“From recent events we have seen some vulnerabilities in our food chain - some of the ingredients the industry uses in large quantities can suddenly become very restricted.
“Therefore I think it is worth developing a strategy for these ingredients so you are able to make the swap quickly and efficiently should a shortage arise,” said Carole Bingley, technical specialist at RSSL (Reading Scientific Services Limited), during a recent Q&A on sourcing challenges and ingredient substitutions.
Part of the Fi Webinar series, Bingley’s presentation looked at how product reformulation can help manufacturers to manage rising costs and ingredient scarcity issues.
“Ingredient supply issues can be driven by geopolitical situations and we have seen a very clear example of this with the war in the Ukraine, she said.
Sunflower oil has been particularly hard hit as 55% of the world supply comes from Russia and the Ukraine, but the war has also impacted other widely used ingredients such as wheat and maize.
“Twelve percent of food calories come from Russia and the Ukraine so clearly the war is having a major impact on ingredient supply,” Bingley noted.
Environmental conditions such as flooding and drought and outbreaks of disease such as avian flu could also affect supply, as has been the case with eggs, she said.
Build resilience through ingredient choices
In the light of these events, Bingley advised that companies should be “building resilience” into their supply chains right from the start of their new product development (NPD) through their choice of ingredients.
“That way, if, further down the line, they need to reformulate, they have already done the groundwork,” she explained.
Bingley was also at pains to emphasise that reformulation is not a quick process, saying: “In some ways reformulation is more difficult than developing a product from scratch. With products that are on the market, people have expectations about how that product will taste and look so it can be very difficult to make changes without losing sales.”
Reformulation: step by step
She went through the steps that companies need to follow in any reformulation project.
“First of all, it is about looking at the feasibility and understanding what is possible with your product, then designing a brief for the work that is required, carrying development work out on a small scale and testing the changes to the recipe,” she said.
Once the recipe has been approved at a kitchen scale, the next step is taking it to pilot or factory trials, then carrying out shelf life testing.
“Only once you have carried out all of these steps is your product ready to take to market,” she said.
There are also a number of considerations that need to be taken into account when reformulating. Whilst Bingley cited health-driven reformulation examples to illustrate these considerations, she said they are applicable to any reformulation project, regardless of the drivers.
Chief among these is taste and texture, as consumers can be really sensitive to changes - particularly if they are heavy users of a product, according to Bingley.
“One way of mitigating this is to emphasise the positives as Nestlé did a few years ago when it reduced the sugar content of some products. Communication focused on the increase in cocoa and milk content rather than the reduction in sugar,” she said.
Changing a formulation can also impact shelf life and product stability, and may result in an increase in water activity - particularly when reducing sugar or salt, warned Bingley.
“You may need to make different changes to your formulation to account for this - for example, introduce a preservative or change your packaging or processing to ensure you have a stable product,” she advised.
She added: “If you are looking at reducing the saturated fat content this can lead to issues with rancidity over shelf life so it may be necessary to look at antioxidants or changing your packaging.”
Managing cost and labelling
Cost and labelling are two further considerations, as both can be affected by reformulation, explained Bingley.
“Reformulation often leads to changes in labelling. Take sugar and salt - although a lot of companies are looking to reduce these ingredients, they are kitchen cupboard ingredients that are very familiar to consumers. The alternatives that are being brought in may be less familiar and acceptable to consumers.”
With regard to cost, often reformulation can result in an increase in ingredient costs which is difficult to manage.
“Manufacturers have to make the choice - do they increase the cost and the consumer takes the hit, reduce the pack size and maintain the current price or accept a reduced margin?