AAK USA opens innovation center, taps into ‘explosive’ growth in plant-based dairy

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

AAK USA opens innovation center at New Jersey HQ
While the overall food market may be exhibiting sluggish growth, oils & fats specialist AAK USA has identified significant growth opportunities in specialty market segments from plant-based ‘dairy’ to high-end bakery products, said president Terry Thomas at the opening of a new innovation center at its HQ in Edison, New Jersey. 

Speaking at the official launch of the ‘AAKtion lab’ last week, Thomas told FoodNavigator-USA that the facility – which houses state-of-the-art bakery applications, and chocolate & confectionery labs – would enable customers to solve formulation challenges with AAK’s experts and co-develop new products in fast-growing market segments from plant-based dairy alternatives to high-end chocolate and bakery products.

New kit for the lab - which will be followed in Q3 by a new dairy applications lab in Richmond, CA – includes laminators, ovens, sheeting equipment, dough mixers, aeration kit for making whipped toppings, chocolate tempering and enrobing kit, and a cooling tunnel. 

Three bakery application specialists have been hired to help staff it along with two chocolate and confectionery specialists who will work hand in hand with customers, and collaborate with AAK experts in innovation centers in other markets including China and Brazil, said Thomas.

We want to grow the whole pie

He added: “We don’t consider the US to be a ‘mature market.’ If you look at some of the sub-segments such as plant-based dairy alternatives​, or premium chocolate and bakery applications, they are showing double digit growth, so we see big opportunities for growth by playing to our strengths, which are in specialty, functional and co-developed products.

“We want to grow the whole pie ​[by helping to build the market for new products containing oils and fats], not just fight over slivers of it ​[slugging it out with rivals in established markets and application areas].”

When it comes to plant-based cheeses, cheesecakes, and other desserts, which often use a combination of oils, gums, starches, and nuts, oilseeds or legumes, he said: “We’ve bought every product on the shelf and tried them all and we know there are opportunities to improve functionality, as right now, while this category is showing almost explosive growth, many of these products are not meeting gold standards on taste and texture.”

Partially hydrogenated oil replacement 2.0

Right now, many customers are focused on removing partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as the FDA’s June 2018 deadline​ approaches, said Thomas, who said AAK was working with come clients that have been late to the game and are addressing this for the first time, and with other early adopters that replaced PHOs a long time ago, but are now looking for better solutions.

“I call it non-PHO 2.0. Some companies were very quick to move on this but they feel like they compromised on functionality, taste and texture, so they are looking again. No one wants to be doing this in 2018 (so close to the deadline) so they are very focused on resolving this now.”

Fully hydrogenated oils can help replace the partially hydrogenated variety

As for fully​ hydrogenated oils (FHOs), which do not create harmful trans-fats, and could replace PHOs in many applications, manufacturers remain reluctant to use them because consumers don’t understand the difference between the two and have been taught that anything with the word ‘hydrogenated’ in it is bad news, he said.

However, efforts are underway via The Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO) to find an alternative name for FHOs that will satisfy manufacturers, consumers, and regulators, he said. “The important thing is that consumers are not misled.”

While there is an ongoing debate about whether consumers are as bothered about saturated fat as they used to be in light of all the ‘fat is back’ and ‘eat butter’ headlines, AAK customers are still interested in reducing saturated fat where they can in many applications, he said.

PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OILS​ are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil via a partial hydrogenation process, which can make liquid oils more solid at room temperature, and also makes them stay fresher for longer/more stable. However, it also creates harmful trans fats, which have been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

FULLY HYDROGENATED OILS​ do not contain trans fat.

Center of excellence

The AAKtion Lab will primarily be used for exploration and ideation, solutions creation, and testing in application, says AAK USA, which will also run classes on bakery, chocolate/compound coatings, and combination bakery/coatings & fillings at the lab.

Based on Malmö, Sweden, AAK has 20 production facilities and customization plants, sales offices in more than 25 countries and more than 2,900 employees. AAK USA - which is based in Edison, New Jersey - operates plants in Edison and Port Newark, NJ; Louisville, KY; and Richmond, CA.

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