EIT Food and TU Dublin explore how reformulation can deliver healthier foods for children
EIT Food North-West and the Technological University of Dublin (TU Dublin) host an in-person multistakeholder event to explore how reformulation can be used to create healthier food products for children.
What is food reformulation and why is it important?
Food reformulation is the process of altering the processing or composition of a food or beverage product (World Health Organisation, 2022). It is used to improve the nutritional content of a food product or reduce or eliminate ingredients and nutrients of concern. For example, food reformulation often involves reducing saturated fats, sugar and salt in food products and increasing fibre or protein content.
Food reformulation is associated with creating or optimising food products to help children to achieve a healthier diet and reduce overweight and obesity in children. Overweight and obesity have reached epidemic proportions in Europe, affecting almost one in three children (World Health Organisation, 2022). As such, solutions are urgently needed to combat overweight and obesity in children.
Not only that, but the rising cost of living across Europe has increased levels of food security, where families cannot access reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Food security is linked to malnutrition, including overweight and obesity, primarily due to the types of food people have access to and the quality of their diets (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2020).
As a response to growing food insecurity levels and the obesity epidemic, solutions such as food reformulation are being used to develop heathier food products for children.
Introducing EIT Food’s reformulation event
On 24th November 2022, EIT Food North-West hosted an event in partnership with TU Dublin to explore the importance of the reformulation of food products in Ireland and the health benefits of reformulation to children. The event aligned with our mission to deliver healthier lives through food and TU Dublin’s expertise in human nutrition and dietetics.
A variety of stakeholders and keynote speakers including representatives of the food industry, culinary arts, governmental agencies, startups and nutrition experts were invited to the event. Attendees shared knowledge of food reformulation and advised one another about how to navigate the challenges around it, including associated food policies and legislation.
3 takeaways from the event:
- Overweight and obesity is a public health concern in Ireland - One in four schoolchildren in Ireland are either overweight or obese (National Children’s Research Centre).
- The Irish government has a “Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation.” The Food Reformulation Task Force was established to help implement the roadmap as well as to drive progress towards achieving reformulation targets.
- The food industry is faced with reformulation challenges as altering nutrients can impact on taste, functionality and consumer perception. For example, consumer surveys in Ireland have revealed that factors such as cost, quality and taste preference are the most important determinants of purchase decisions, whereas perceived healthiness of products scores lower in comparison.
Introducing a Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation
During the event, Nuala Collins, the Food Reformulation Taskforce Lead at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland provided a context for overweight and obesity in Ireland. For example, almost a quarter of adults in Ireland are obese and two thirds are either overweight or obese, with the levels of overweight and obesity having doubled across the Irish adult population in the last 40 years.
To help tackle this rising obesity levels, the Irish government published “A Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation” in 2021, with a Food Reformulation Taskforce set up in January 2022 as joint initiative between FSAI and Healthy Ireland. The Food Reformulation Task Force was established to implement the Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation in Ireland which involves driving progress towards achieving reformulation targets, prioritising stakeholder engagement and to monitor dissemination of information and results.
Key considerations for food reformulation
During the event, key considerations for food reformulation were discussed. Aisling Aherne, a Nutrition Science Manager at Kerry Group, an EIT Food Partner, presented the different stakeholders involve in making food reformulation happen. Stakeholders include policymakers, governments, consumers and the food industry. Many governments across Europe are issuing an official response to food reformulation with many countries implementing voluntary or mandatory reformulation programs. In Ireland, there is a voluntary approach to reformulation.
“Ireland has a voluntary approach to reformulation, so there has to be engagement across the food industry. We’re not saying it’s easy. It is challenging and there is a lot of networking and collaboration that needs to take place” – Nuala Collins, Food Safety Authority in Ireland.
It was highlighted that obesity is a complex; multi-faceted challenge and all stakeholders will need to work in partnership to create lasting change. No single intervention can be successful in isolation. Some key considerations in relation to reformulation within the food industry include
- Understanding nutritional needs and product demands of the consumer,
- Undertaking market research to trial new or optimised reformulated food products,
- Analysis of nutritional optimisation as well as identifying beneficial nutritional solutions
- Understanding regulations associated with food reformulation
The food industry must also consider the functionality of nutrients in foods which gives way to different challenges such as:
- Reducing fat and/or sugar without negatively impacting on taste and product quality
- Delivering reduced salt without affecting taste, texture, and food safety
Consumer responses to food reformulation
During the event, Lubna Ahmed, a Principal Investigator at the Food Innovation Lab at TU Dublin shared insights from consumers about buying factors for food products. For example, consumer surveys demonstrate that factors such as cost, quality and taste preference are the most important determinants of purchase decisions, with perceived healthiness of food products scoring lower in comparison. This suggests that consumers are more likely to purchase reformulated food products that deliver on cost, quality and taste.
As a result, the food industry must consider that complying with healthy eating guidance alone is unlikely to encourage consumers to buy reformulated food products. Instead, the food industry must ensure that reformulated products deliver on taste, product quality and price.
Supporting food industry to create healthy food products
There are projects and resources in place to support food industry professionals to create healthier food products. At the Food Innovation Lab at TU Dublin, researchers undertake new product development projects to test healthier and more sustainable ingredients in food products. This includes introducing plant protein as an alternative to animal protein in some products, lowering levels of saturated fats, sugars and salt and increasing fibre in food and drink products. Overall, the goal of the Food Innovation Lab is to support food and beverage companies to contribute to the world-class reputation of the Irish Food and Drink sector.
There is also support for students training to become chefs to learn about food reformulation and health and wellness. During our event, Annette Sweeney, a senior lecturer in Culinary Arts at TU Dublin, explained the support the university offers to students. TU Dublin offer a postgraduate degree in Applied Culinary Nutrition, with the aim to empower chefs to innovate food for health and wellness. In this teaching, students learn how to combine nutritional science, food preparation and cooking to achieve healthier meals without compromising on flavour. By educating students in this way, the university hopes to inspire a generation of chefs who create healthy meals across Ireland.
Startups in Ireland are creating healthy food products
During the event, two startups shared their experiences of creating healthy food products. Meet the startups below.
Dr Conor Kerley pitched his company Phytaphix, which is a multi-award winning, scientific nutrition product company, headquartered in Ireland. They create whole-food and plant based products that are suitable for both adults and children. Their products do not contain artificial sweeteners, colours or flavours and they are gluten free and low in sugar and carbohydrate.
Well Spent Grain Ltd
Sun Choi and Patrick Nagle pitched their company Well Spent Grain Ltd. The business is inspired by brewers’ spent grain which isthe largest by-product of the brewing process. Well Spent Grain Ltd makes healthy snacks that are tasty, honest, and sustainable. For every six pack of bottled beer generates around 1 pound of brewers spent grain. The brewing process removes the sugar from the grain and leaves a lot of good stuff behind, such as fibre & protein meaning upcycled brewer’s spent grain is a perfect ingredient for snacks.
About the Author
Aimee Fee is a Nutrition and Partnerships Intern at EIT Food. She holds a bachelor's degree in Food Quality, Safety and Nutrition and has just completed a master's degree in Sports and Exercise Nutrition. Aimee is passionate about promoting healthier lives for all through food and nutrition.
For any queries, please contact Dr Paula Almiron, Partnership and Funding Manager at EIT Food: firstname.lastname@example.org