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This interview follows two exchanges we had with Mathieu (Head of the AGIR Research Unit) and Martine (Director of AGIR) on the definition of the clean label concept and the reformulation of products without additives. Imagining more balanced products with less fat and/or less sugar is one of the challenges of the clean label.
In the context of the global obesity crisis, improving the nutritional profile of these types of products seems to be a major challenge. The biscuit, pastry and chocolate sectors of activity have sometimes poor ratings among consumers who are looking for a more balanced diet. In particular, the sugar and fat content of these products are pointed out.
The biscuit industry has been the victim of sugar bashing with a recent decline in volumes and a lack of innovation. What are the roles of these compounds in the formulation of these products?
Mathieu: Sugar is above all about taste and therefore the notion of pleasure, texture, smoothness or, on the contrary, the crunchiness, conservation, colour of the products… Substituting it requires a new balance in the formulation while maintaining the acceptability of the product for the consumer.
Martine: There are two scenarios. The one where you want to substitute all or most of the sugar in the product. When the product is made up mainly of sugars, the reformulation becomes extreme with the use of sweeteners which replace the sugar mass and its other functions such as the taste to which it is associated. This can be justified for diabetics, low-calorie diets, products that do not cause dental caries… The second case is to “modulate” the sugar content of the product.
It is possible to reformulate them by reducing the amount of sugar without having to add additives. It is necessary to re-educate the palates to avoid consumer rejection and this begins at an early age, but it will also require better control of consumption (times and frequency of consumption, quantities…).
The WHO recommends reducing its intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake. What are the challenges of reformulating less sweet products?
Mathieu and Martine: The problem is that we want less sugar, but we also want products with the same taste and without additives… We must make the consumer understand that we can’t have everything. Some manufacturers market their products by gradually reducing the quantities of sugar, thus gently acclimatising consumers to these new sugar levels.
Beyond the consumer’s attraction for these low sugar products, the sugar tax is surely a second driving force, for example for soft drinks.
Mathieu: Lowering the sugar content while maintaining the taste is a real challenge. ABCD nutrition, like many manufacturers, are sensitive to their customers’ expectations: we have supported them in a collaborative research project on innovative products that are low in sugar and fat through innovative approaches. During the development phase of these products, we worked with one of our partners specialized in sensory analysis. In the case of our products, we have realized that reducing their sugar content by 30% does not cause a rejection by the consumer, but beyond that, the taste alteration becomes too important.
This tendency to reduce or eliminate sugars also generates fears. At the beginning of the year, AGIR was contacted to participate in a round table at the general meeting of a major sugar supplier. Their concern was related to the change in consumer perception of sugar but also to a recently published study showing that sugar is addictive. We told them objectively that “fat is certainly the vector of taste but sugar is taste”. Sugar is and will remain a basic ingredient, there will always be sweet products even if our consumption will have to evolve and the offer will be oriented towards low sugar products.
Martine: This is all the more true since some companies are on a positioning of gourmet products. A chocolate is fat and sweet by nature, the important thing is not to consume it too much.
In addition, 99% cocoa or dietary chocolate is available on the market, but these products are still intended for a certain consumer target group.
Mathieu: In general, the demand is enormous in terms of product diversity, and the supply has greatly increased.
The sugar problem in bakery is different, it is a question of artisanal products, they are sensitive to it but they are less confronted with the management of the conservation of the product as in supermarkets and the products remain more traditional.
ABCD Nutrition Group has invested 13 million euros to reindustrialize an agri-food site and manufacture gluten-free products, yet it is said that gluten-free is less and less trendy, while sugar-free is more and more attractive to consumers. Do you expect sugar-free industrialisation? What are the requirements?
Martine: Initially gluten-free was intended for people with celiac disease, or gluten intolerant people. Today there is a very wide range of elaborate and good products! Consumers not concerned by these diseases buy them. It’s a new trendy diet! Technically, there are several locks. Flours that do not contain gluten often have distinctive flavours, so it is important to find the right combinations. Gluten-free product dough do not have the same texture, sometimes requiring the use of additives. These products are also controlled because there is a real allergenic risk, so the manufacturer must control his formulation, supplies and production to avoid cross-contamination, for example. To do this, we understand that some companies such as ABCD Nutrition, which you mentioned earlier, have dedicated workshops to these sensitive products.
Although there is a demand, the boom is now clearly more oriented towards the clean label than towards gluten-free.
For me, the industrialization of sugar-free products already exists. Let’s take the example of drinks where the range of zero and light drinks is very wide…. In beverages, there are almost as many sugar-free products as there are traditional products, using additives to have different tastes.
According to Ulrick & short, a supplier of clean label ingredients, bakers will be able to reduce the fat content of their product by 25%. What solutions do you think exist to offer lower-fat products to consumers?
Mathieu: It’s as complicated to remove fat as it is to remove sugar. Fat is an enhancer of taste, it also brings the melting in the mouth of a spread or the softness of cakes… What solutions? There are fibres that lower the fat content. The process can also help for a formulation with less fat and without altering perception when the food matrices are favourable. AGIR has been working on this for several years. Some products whose sugar content has been reduced have their fat content increased, resulting in products with a similar caloric value. A limit is reached if this product is intended for a low-calorie diet.
And what about surfing on the type of fat?
Martine: We can also play on the type of fat for a better nutritional profile, but this is often a source of texture problems. Depending on the type of fat used, the machinability of the dough (technological lock), the taste (sensory lock), but also the rancidity of the product can be affected (sensory and sanitary lock). It is never easy to replace butter, palm etc.
Mathieu: It is necessary to be able to develop a product with an acceptable price, and to be able to deal with the different locks. Some oils preferable to specific fats for health can oxidize, age badly: rapeseed oil can give a cabbage taste for example.
When we support industrialists, we adapt to their demand. Each client has his own food matrice, his own recipe. It’s a daily tightrope walker game.
What do you think attracts consumers to bakery products, pastries or chocolates?
Martine: BPCs are taste, visuals, pleasure, or products linked to childhood memories full of emotions. Everyone has their own Proust madeleine.
Mathieu: It is the moment of relaxation, its own moment that makes you forget the little worries of everyday life. Moreover, it is also a question of tradition, French pastries and pastries are part of the heritage.
To continue to learn more about the challenges in the agri-food sector in relation to the clean label trend, we decided to ask Martine and Mathieu more questions about the implementation of a simpler processing process for greater consumer transparency.
An interview of:
AGIR (AGri-food Innovation Research), located in Talence near Bordeaux at the service of industrialists: For innovation to go hand in hand with solutions…