Numerous studies have extolled the benefits of a diet that’s focused on unprocessed foods, fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil, avocado, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy, red wine and herbs and spices.
In a webinar titled “The Mediterranean Diet: Health Benefits, Product Development & Commercialization,” the Research Chefs Association offered ideas for how manufacturers can capitalize on the Mediterranean lifestyle's broad appeal by incorporating those highly lauded ingredients into products in new ways.
“A product is essentially set of benefits offered to the consumer, which can be tangible—as in the product itself; or intangibile—meaning experience or beliefs,” said Darryl Holliday, director of R&D and senior research chef at KOR Food Innovation, during the webinar.
“The Mediterranean diet offers a healthy approach to one’s eating lifestyle, so you want to target intangible benefits. That will give product a point of difference.”
The key for food manufacturers is to find new ways to incorporate these ingredients—such as nuts, olive oil, and herbs and spices—and call out the ingredients’ notable health benefits on the package, which Holliday noted will make consumers more likely to purchase the product.
Nuts much more than a topping
Nuts—praised for their heart-healthy fat content and satiating ability—can be used in practical applications far beyond coating, topping or inclusion. Nut flour offers a compelling (and protein-rich) base for cookies; nut pieces add an interesting textural element to guacamole; nut butter can be used to thicken sauces; and toasted nuts provide a great textural (and flavor) addition to baking applications, as they will maintain their texture when baked, as opposed to blanched nuts, Holliday said.
The key, said Susan Mitchell, PhD, founder and president of Practicalories Inc., is to mind portion sizes for the strongest nutritional claims.
“Used in reasonable portion sizes of one to 1.5 ounces, nuts can help reduce the risk of heart disease. They also offer a source of fiber and protein, and increase satiety.
“I recently swapped peanut flour 1:1 for AP flour in a bread formula, and it did beautifully,” she added. “It’s a nice way to change the nutritional value of bread.”
Tapping into olive oil's broad appeal
Olive oil, also widely accepted as a healthier fat alternative (and more recently lauded for olives' polyphenol content), already enjoys broad flavor acceptance among consumers, although Holliday argued that it has yet to reach its potential in packaged food.
Among lesser known applications, he said olive oil can be injected into lean meats for added moisture and flavor; blended with other monounsaturated oils in traditional applications (to achieve cost reduction); used in place of butter to create sheen; or creamed into dips or spreads, though it’s important to “cut back on additives or other emulsifiers” to compensate, he said.
“Consumers have shown they’re willing to have olive oil in all sorts of applications. They choose olive oil over other fats because it’s healthier and they prefer the taste over other fat sources. Don’t be afraid of the flavor coming off too strong—consumers purchase it for that very reason.”
Making spices 'gourmet'
Herbs and spices achieved more significant status within the Mediterranean diet within the past few years, with several recent studies showing their benefits on the diet, in particular their strong concentrations of antioxidants, which reportedly played a role in decreasing post-meal triglycerides by 30% in healthy, overweight men, according to a 2011 Penn State University study.
“In spices you have something that tastes great, smells wonderful and may have medicinal benefits,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Spices are not just about flavor and enjoyment. Food and its synergistic effect seems to be where the biggest benefit is.”
For the packaged food industry, Holliday says it’s all about creating new flavor combinations using spice blends that consumers might not want to replicate at home.
“Spice blends and marinades create options to get spices into food in ways consumers won’t make the effort to do at home. They want gourmet at home and dining out. Think multiple flavor combinations, like herby, spicy, and peppery: basil, black pepper, paprika,” he said.
“So many times we focus so hard on everything we should not eat,” Dr. Mitchell added. “This diet is really showing the power of food as medicine. You can have both flavor and health benefits. They’re not exclusive.”