Moving beyond finger-pointing: Creating healthier products that deliver on taste, indulgence

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Adene Sanchez
Source: Getty/Adene Sanchez

Related tags Ultra-processed food

Packaged food, especially ultra-processed, is a popular scapegoat for the ongoing struggle with diet-related chronic disease in America, where 70% of adults are overweight or obese, 50% have diabetes or prediabetes and 50% have heart disease – but what if rather than blaming packaged food, it was looked at as part of the solution?

At Future Food Tech in San Francisco last month, stakeholders from across the value chain participated in a panel discussion moderated by FoodNavigator-USA. They explored how diet-related chronic disease became so pervasive in the US and how packaged food brands are creating or incorporating more functional ingredients into food to create nutrition-rich, lower-calorie products that are still convenient and deliver on taste, texture and experience. They also explored where the industry is falling short and may need to step up efforts to support consumers health.

Laura Brown, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at Kroger Health, set the stage for the conversation by noting food manufacturers and public health advocates must first acknowledge that most people do not eat for sustenance alone – but often for emotional and taste-seeking reasons that cannot be ignored when reformulating products or revamping eating patterns.

“We know only 7% of Americans are consuming adequate dietary fiber and a staggering nine out of 10 Americans do not consume the recommended fruits and vegetables daily,” but it is not for a lack of trying, she said during the panel Designing Healthier Products That Deliver On Taste & Indulgence.

“There are a lot of factors at play here,” she explained. “We know consumers make choices around food every day because food is joy. It is a pleasure. It is part of their culture. It is tradition. And so, when we are working together in the food industry to make changes for our consumers to improve their health and improve their nutrition, we have to acknowledge the other factors that are influencing their dietary choices and work together to make it easier for consumers to be nutritious and also still have that opportunity to enjoy food.”

Does demonizing nutrients hinder innovation, adoption of healthy alternatives?

Brown’s advice runs counter to decades of diet culture in America where consumers have been encouraged to manage their health by restricting what they eat – usually by cutting out a handful of nutrients – be it fat, carbs or sugar – or more recently scaling back consumption of ultra-processed food.

John Kryzwicki, head of Spotlight Foods and VP of corporate strategy at Checkerspot, argued this strategy is short-sighted not only because it is difficult to follow long-term but because “when you take one of the three major macronutrients and you demonize it or perhaps worse, ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t matter you take a third of what is part of the human diet off the table for people to think about how to live healthily and sustainably, how to innovate and how to make it part of their diet in a responsible and effective manner.”

For example, he noted that fats, which are often demonized, are essential for nutrient absorption, and therefore, need to be included in the diet. But, he acknowledged, not all fats are created equally, and they must be incorporated appropriately.

He explained Checkerspot is developing new fats and oils that are better for the people and the planet, high performing, accessible and affordable. The company makes renewable oils using microalgae and precision fermentation for materials and food, and its first oil is 75% lower in saturated fat than avocado or canola and has less than half the carbon emissions.

“You can’t just look at one nutrient, and you can’t just look at one aspect of behavior. You can’t just remove things from the diet and pretend they don’t exisit,” agreed Seth Crass, director of quality assurance and R&D at Olipop.

Rather, he advocates offering consumers better-for-you alternatives that are still familiar and check consumers’ cultural and emotional needs. He explained that Olipop does this by creating colas with prebiotics, plant fibers, plant botanicals and functional ingredients that improve consumers’ digestive health and have lower sugar than traditional soda but still taste like the sugar sweetened, full calorie sodas so many consumers love.

“So, rather than try to tell consumers they shouldn’t have [soda] we are trying to provide an alternative that solves and associates that need and desire for that type of traditional soda flavor, but then also does something good for the consumer,” he said.

Better-for-you products backed by clinical research cultivates consumer trust

To build consumer trust and drive repeat trial, products must deliver on their promises, which is why, he said, Olipop has invested heavily in clinical research that supports its benefit claims.

“If we are going to bring these functional components to consumers, we can’t just sprinkle some fiber in there and claim that it is going to have good effects on the digestive health of consumers – especially because we are trying to make a claim that we are something different,” he said.

Whether ultra-processing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ boils down to why that process is used

Crass added that similar to how blaming specific nutrients or food groups for health woes can be a disservice to consumers trying to adopt a healthier diet, so too can be blaming ultra-processing.

“Consumers historically have, for good reason, looked at processing with a little bit of concern. And that is because the industry has not done a service to consumers. Historically, processing is used to strip nutrients out of food, remove nutritional diversity and density. It has been used to extend shelf life and better profits for companies,” he said.

But, he added, Olipop is using processing to add nutritional value and ensure it can offer a full flavor, affordable product, all of which benefits the consumer.

“Yeah, we do a lot of processing because that is how you get soluble fiber into a beverage. You wouldn’t want to drink unprocessed fiber and soda – it would be a very bad experience for taste and for functionality. It is really why are we doing that processing,” is it to benefit consumers or does it contribute to their challenges, he said.

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