whole-muscle meats, comminute products, poultry, barbecue and rotisserie, cooked meats and cured meats at a Centre of Excellence in Brussels, Belgium.
Van Cotthem says supermarkets are leading the demand for packs in which the ingredients, especially liquid ingredients and marinades, are packed separately from the main product, but are in the same pack. This method of packaging has been in widespread use on the Continent for the past three years, and it has taken off in the UK over the last 12 months. According to van Cotthem, the benefit to manufacturers and supermarkets is the adding of value and convenience for the customer. It also achieves far better presentation with less risk of the transparent lid of the pack becoming smeared with a liquid ingredient when picked up.
While independent butchers can make an attractive and colourful feature of a sauce or marinade on a meat product in trays in their counters, this is not the case with prepacked marinaded meats displayed in supermarket aisles. As well as the 'mess' factor, water-based marinades can appear thin, with the meat appearing to float in it. Packing the sauce or ingredient in a separate sachet, stick, cup or beaker within the main pack gets around this problem.
The development has allowed supermarkets to make progress with ingredient use and presentation within their fresh meat packs in the aisles, but similar progress has not been taken by most when it comes to counter displays, where fresh meat remains the primary focus. The exception seems to be Asda in some of its Northern Ireland stores, where it has franchised the meat counters to a butchery company that is displaying a lot of added value products.
Van Cotthem says supermarkets are generally 'missing a trick' by not making full use of their fresh meat counters with more products in trays that contain marinades and sauces. This is one of the areas, he believes, where independent butchers have an advantage. One of the problems for supermarkets in developing this aspect of their counter displays is the difficulty in maintaining the correct ingredients information on counter labels.
The focus shifted from premium meat products to the value range as the recession took hold. Whether that focus will continue remains to be seen, but there are already signs that premium priced products, and those with sophisticated ingredients included, are making a comeback if, indeed, they ever went away. This is certainly the case with ready meals, where demand is again strengthening following a dip in 2009.
While value has come much more to the forefront over the last couple of years, the impact has been less than some think. The recession has hit some companies, but it has created opportunities for others. Although companies continue to develop value ranges, a good level of quality is still expected. The value range has been bolstered further in recent years by sales of frozen products that have benefited from huge advances in freezing techniques. A better appreciation of ethnic flavour profiles is also under way, with variations of product themes in development, and ingredients being developed from different areas within the same geographic regions.
Profit margins remain tight, and manufacturing is as efficient as it can be, with overheads literally cut to the bone in many firms. Competition among a plethora of large and small ingredients supplying companies is fierce in the extreme. Although ingredients may only account for 1-2% of the total cost of a new product, manufacturers still want to squeeze the maximum value from suppliers. Competition has been made even tougher by the ongoing polarisation of the meat industry into fewer, larger groupings. Today, for example, there are perhaps 20 or so major UK cooked meat companies where 250 once existed.
Business strategies within some ingredients companies have changed to accommodate the way multiples operate. Supermarkets trade on volume, and price wars are never far away. It can be cheaper to buy in more specialised or exotic products from abroad in small quantities rather than produce them at a much higher price in the UK. Many companies now stick to producing a smaller range of core, good-selling items but doing them well.
Consumers' tastes continue to get more sophisticated and wide-ranging due to the fact that many people now travel much farther afield on holiday, and on business. Experiencing authentic regional tastes in different parts of the world creates demand for similar foods in the UK. Very hot and spicy dishes are now much more acceptable than they were even a few years ago.
Salt and fat levels
A government campaign to improve health, better information about which ingredients are included in foods, a tightening of European laws, new regulations, greater awareness about food-related health issues through bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, and consumer and media pressure are all having a major impact on product development. Tougher labelling regulations mean that even more details of ingredients included in food have to be recorded, while pressure to reduce salt levels in food continues. Although the amount of salt in many products is now some 30% less than a decade ago, meat manufacturers are wary of taking the reduction too far because it is still an important ingredient in delivering flavour and product quality. The way salt is added to meat has to be carefully controlled, too. Meat can quickly become tough, dry and unappealing if seasonings containing salt are not added correctly. The best delivery can be achieved by encapsulating the salt with vegetable oil, preventing the salt from coming into contact with the meat until it is cooked.
"There are no silver bullet technologies to resolve issues around fat, salt and sugar reduction," admits Karl Burkitt of Kerry. "However, we are able to reduce saturated fats by reducing total fat levels, and by replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats." Five product concepts showcased Kerry's response to consumer concerns over issues such as salt and fat reduction at IFFA in Germany, as well as demands for authenticity. These were: reduced fat pork liver pâté with less than 12% fat; marinated chicken wings with what was said to be a genuine ethnic Tex Mex taste using an easy-to-pour marinade containing no added MSG; pepperoni-topped pizza with reduced sodium and fat; cleaner ingredient declarations and fresher ingredients; a meat and vegetable pastry pie with reduced-fat pastry, lower salt and a cleaner ingredient declaration; and schnitzel with improved coating adhesion and increased crispiness.
Verstegen is also making inroads into salt reduction. In the UK market it is about to launch a new liquid product that it claims will allow manufacturers and supermarkets to produce and sell ground meat products such as burgers and sausages that contain less salt while giving an extended shelf life. Called 'Fresh Paste', it has been developed and sold successfully on the Continent, according to van Cotthem. It is said to be easier to use in manufacturing because it distributes more extensively through the meat. "The shelf life of products made with Fresh Paste depends on individual industrial processing circumstances," he says, "but research and experience on the Continent has proven that a particular sell-by date can be extended by two days." Several different Fresh Paste flavours are manufactured, including hamburger, Bolognese, Asian, organic beef and beef halal.
The need for accreditation is becoming increasingly important for ingredients companies that want to work with British firms. BHJ UK Protein Foods is one ingredients business that has successfully renewed its British Quality Approved Pork (BQAP) accredited status for its natural Drinde range of functional proteins. Made from 100% British pork product, it helps bind fat and water while delivering what are said to be excellent textural properties and value in pork-based manufactured products such as sausages. Awarded by the European Food Safety Inspection Service (EFSIS), the accreditation reinforces BHJ's claims that it is the only producer to offer BQAP-accredited Drinde, which also meets the Red Tractor Farm Assured criteria for manufacturers seeking to offer 'quality British food'.
Demand has tripled since BHJ became the first BQAP approved producer in its sector in 2007, and over 800t are sold per year. BHJ UK sales director Richard Parnell believes BQAP accreditation is more vital than ever, especially with proposed new European regulations coming into force in 2011-12. "For customers declaring the country of origin as British, it is critical that they know they are getting a British product of an accredited and recognised standard," he said.
While increasingly stringent legislation as well as consumer and supermarket pressure may restrict the types of ingredients in use, they could also result in the same types of quality control on Far East suppliers as are currently required of European farmers. Most ingredients today claim to be 'natural.' Many come either as chilled or ambient products. Chilled products are usually more expensive and have a shelf-life ranging from seven days to three months, depending on the individual constituents they contain. Some ambient ingredients can be stored for up to a year, and some may contain preservatives to extend shelf-life.
There are various ways in which flavours can be delivered, which is why ingredients companies work closely with manufacturers to establish the best form of delivery that fits best with their processes. This is particularly important in establishing whether manufacturers can work with wet and dry ingredients sauces and glazes, for example. Dry glazes are easier to apply, but as a rule, wet products usually look better visually, and seem to add more succulence to meat.
As well as selling the inherent quality of their products, many companies also trade on the health benefits and the manufacturing efficiencies that can be achieved. Manufacturers of so-called functional foods claim health or other enhanced benefits. One of Europe's biggest seed producers, Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients (LCI), is now bringing what it says is a unique concept to meat products: functional flours that are claimed to have a high water- and fat-binding capacity. The flour is said to be completely natural and to have a 100% 'clean' label.
According to LCI, key benefits of heat production processing are cost optimisation, innovative textures, fat reduction, improvement in cooking yield and the ability to offer gluten-free solutions. Textures and consistencies of the flour can range from spreadable to sliceable to melting, depending on the production method. LCI's nutritionist, Dr Walter Lopez, says benefits for industrial customers using the flours include cutting the cost of recipes and optimising the cooking yield by reducing product shrinkage through weight loss. The flour has no GMOs, chemical agents or modifications. The company claims that its use in pâté, for example, reduces fat levels by nearly a third. Key applications are fish or meat pâtés, sausages, nuggets, meatballs, burgers and tumbling meat. The flours are also very suitable for specific markets such as gluten-free, halal and kosher.
"Our Geltex and WestHove functional flours used in meat products offer a number of benefits to consumers, too," Lopez adds. "These are natural ingredients, because they are only flour: a product present in each kitchen. They replace additives such as modified starches, gums and phosphates. Above all, for the consumer there is a clear improvement of melt-in-the-mouth texture, thanks to the waxy (nature of) functional flours."
Going for an english
Changing lifestyles, particularly in a Far East that is rapidly becoming 'westernised', are also altering the dynamics of the ingredients sector, particularly in relation to the supply and demand for certain ingredients. Western-style foods are becoming increasingly popular in places like India and China, where the sheer number of people is creating significant new markets and demand. The result is much more pressure on ingredient supplies. Most of China's 30,000t of garlic production, for example, used to be exported, but with domestic demand strengthening, up to a third of it now stays in the country. The result could be increased prices.
Ingredients such as pepper and nutmeg can only be grown in certain parts of the world, and finding new growing areas can be extremely challenging. Vietnam, which now produces some 40,000t of pepper a year, is one of the few places where new production has been successfully introduced. In the long term, climate change may open up production sites in Europe for products like red peppers, garlic and onions.
A more immediate strategy for some companies will be to develop stronger partnerships with farmers and growers, taking whole or part ownership of cropland as a way of minimising their exposure to buying on the open market, and having some control over supplies and prices.
Fairtrade and corporate social responsibility are keystones in the business philosophy of some companies, such as The Co-operative. Verstegen, too, is well-versed in working in many areas of the world to improve the lot of local communities, while developing or securing sources of supply at the same time.
Flavourings & additives: the new rules
From 20 January a new European law (Regulation (EC) No 1334/2008) comes into force that aims to harmonise the use of food flavourings and ingredients. The new regulation, which takes into account scientific and technological developments, provides for the establishment of a community list of authorised flavouring substances, conditions for their use and for labelling. It simplifies the rules and replaces existing legislation concerning food additives, flavourings and enzymes, although it does not apply to substances that have an exclusively sweet, sour or salty taste, raw foods, smoke flavourings or mixtures of spices and/or fresh, dried or frozen herbs when they are not being used as a food ingredient. Smoke flavourings come under another piece of legislation, Regulation (EC) No 2065/2003.
It also means that, in future, manufacturers will need to be more precise about the type of flavour ingredients used, and where they come from.
Perhaps the biggest change is the way that the word 'natural' may be used after 20 January. It will only be permitted for substances or preparations derived directly from an animal or vegetable material. Artificial flavourings and so-called 'nature identical' materials have been redefined as 'flavouring substances' under the new rules.
More detailed ingredient declarations will also be required under the new law. The control of some naturally occurring substances in flavours has been expanded to include their use in ingredients.
In addition, the new European rules on food additives (Directive (2010/69/EU), which came into force on 11 November, allow a number of recently approved additives to be used in certain foods. The new additives are: E 392 extracts of rosemary, E 427 cassia gum, E 961 neotame (as a flavour enhancer), E 1203 polyvinyl alcohol, and E 1521 polyethylene glycol.
Two to watch for product developers
A major food ingredients exhibition and a forthcoming conference are likely to interest product developers in 2011. In February, the Meat Trades Journal's sister publication, Food Manufacture, will host a new conference called 'Reformulate 2011'. The conference will explore how far product reformulation can go in reducing fats, sugars and salts, which product ranges should be given priority, and whether it is always right or indeed possible (given regulatory constraints) to tell consumers what changes have been made.
Towards the end of 2011, Food Ingredients Europe will welcome some 20,000 food and beverage professionals from 100 countries to a major industry exhibition in Paris. The three-day exhibition, which has been running since 1986 and is held every two years, takes place at the Paris-Nord Villepinte from 29 November until 1 December. The organisers claim that it is likely to attract the world's largest gathering of ingredients buyers. In 2009, visitors from 119 countries, including 6% from the UK, attended, and meat and poultry products, supplements, sauces, seasonings, flavourings and functional ingredients were on display.
Held alongside the 2011 exhibition will be the Natural Ingredients Show, aimed at manufacturers and others looking for natural interested in natural and organic foods.
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