Open innovation: Unilever throws down gauntlet to suppliers on sodium reduction

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever's chief R&D officer Professor Geneviève Berger explains why open innovation means bigger, better and faster new product development
Unilever's chief R&D officer Professor Geneviève Berger explains why open innovation means bigger, better and faster new product development

Related tags Open innovation Potassium Unilever

Unilever has already reduced salt in many of its products by 25% but is looking for potential partners to help it reduce sodium by a further 15-20% ”without compromising the taste of our products”.

In a posting in the ‘challenges and wants’  ​section of its open innovation site, the food and personal care giant says: “We want to keep reducing the amount of sodium in food - while keeping our products' great taste.”

It adds: “We want open innovation to help us find alternatives to conventional salt. That might mean ingredients that provide taste without sodium – but it could also mean technology that helps us understand ways that consumers can experience satisfying taste while enjoying food with reduced salt levels.”

No currently available potassium salts blends

Solutions could be highly specific – a way to improve particular products or dishes – or could apply to the way people consume salt more generally, it says, but must enable a reduction in sodium of at least 20%, must “not involve artificial additives or e-numbers” ​and must “not include currently available blends of potassium salts”.

Feedback is welcomed on salt alternatives, including lower-sodium salts, alternative flavors, and sodium substitutes, plus technologies that address sensory and taste perception “by addressing salt receptors on the tongue, for example”.

Natural methods for preserving foods

A second posting on the site asks potential partners and collaborators if they can help Unilever find plant extracts or other natural ingredients/blends with anti-microbial properties, or proffer “traditional biocide products from other industries that are based on natural methods but have not yet been used in food”.

It adds: “We'd like to work with partners who can help us develop new natural methods for preserving food and preventing the growth of pathogenic micro-organisms.”

Broad spectrum anti-microbial stability

R&D bosses at Unilever are trying to find ways to achieve broad spectrum anti-microbial stability, they explain.

“We'd like to achieve that naturally - specifically in the aqueous phase of water in oil spreads, oil in water emulsions, and intermediate moisture foods for savory applications.”

Solutions to this challenge could already exist or be in development, they note. “We'd welcome the opportunity to collaborate with partners who have developed a new natural preservative, or a new process for enhancing existing preservatives.

“We'd also like to hear from potential partners who are working on new processing techniques which are mild and natural.”

Any new compound must limit the growth of one or more bacillus, lactobacillus, yeast or mold; it must be accepted as 'natural' by consumers, and must be stable.


Along with Kraft, Hershey, General Mills and P&G, Unilever has been steadily ramping up its open innovation infrastructure to make it easier for external collaborators to work with its research & development (R&D) team and get new products to market more quickly.

In addition to publishing lists of problems it is trying to solve on its open innovation website​, Unilever also works with matchmaking firms such as NineSigma to help identify potential collaborators and employs open innovation scouts to help project leaders find companies, academic centers or consultants to help develop solutions to R&D challenges.

It also has a ventures arm that invests in businesses with exciting technologies and hosts regular ‘want summits’ in which staff identify a wish-list of technologies and desires across key categories.

Once key wants have been identified, the business then looks to see if it has the capabilities to deliver them in-house.

If not, it seeks assistance from external partners to help it commercialize bigger, better ideas more quickly.  

Click here​ to see what else Unilever is looking for.

Click here​ to see what Kraft is looking for from potential partners.

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