Opinion: changing the nutrient content and reducing the amount of salt and fat is making some processed food healthier

The words 'processed food' can be contentious, confusing and viewed with suspicion by the consumer. However, most foods and beverages involve some form of process and fall in to this category for that reason. To list the processed foods we consume daily would be exhaustive, but we would have a very short list if we listed foods that we can consider as unprocessed. This list might include products such as fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, but virtually everything else falls into the processed group.

The good news is that Innovative food producers have always sought to optimise the nutritional impact of food, particularly processed foods. What we are seeing is food reformulation, the changing of the nutrient content of processed products in a bid to make them healthier. For example, processed meats have brand-leading reduced salt and fat variants, with some developed cured meats containing alternate or even organic nitrite sources. 

The number of vegans in Ireland and the UK increased fourfold between 2014 and 2019 and 6% of consumers in the United States claim to be vegans, a 600% increase in three years. Plant-based lifestyles have got the attention of producers, with reduced meat or meat-free variants of main-stream products reaching the marketplace. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne show, Pat O'Mahony from the Food Saftey Authority on how food labelled vegan is not always free of animal ingredients

Governments around the world are now more active in encouraging industry to reduce unhealthy ingredients. In 2018, Ireland and the UK introduced a co-ordinated sugar tax on soft drinks. For producers in Ireland, this saw products containing between 5 and 8g sugar/100ml being levied at 20c per litre, while those over 8g/100ml are levied at 30c per litre.The US, Mexico, France, Hungary, and Finland have seen sugary drinks taxed, with South Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia and India considering following suit. Meanwhile, Hungary has taxed foods high in fat, sugar, salt, caffeine content and alcohol, while Finland have also taxed some unhealthy foods.

This move to reformulate is being driven by consumers who are demanding products to provide their nutritional desires for healthier lifestyles. These government taxation schemes are devised to combat the 'civilisation diseases' such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. This, in turn, has encouraged the industry to reformulate, through commercial necessity, while still maintaining their products' safety, shelf life and commercial viability. 

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From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, will a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks really help to drive down diseases such as diabetes?

Salt, fat and sugar are the main targets for reformulation in industry by reduction or replacement because of their contribution to disease. However, this is easier said than done. Salt and sugar are tastants, preservatives and flavour enhancers as well as functional ingredients. Salt assists in water binding in meat, whereas sugar in baking is essential for cake volume. Fat is also a functional ingredient and plays a vital sensory role in baked products. It contributes to flavour, mouthfeel, taste, aroma, appearance, structure, texture and satiety in many foods. Modifying recipes has complex effects and interactions with the resulting product quite often a compromise below the sensory expectations of the consumer.

Research by the Sensory Group at the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at UCC has found that foods can be produced with both healthier formulations and sensory profiles as good as and sometimes better than the conventional full salt/sugar/fat products they are replacing. This is achieved using innovative sensory  techniques that put the consumer at the heart of the product development process. We have made fat and salt reduced processed meats, fat reduced cheese and sugar reduced confectionary products which taste better than the standard full salt, fat and sugar variants. 

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From Teagasc, an overview of the impact of food reformulation on safety and shelf-life

How's this done? Firstly, the ingredient in question is sequentially reduced and tested with consumers to determine the minimal level of the ingredient that can be used without effecting acceptance too much. This identifies a formulation for further optimisation which then utilises novel salt, fat and sugar replacer ingredients. These ingredients are preferred to be clean label, or more natural - for example seaweed has been found to simultaneously reduce salt and fat in sausages and products like black and white pudding while also producing a product that tastes great. 

Sugar is another example where innovation can be applied. Sucrose, although bad for us in high quantities, is still a natural ingredient. Sugar replacers such as the NAS (Non-Calorific Artificial Sweeteners) have aftertastes that the consumers don’t like. Also these ingredients have been linked to actually increasing the incidence of obesity because they potentially can change our gut flora balance.

It is the consumer that demands healthier products that still have high acceptance and appeal

Our approach was to explore sugar reduction by changing the geometry of the crystals used. It was found that using a smaller sugar crystal size  in some confectionary products meant that the same sweetness could be achieved, but with a significant reduction in the amount of sugar used.

It is the consumer that demands healthier products that still have high acceptance and appeal. The sensory approaches developed here in UCC can achieve this while also allowing industry to make a profit and produce products that are safe, healthier, but also taste great.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ