This is why in this edition of the FNA Deep Dive, we will take a closer look into what APAC food and beverage firms big and small are doing with regard to healthier product reformulation, and find out more about the key priorities and drivers for the industry.
Sugar reduction in sugar-sweetened beverages has been one of the biggest areas that has been singled out for reformulation even before COVID-19 hit the region, and the pandemic has caused this to accelerate even further. The global market for sugar alternatives was estimated at US$16.5bn in 2020, and has been projected to reach US$20.6bn by 2025, growing at a 4.5% CAGR.
This is particularly so in the APAC region, which experts expect to see the fastest rate of growth driven by rising investments, growing consumer awareness and a surge in income and purchasing power.
Beverage firms such as Coca-Cola are well aware of this trend, and have taken the initiative to focus efforts on developing low and no sugar products to appeal to consumers in the region, such as by working to improve the recipe of its Coca-Cola Zero Sugar to be as close to the classic version as possible without any sugar in it.
“All the ingredients [in Coca-Cola Zero Sugar] remain the same [as before the recipe revamp], but we have further optimised the blend of flavours to achieve our goal [to] get a taste as close to Coca-Cola Classic as possible but with zero sugar and calories,” Coca-Cola Singapore and Malaysia Marketing Manager Rustam Gabaydullin told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“We have noticed that consumers within the ASEAN region especially have been showing an increased demand for Coca-Cola Zero Sugar due to an increase in health consciousness [post-pandemic], but still want to enjoy the refreshing taste of Coca-Cola.
“Rising health consciousness amongst consumers across the entire APAC region has been an observed trend over the years, especially as younger consumers have begun to demand for healthier, lower-calorie options.
“As such, this is a market that we believe we could see much further growth in, especially as we continue to improve the recipe further to appeal to Coca-Cola Classic drinkers.”
Other lower sugar options within the Coca-Cola portfolio include Sprite and Fanta with approximately 50% less sugar, smaller servings of Coca-Cola Classic in 180ml mini cans, as well as a new upcoming sugar-free Ceylon Tea which will be part of the Authentic Tea House range.
Japan’s Kirin is best known for its beers, but under the Kirin Beverage Company, the firm is also proactively working to develop various low and no sugar beverages.
“We think the market for sugar-free beverages is expected to grow [at least] moderately in the future,” Kirin Beverage Company Marketing Department Manager Tsutomu Nishimura told us.
“As people become more health-conscious, older people tend to refrain from eating sugary foods, and other people tend to refrain from eating sugary or high-calorie foods for fear of “corona-butori,”or gaining weight due to staying at or working from home and refraining from going outside due to COVID-19.
“In the soft drinks market, we believe that we need to satisfy consumer needs for both health as well as taste. In order to be healthy, it is important to be consistent (drinking healthy drinks). However, the reality is that consumers find it difficult to maintain that consistency - Therefore, we want to support consumers’ health habits, help them maintain that consistency, by providing them with regular drinks that are tastier, healthier, and easily accessible.
“By doing this the consumer can better maintain consistency in health management by simply replacing their daily drinks with healthier yet tastier drinks.”
Amongst the healthier product options that Kirin has been working on include the no-sugar Kirin Gogo-no-Kocha The Meister's Series raft of black tea beverages, Kirin FIRE Hikitate Low Sugar, Kirin FIRE ONEDAY Latte Low Sugar coffee beverages, and Kirin Gogo-no-Kocha Oishii Muto (sugar-free).
The firm’s sugar-free product category grew by 106% in 2020 compared to 2018.
Sugar reduction in food
Whilst the reduction of sugar in beverages has received a large proportion of industry and government attention, various firms have also been making efforts to do the same for food products, such as Singapore-based Hoow Foods which has developed a low-calorie sugar-free ice-cream and is widening its reach to bakery and sauces as well.
Hoow Foods has created a proprietary technology platform called RE-GENESYS to reformulate healthier products. This breaks down and analyse ingredients in existing products, then maps novel ingredients to improve nutritional profile and generate a prototype.
“There is a lot of knowledge behind food processes, but less so on food chemistry. Without keen knowledge on food chemistry, it is difficult to reformulate in a targeted and efficient manner,” Hoow Foods Co-Founder and CTO Dr Sherman Ho said.
“This extends lead times and increases the numbers of failures before arriving at a workable prototype, which leads to increased costs.
“We sense that beverages are regarded as an easier category to improve through reformulation compared to other food categories, as consumers consume these multiple times daily so the impact is likely going to be wider and the benefits observed faster – but food categories containing significant sugar and fat such as bakery and confectionery may be the most challenging to reformulate.
“For us, we have been working on dampening post-meal sugar spikes, and successfully trialled our prototype ingredient in white bread seeing a massive reduction of GI from 70 to 30.”
Manila and Vietnam team Swiftlet has also developed a sugar replacement product which can be used to replace sugar 1:1 in non-beverage products.
“Our approach was to create a blend of different ingredients that are currently already sold individually as sweetening sources so that their strengths and weaknesses could help to mask and complement one another, instead of just depending on one single ingredient,” Swiftlet CTO Minh Le said.
“It also carries digestive health benefits with prebiotics to help improve the gut microbiome in addition to being zero calories, zero sugar and zero-GI.”
In addition to sugar reduction, salt has also been increasingly coming into the limelight when it comes to reformulation – some countries such as Thailand have plans to instate a salt tax, particularly targeting high-sodium products such as instant porridge or instant noodles, although this appears to have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts have cast doubt on the technical feasibility of reformulating to reduce salt in products such as snacks and still being able to maintain taste and function – but flavours and seasonings firm Ajinomoto believes that it has a solution for salt replacement.
“The use of the glutamate amino acids, which impart an umami flavour, is a promising solution for sodium reduction,” Ajinomoto Global Communications Department Manager Manasi Deodhar told us.
“Umami is a foundational element in Asian cuisine, and we are leveraging a variety of umami-enhancing solutions, including monosodium glutamate (MSG), monopotassium glutamate (MPG), and yeast extracts to lower sodium in our products while also maintaining great taste.
“Between 2020 and 2021, Ajinomoto has already introduced 22 reduced-salt products across eight product brands, [e.g.] in Japan, we offer Yasashio, a salt alternative that is a blend of sodium chloride (salt) and potassium chloride to achieve a 50% reduction in salt. Since potassium chloride can have a bitter taste, we used amino acid technologies to mask this undesirable taste profile.”
Deodhar agreed that the pandemic has brought health and nutrition to the forefront of consumers’ priorities, leading to an increased interest in diet and health as well as regulatory bodies taking more action.
“Salt reduction is certainly part of this discussion given its impact on blood pressure and heart disease risk,” she said.
“We know salt intake is high in Asia. There’s been a general trend of decreased intake over the past 30 years, but intake is still well over recommendations.
“Based on a recent consumer survey from our Smart Salt program in Japan, 73% of want to change their salt consumption habits but 28% say they aren’t taking any action to do so. In addition, salt intake on average in many developing countries is more than twice the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended standard of 5g per day.”
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Instant noodle giant Nissin is also taking initiative to reduce the salt content of its products in response to consumer demand – in 2020, the firm launched a reduced salt product under the Cup Noodles Salt Off brand, which is 28% to 42%% lower in sodium compared to its original cup noodle soup and noodles respectively.
“Nissin is also working on a new D2C business (NISSIN Delicious Complete Nutrition Meals) in H22022 where we will develop a menu of nutritionally balanced meals for consumers to purchase via home delivery,” Nissin Food Holdings Chief of Corporate Communication Haruka Aoki told us.
“Hopefully through this initiative, consumers can cut back on their calories, sodium, fat, and carbohydrate intake.
“We have also created a low-carbohydrate, high-protein version of Cup Noodles Pro containing 15.2g of protein and 15.3g of carbohydrates compared to 10.5g of protein and 44.2g of carbohydrates in the original – this was done by blending collagen peptide in the soup and [kneading] dietary fibre into the noodle’s inner layer before frying and drying to lower the saccharide levels.”
In reducing fat, the prime target for most companies would be to reduce saturated fats as this is the area under the most scrutiny and that is thought to have the most detrimental impacts on health.
But when it comes to removing or reducing this from food products, the main hurdle lies in the fact that fat has textural functions beyond just providing taste which are crucial to product mouthfeel.
“Many health authorities are recognising the relatively larger impact of controlling saturated fats as opposed to total fat,” Ho said.
“However, food categories containing the most sugar and fat [typically] rely on a structure where sugar and fat are instrumental in providing, and removing them tends to result in an utterly different texture.
“For beverages, you could remove sugar and replace it with a very small amount of artificial sweetener [so] consumers still can recognise the beverage and may only perceive a slight mouthfeel difference from the missing sugar – [this] is not possible with products such as biscuits or chocolates [which is where science comes in], we have used the RE-GENESYS platform to develop fat substitutes that can be used to lower product fat content [without impacting mouthfeel].”
Over in Malaysia, plant-based firm NANKA is looking at the development of a plant-based butter to replace regular dairy butter, using a ‘buah mentega’ or ‘butter fruit’ from East Malaysia.
“This plant-based butter would be healthier than regular butter as it would contain far less saturated fats or bad cholesterol,” NANKA Co-Foudner and COO Ahmad Syafik Jaafar told us.
“Plant-based fats are very much the ‘in-thing’ right now in the alternative meat and dairy industry – a lot of money has been invested into this area to develop plant-based fats. There are traditional options already available such as margarine, but that is a very old technology with its own shortcomings, so now the focus is on developing a new range of plant-based fats which are healthier and really mimic dairy-based products.
“The other area within this surrounds plant-based fats that can mimic beef fat or chicken fat in order to use these for plant-based meat development, [and] the draw would not only be that these are plant-based but also the lower saturated fat properties such that these are healthier.”
Challenges and future
Although it seems straightforward to say that reformulation to reduce salt, sugar and fats is the way forward for food firms to produce healthier products, many challenges still remain in terms of overcoming not just taste but also cost hurdles.
“The issue of cost is very real, and this could be the cost of revamping processes, more expensive ingredients, extra marketing monies and more,” said Ho.
“But what matters to companies with an established revenue flow from current products is also the cost of losing regulars - When a product is reformulated, there will be a portion of regular users that reject the reformulated product due to familiarity or nostalgia reasons and this loss could be much more significant than any eventual gains from reformulation.
“This is likely why there is a trend in markets such as Singapore towards offering healthier versions as a new SKU rather than touching the original ‘unhealthy’ products. One example is Milo - instead of reducing the sugar of the standard Milo powder, Nestle has launched Milo Gao Siew Dai (lower sugar) and Gao Kosong (no sugar) as two new SKUs to cater to health-conscious consumers.
“This move allows more choices for consumers, and perhaps even broadening the market to encompass those who found the original product too unhealthy for themselves [whilst still keeping the original consumer base].”
But what this means is that the onus is now in the hands of consumers to eat and drink healthy, which many academics believe may not be the best move particularly for the less-educated and lower socioeconomic groups. Regulatory action is often promoted to mandate healthier products on-shelf – but even this may not be enough.
A research team in Singapore recently found that despite the implementation of a grading system called Nutri-Grade for sugar content in packaged non-alcoholic beverages, at present some 60% of products on Singapore shelves still contain high amounts of sugar and would receive C (above 5g to 10g sugar per 100ml) or D (above 10g per 100ml) grades.
This is despite the fact that Nutri-Grade was announced last year and is expected to be implemented soon (plans were for a 2021 enforcement but this appears to have been delayed by COVID-19) and firms have been given over a year to make the transition.
Lead researcher Singapore Future Ready Food Safety Hub and A*STAR Innovations in Food & Chemical Safety Programme Director Dr Benjamin Smith expressed concern over the findings, especially as products including RTD vinegars and vitamin drinks were amongst those containing the most sugar and usually marketed as ‘health drinks’.
“The challenge lies in consumer choice and drinking patterns. Drinking high sugar drinks is not an issue if you are active but it’s not just active individuals drinking such beverages,” he told us.
“The focus should not be on reducing any one single item, but rather on how to ensure a well-balanced diet holistically, and how to ensure that the food hitting our shelves can contribute to such a diet.
“Improving consumer education is key and this needs to accompany product innovation and community health initiatives. Understanding what is available on our supermarket shelves, and thus present in our diets, is an important first step in building awareness.”
“Another way is to encourage and support better monitoring of foods available to consumers or food trends. Here labelling like the Nutri-Grade system is a step towards transparency and offers consumers a tool to their food choices.”
Ho on the other hand suggested that more help be extended to manufacturers to facilitate healthy product innovation in light of the cost challenges.
“[More] grants to facilitate the launch of newer healthier SKUs to increase the number of choices in the market [would certainly help],” he said.
“New SKUs have several ‘teething’ costs, especially apparent in the need for new marketing campaigns, [so] there could also be initiatives to link up formulation service providers with SMEs to promote the reformulation drive.”