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Sensory testing key to reformulation strategies [Interview]

Article-Sensory testing key to reformulation strategies [Interview]

Reformulating products that deliver nutritional value as well taste, is a complex balancing act, as is successfully communicating these benefits to consumers. We discussed these challenges with Carole Bingley, a Technical Specialist working in the Product and Ingredient Innovation Team at Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL).

Addressing the nutritional profile of products is the key driver behind reformulation. Bingley, who has undertaken ingredient evaluation and product development across a wide range of food categories, notes how the legislative environment has helped to act as a catalyst in certain circumstances.

“We saw how the soft drinks levy in the UK, and similar taxes in other countries, resulted in widespread reformulation of beverages to bring the sugar content below the level at which the levy is applied,” she says. “The soft drinks sector is held up as an example of what can be achieved in a short space of time, though it should be noted that reducing the sugar in a beverage is less challenging than in a food, where a bulking agent is required.”

Driving reformulation

More recently, restrictions on the marketing of HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) food in the UK has led to many manufacturers to think about reformulating, in order to avoid marketing restrictions.

“This is broader than just sugar,” notes Bingley. “High energy density, saturated fat, and salt content also contribute to an overall high score. A similar impact can be seen in countries that use the Nutriscore labelling system.”

Other factors driving reformulation include cost reduction, product improvement and a move towards ‘clean label’. For example, cost reduction may involve replacing or reducing the level of one ingredient in the product, or may combine a number of approaches to improve product margins. This cost saving is not usually passed on to the consumer, so it is important that the reformulated product matches the current product as closely as possible.

“Whereas if the drive is product improvement, then it will be expected that the product will be preferred to the current formulation,” Bingley points out. “And, if relevant, will also be preferred over competitive products. It is important that any sensory or consumer testing is designed appropriately.”

The clean label trend meanwhile is something that can be seen across the whole food and beverage industry. Many ingredients that have been used in the past to replace sucrose, are no longer considered ‘clean label’ by some consumers. This has led manufacturers to search for new ingredients that will deliver what consumers want – clean label products with natural-sounding ingredients that do not sacrifice taste.

Know your consumer!

This complex picture requires manufacturers to ensure that their approach to reformulation is carefully calibrated.

“A key approach is stealth reduction, where the change is not communicated to the consumer,” says Bingley. “This change may happen gradually over time. This has been the way a lot of manufacturers have approached salt reduction, or in one step as seen with sugar reduction in soft drinks. Alternatively, the reformulated product may carry a front of pack claim and will need to meet regulations around the use of these claims.”

Bingley stresses that whatever approach is taken, manufacturers need to first be able to understand what consumers love about a product, and where they might be prepared to compromise.

“This is challenging,” she says. “Many consumers will assume that ‘reduced fat / sugar / salt’ equates to reduced taste and enjoyment.  Approaches such as Nutriscore / HFSS score may be more appealing but, again, this comes back to knowing the consumer.”

For this, a comprehensive sensory and consumer testing plan can help avoid any surprises when the reformulated product is launched.

“Analytical testing can also be valuable in a number of different ways,” she says. “This includes lipids analysis, and accelerated shelf-life testing when reducing the saturated fat content of products. Manufacturers need to understand what should be considered when undertaking reformulation projects, and how sensory and analytical techniques can support this process.”