Keeping It Simple with Food Systems

April 10, 2007

 

 

Regardless of their field of specialty, product designers often swear by one principle that leads to success: KISS, or keep it simple. In the field of food product development, the KISS principle tends to hold up well-until natural ingredients are involved. Some natural ingredients have a short shelf life or are prone to interact with other parts of a formula. Others may not taste good without modification. Nutrient premixes and food systems are one way to streamline product development without jeopardizing quality. In fact, some premixes and systems improve quality by addressing concerns about taste, shelf life, nutritional content, and ingredient interactions.

“Regular ingredients have basic functionalities that, while individually important, may not interact optimally once combined,” says Tom Guerin, PhD, research and development manager at Kerry Specialty Ingredients (Beloit, WI). Guerin adds that some natural products, such as those that contain hard-to-handle ingredients like omega-3s or phytosterols, tend to be relatively unstable or have a negative flavor impact. “Without the use of food systems, using natural products can be very difficult,” Guerin says.

Although manufacturers can address stability and flavor issues without using premixes or systems, success requires a holistic approach between product developers and marketing companies, says Greg Horn, senior director of health and wellness at Wild Flavors Inc. (Cincinnati). Horn notes that systems help companies consider taste and stability problems up front during the development stages, rather than after products are already in the bottle. “It is critical that developers address these key issues, not only at the end of the product development cycle but also throughout the evolution of the product-from concept to commercialization,” Horn says.

STREAMLINING WITH PREMIXES AND FOOD SYSTEMS

Nutrient premixes and food systems blend a number of ingredients to make products with specific nutritional or physical characteristics. Although manufacturers can use premixes and systems to create products in their entirety, companies often use them to perform essential functions within the product. Some nutrients have off flavors and may interact with heat, air, water, or other ingredients. Moreover, variations in particle size can make it difficult to create homogenous ingredient blends. Premix and food system suppliers have come up with a number of solutions for these problems. Premixes, for instance, may use excipients or microencapsulation to mask tastes and odors, or to promote stability. Similarly, food systems may use novel ingredients or other technology to create flavors, replace sugar, or add moisture.

According to Mark Fanion, communications manager at Fortitech Inc. (Schenectady, NY), the average nutrient premix contains at least 10–14 active ingredients and three to six functional ingredients such as excipients. “Some formulations contain more than 30 active nutrients and carriers,” Fanion says. “Each custom premix comes with its own share of challenges and obstacles, all of which Fortitech can successfully overcome.”

Premixes enable manufacturers to conserve resources and improve efficiency. “The overall production process is streamlined because a nutrient system provides a single source of multiple nutrients,” Fanion explains. “Savings on labor, inventory, and testing are the results. Premixes also offer greater consistency and eliminate any chance of error during the manufacturing process, where missing a small amount of an ingredient or weighing a nutrient incorrectly may cause a potential deficit of that nutrient and a possible recall.”

While food systems may not always have the same number of ingredients as nutrient premixes, they face some of the same challenges. They also reap some of the same rewards. “Food systems are vital to both the development of new products and the cost reduction of existing ones,” says Guerin, adding that food systems can be customized to meet specific functionality or flavor requirements.

“Systems provide both simplicity and security,” says Horn. “They provide simplicity because multiple ingredients like flavors, juices, natural colors, and vitamins are bundled into one ingredient to purchase, monitor for quality control and inventory, and utilize for manufacturing. This frees the marketing company from additional, time-consuming activities and saves the company money, enabling it to focus on what it does best-passionately market the product to consumers. The security results from having a system provided by a reputable, trustworthy company and having the formula’s exact details essentially hidden from competitors, even when they are using the same copackers.”

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

While the benefits of using premixes and systems are obvious, they do involve some obstacles. Many common problems involve how using multiple nutrients might affect a product’s flavor, texture, or color. Variables such as temperature, moisture, pH, oxygen, bioavailability, and reactivity can affect the stability of ingredients and their retention in foods. Experienced product formulators try to take these problems into account before the development process begins.

“Because there is an inverse relationship between the bioavailability and functionality of a specific mineral, factors that are responsible for increasing the solubility of a mineral salt will actually increase its reactivity or interactions,” Fanion explains. “In fact, the same solubilization will increase the potential for bioavailability. Depending on the type of product, however, manufacturers can select functional food ingredients that make use of synergistic properties and improve nutritional benefits.” Fanion notes that the use of strategies such as microencapsulation, chelation, micropulverization, stabilization, taste-masking, and lyposomes can overcome many problems. Selecting the proper forms of nutrients and using antioxidants as protective agents may also be beneficial.

Coming up with formulas that meet FDA (Rockville, MD) labeling requirements is another tricky area for product developers. “Most of the concerns that we see from our customers involve label claims that they can make on their final product,” Fanion says. “This is where true nutritional science becomes a major factor. Fortitech works closely with each customer when developing a premix so that we can formulate a blend that will contain the precise amount of nutrients to meet intended specifications of the final product.”

According to Paul Vajda, marketing manager at Cargill’s (Minneapolis) food systems business unit, finding ingredients that are both functional and natural can also be a challenge. “Cargill has its own internal guidelines for what’s natural, and many ingredients are processed,” Vajda says. “That’s the key factor. It’s really tough to develop a system that is totally natural that would appeal to a mainstream consumer. There are always some people willing to give up taste or function, but most mainstream consumers won’t be willing to do that.”

PROVIDING SOLUTIONS WITH INNOVATION

To help food and supplement companies keep their manufacturing operations simple, premix and system suppliers have been working overtime to come up with new products that solve problems in a convenient and economical fashion.

One key area of innovation is the dairy product segment. Attendees at last year’s Health Ingredients Europe conference in Frankfurt, Germany, sampled a variety of items developed by Fortitech, including three condition-specific ice cream prototypes fortified with vitamins, minerals, and plant extracts. A cactus-flavored energy- and immune-boosting ice cream contained ingredients such as guarana, green tea extract, and 10 vitamins and minerals, while a berry-flavored antioxidant ice cream contained rooibos red tea extract, lycopene, acerola, vitamin E, and selenium. A third, mint-flavored ice cream targeted for bone health, provided soy isoflavones, calcium, vitamins D3 and K1, magnesium, and manganese. Fortitech crowned each ice cream with a chocolate topping made with a stabilized mineral premix of chromium, copper, iron, and zinc. “Blending nutrients is a science involving consideration of many factors, and good practice calls for high-quality nutritional blends that address these issues and gain consumer confidence in the product and in the role that nutrition can play in improving health and wellness,” says Fanion.

Similarly, Guerin notes that Kerry’s clients have been seeking economical ways to maintain cost targets related to the dairy market, which recently has seen low supplies in some areas. “Kerry’s ability to put together tailor-made food systems has allowed us to meet these challenges,” Guerin says, adding that the company has also been successful at putting phytosterol products in foods and beverages. “With regard to natural products, phytosterols are extremely difficult to incorporate into food systems without some formula or process modification,” Guerin notes. “Kerry has developed a label-friendly, yet technologically complex method that allows our customers to add phytosterols to various product applications without modifying their formula or process.”

Because flavor is a major factor in the success of any food product, Cargill’s SweetDesign line of sweetener systems, which debuted in 2005, also offers a convenient solution for food and beverage manufacturers. Intended to be a total sugar replacer, SweetDesign provides taste and functional parity for sugar at a calorie reduction of approximately 55–70%. “It replaces the total function of sugar in bakery products like cakes and muffins or soft cookies,” Vajda says, noting that SweetDesign works as a substitute not only for the sweetness of sugar but also for its bulking properties. Sugar actually has several functional qualities, such as bulking, browning, crust color, crumb grain, and fine-grain characteristics. “Sugar can represent 20–40% of a formulation, and artificial sweeteners only address the sweetness aspect of sugar,” Vajda says. “Without sugar in baked goods, you can end up with a pancake, and not a cake per se.”

Another example of food system innovation is the new collaboration between Wild Flavors and Cognis (Cincinnati). Both companies announced last May that Wild would begin adding Cognis ingredients to its line of flavor systems and fruit preparations, with a particular focus on beverages, nutrition bars, confections, and ice cream. “The agreement between Cognis and Wild will enable manufacturers and marketers to procure ingredients in the most cost-effective form they need, whether this is the inherent oil-soluble form or a water-soluble one,” Horn says. “Additionally, the agreement couples product development expertise with very strong clinical data on the efficacy of the individual ingredients. This winning combination results in successful product launches for our customers.”

A GOOD FOUNDATION

Some companies are hesitant to use premixes and systems because they fear losing control over their manufacturing operations or their ability to obtain the best pricing for raw materials. Others have found, however, that premixes and systems can be an efficient way to meet production goals while differentiating their products from the competition.

Systems have two main functions, according to Vajda. “One is to provide innovation in a new space by offering a solution that single ingredients can’t solve,” he says. “The other is supply-chain optimization.” Vajda adds that systems can deliver the right ratio of ingredients with the right properties in a single bag-an attractive proposition for many companies. “It saves them from having to qualify the ingredients and having to identify the best suppliers for the raw materials,” Vajda explains. “Instead of multiple purchase orders, there is just one, and it also helps minimize mistakes.”

Premixes and systems, which can be difficult to copy, are also an excellent way to help set products apart from competitors and boost sales, Fanion adds. “Nutritional premixes offer numerous benefits to manufacturers,” Fanion says. “Adding multiple ingredients to food products and supplements can promote improved health and treat specific health conditions, so from a business perspective, fortification can also make for more-marketable products.”

While the use of multiple ingredients in a complicated premix or system can generate synergistic benefits, it’s also good to remember the underlying wisdom of the Keep It Simple principle. “A good ingredient is always the foundation for a good system,” Vajda says.