Replacing ‘problematic’ ingredients: Meeting the competing challenges of conscious consumerism and customer satisfaction

12 April, 2021
Demand for ethical options is on the rise but simply dropping ingredients and components from products presents its own set of problems, say Science Group experts

Conscious consumerism is a trend that’s here to stay. The public is increasingly well-informed on the potential impacts of products they purchase, whether on the environment or their own well-being. From the rise of low to no-alcohol beverages and flexitarian diets, through to brands removing plastic and glitter from their products, customers are demanding greater ethical choice at ever more competitive prices. This presents both challenges and opportunities for companies who are willing and able to meet this demand, processes that we here at Science Group are well-placed to help your organisation navigate.

In the latest episode of our podcast, Emma Gubisch and Simon Norman explore some of the particular obstacles that manufacturers need to overcome in the food and beverage sector, when considering replacing ‘problematic’ ingredients with alternatives that are more palatable to the growing body of morally-minded consumers.

Product development processes

Emma and Simon are part of the R&D wing of Science Group, albeit with roles that approach development from different, but complementary, sides of the process, as discussed in a previous blog post. Emma, as Head of Consumer Science at Science Group, has expertise in understanding and interpreting people’s behaviour, from the consumer who picks a product off the shelf to the journalist who writes about the latest food and drink trends. Simon meanwhile, as Head of Product Development, Food and Beverage, at Sagentia, works closely with clients and our technical teams to develop and deliver their food and beverage product needs.

They work with one another collaboratively, as well as drawing on the wider expertise found within Science Group, to make that possible. Simon says: “We want to help our clients take the next step, from a blank sheet of paper through to a manufacturing line, making that intuitive leap forward in the food and beverage space. A lot of that means working on their core product itself – ultimately, something that ends up in your mouth. In that space, lots of people are talking about natural ingredients and moving away from preservatives. Salt and sugar reduction are always high on the agenda and, these days, people want more plant-based or vegan products.”

Offering consumer choice

Consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets and opting not to buy products containing ingredients they find problematic. Sugar and palm oil are two such substances, presenting health and environmental concerns for shoppers and challenges for companies looking to replace them. Problems associated with palm oil agriculture are well-established in the scientific literature and respected media sources have been covering the topic for many years. So too is there a growing body of evidence for the health impacts of refined sugar on our health. Yet finding suitable substitutes presents difficulties for manufacturers. Simon says: “It’s a huge problem because it turns out that palm oil has some really nice properties. It's really stable and doesn't tend to oxidise or grow rancid quickly and it tastes pretty good. It seems like a perfect ingredient for a lot of applications, so reformulating or removing palm oil is a real challenge.”

Emma says that sugar poses similar difficulties. “Sugar doesn't just give sweetness, it often gives bulk to a product,” she adds. “Think about a cake. Sugar can total up to a third of the actual ingredients.” Beyond physical mass, sugar also gives a product other qualities, beyond taste, that can be hard to replicate. Emma adds: “Sugar also has a lovely mouthfeel to it. Is, say, a sweetened beverage giving you that same sort of syrupy mouthfeel as one sweetened with sugar?”

The topic of sweeteners raises further complications when it comes to conscious consumerism, with the competing demand for ‘clean’ labels – where consumers can easily identify and recognise the ingredients a product contains – standing at odds with sugar and palm oil replacement ingredients. While sugar or palm oil appearing on a label may put off some purchasers, lists of chemicals used to mimic them – albeit widely used and established as safe, from a food science perspective – may be disconcerting to others.

How we can help

While removing these ingredients may be in high demand, that doesn’t mean that the process of finding a replacement is simple and there are a range of challenges that Simon, Emma and their colleagues must address on behalf of their clients. Thankfully, the team has the experience and expertise necessary and relish the challenge. “What's exciting to me as a chemist is the interface between the core product formulation and creating something that is ultimately enjoyed by the by the consumer’,” Simon adds. “We might tick off a whole bunch of technical boxes on whether it’s the right colour and processed cost-effectively, but if I can't pick it up, eat it and like it, then I haven't done my job very well.”

Emma is also a key part of this process. For each new product that her team helps to develop, they train their expert sensory ‘taste panel’ on the relevant sensory attributes for that product – which involves creating a vocabulary of sensory attributes that can be used to describe the product. This helps to define objectively what the sensory footprint or signature of that product is. This information, combined with feedback from consumer insight and rigorous testing in the lab by Simon’s team, can help to steer a product containing replacement ingredients towards the taste and experience desired by customers.

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